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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Early Documentary Photography

By the beginning of the twentieth century, photography was well on its way to becoming the visual language it is today, the pervasive agent of democratic communication. Photographers used its growing influence to expose society’s evils, which the prosperous, self-indulgent Belle Époque chose to ignore: the degrading conditions of workers in big-city slums, the barbarism of child labor, the terrorism of lynching, the devastation of war.

Despite Alfred Stieglitz’s early interest in candid or snapshot-style street photography seen in The Terminal of 1893 (58.577.11) and The Steerage of 1907 (33.43.419), he attempted to turn the page on the natural development of the documentary tradition in photography with his successful 1910 retrospective of Pictorialism at the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. If the age of electricity, the automobile, and the telephone would, by caveat, be ignored by the Pictorialists, modern realities in the 1890s to 1910s would nonetheless appear in images produced by tens of thousands of artists and amateurs who found the world intoxicatingly attractive, if at times disorderly and brutal. Alongside selected examples of the work of Stieglitz and members of his circle (Paul Strand, Charles Sheeler, and Edward J. Steichen), the photographs of Jacob Riis, Arnold Genthe, Lewis Hine, and E. J. Bellocq, among others, provide a sampling of early documentary practice in America.

Jacob Riis (1849–1914) was a police reporter for the New York Tribune newspaper. In the early 1880s, he supplemented his investigative reporting of the city’s notorious Lower East Side slums with his own photographs and soon became known as one of the city’s most important social reformers. An immigrant from Denmark to the United States in 1870, Riis, who originally trained to be a carpenter, published his first and most important book, How the Other Half Lives, in 1890. The catalyst for citywide reform of building codes and slumlord-tenant relations, the book continues to serve as a model for all photographers and urban historians dedicated to social change within the city.

Born in Berlin, Arnold Genthe (1869–1942) received a doctorate in philosophy in 1894 and moved to California the following year to tutor the son of a wealthy German baron and San Francisco heiress. He died a naturalized citizen in New York City in 1942 after fifty years of camera work, primarily in portraiture, published in nine photography books. His first publication, Pictures of Old Chinatown (1908), reveals the artist’s decade-long obsession with the exotic flavor of San Francisco’s eight square blocks that comprise its Chinatown. With no prior experience in photography, Genthe would acquire one of the newly invented small handheld cameras and proceed to photograph the foreign inhabitants (53.680.6), their brocades and embroideries, their bronzes and porcelains, as well as the district’s dark alleys and opium dens. In so doing, he mastered the nascent art of what much later came to be known as “street photography.”

In 1908, Lewis Hine (1874–1940) left his teaching position at the progressive Ethical Culture School in New York City to become a staff photographer for the National Child Labor Committee, an organization dedicated to improving the working and living conditions of children. Over the next thirteen years, Hine made thousands of negatives—often undercover—of children working across the country in mills, sweatshops, factories, and various street trades, such as newspaper delivery (1970.727.1). Through a steady accumulation of specific, idiosyncratic facts, the photographer hoped to reveal the larger, hidden patterns of child exploitation upon which the American city was rapidly expanding. More important, his reports and slide lectures were not meant solely as tools for labor reform but as ways of triggering a more profound, empathetic response in the viewer, one that would cause him to reconsider his relationship to society.

Ernest J. Bellocq (1873–1949) was born into an aristocratic Creole family in New Orleans. A prominent member of the New Orleans Camera Club, he worked as a professional photographer specializing in shipbuilding. Bellocq’s international renown, however, was established by a series of intimate, mildly erotic portraits of prostitutes working around 1912 in Storyville, the city’s infamous tenderloin district (2005.100.130). When discovered by the photographer Lee Friedlander in the 1960s and published in 1970, Bellocq was immediately recognized as a master of the modern, psychological portrait—an instant ancestor for a whole generation of contemporary artists including Diane Arbus.

In 1915, Stieglitz’s flagging interest in American Pictorialist photography was revived by the work of three young photographers: Charles Sheeler (1883–1965), Morton Schamberg (1881–1918), and Paul Strand (1890–1976). Sheeler and Schamberg were both academically trained painters from Philadelphia who had studied modern art in Europe and New York. Although each believed painting was their true vocation, they took up photography to earn a living; Sheeler specialized in architecture, Schamberg in portraiture.

When Charles Sheeler took up the camera sometime in 1910–11, he was already a modestly accomplished painter. He began to photograph domestic architecture in the Philadelphia area, and within three years had a successful sideline documenting fine private and public American collections of Chinese bronzes, Mesoamerican pots, and modern painting and sculpture by Cézanne, Picasso, and Duchamp. The rigorous demands of detailed record photography soon influenced his painting as the direct, generally frontal assessment of both an object’s form and structure retrained and refined his eye. By 1917, Sheeler had begun to turn his camera from commercial work to subjects of personal significance, such as the eighteenth-century farmhouse in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, that he and Schamberg used as a studio. Sheeler saw in its spare construction a formal purity as clear as the practical intention of the carpenter. In a black stove (33.43.259), he found a material abstraction undivorced from actuality and unembellished by decoration. For him, the farmhouse was a structure of elementary geometries, a series of Cubist compositions unadorned by painterly camouflage.

Paul Strand first visited Stieglitz’s Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession in 1907 as a student in a class taught by Lewis Hine. Hine’s photography was absolutely straightforward documentary, but at that time Stieglitz was promoting the gauzy Pictorialism of his Secessionist fellows. Strand dutifully followed suit, but eventually Stieglitz encouraged his young protégé to abandon the soft-focus technique and to explore movement in the city and the geometric shapes of urban structures. Stieglitz gave Strand a show in March 1916 and published a selection of his pictures in Camera Work, the journal which had appeared regularly since 1914. Following his exhibition, Strand’s advances accelerated and his pictures became startlingly bold (33.43.334; 49.55.318).

The outbreak of World War I essentially ended the Pictorialist movement as a viable aesthetic program. The inherent violence of the war soon engendered a new commitment by the world’s photographers to document every aspect of the fighting, from life in the trenches to views of fighter planes cruising the skies. Nothing was left hidden from the camera’s burrowing eye. The American commercial photographic firm of Mole & Thomas made many composite scenes of soldiers (1987.1100.478)—studies of seeming unity, strength, and organized patriotism far from the frontlines. Edward Steichen, flying high above the soldiers in a reconnaissance plane, generated its antipode: a view of brutal destruction and death on a field in France (1987.1100.109).