Visionary Pioneers and Their Stories of Persistence
The early pioneers of photography had no intentions of changing the world, or the medium itself. Even at the time of a discovery, they may not have realised the gravity of their finding. Whether it was Wilson Bentley or Étienne-Jules Marey—both were drawn to very different subjects—it was curiosity, and a certain desire and eagerness, that had them push the camera towards its absolute extreme, in order to unravel what one could and couldn’t do with it. Or take Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans—relatively younger than the previous two names. While one was an accomplished portraitist, the other absolutely shied away from making his presence felt around people. But their documentation of the American landscape, during one of its toughest periods, gave us unique perspectives into the tragedy. They might not have discovered a new way to use the medium, but they introduced viewers to new and divergent ways of seeing a single event.
Conchita Fernandes gives you a glimpse into the lives and stories of ten extraordinary photographers who have changed our understanding of the subject.
“The difficulty of making accurate drawings of objects as minute as many of the Algae and Confera, has induced me to avail myself of Sir John Herschel’s beautiful process of cyanotype.”
More than 150 years later, Anna Atkins’ cyanotypes are as pristine as ever. The rich prussian blue of her prints serve as a backdrop for the intricate impressions of the variety of plant life that she immortalised. She mastered the cyanotype process within a year of it being invented by Sir John Herschel, and knew the exact time it would take to create a sharp and clear impression. At the time, her vision surpassed the boundaries set by scientific documentation. Her aesthetic sense was distinct, as seen in her delicate compositions. She even went as far as writing the description over each print using the cyanotype process, rather than write directly on her prints, so that it appeared clearly. Such was the meticulousness of Anna Atkins.
“Men cannot stand too many facts; it is easy to get an overdoes of reality, and he wants a little mystification as a relief.”
Henry Peach Robinson was against the idea of the camera being an instrument of pure documentation. He found this limiting, because as a painter, he was allowed to lavishly conjure up scenes on the canvas. He wanted to do the same with photography, which he achieved with one of his most famous image, Fading Away (1858). Viewers were appalled that a photograph was used to cash in on grief. But there was more criticism on the way… The image was a staged one and was a composite of five negatives. Many reduced the photograph to ‘patchwork’ and did not consider it to be real photography. But Robinson wasn’t deterred, and continued to employ his pictorial aesthetics in his photographs.
“Place and people are made familiar to us by means of the camera in the hands of skillful operators, who, vying with each other in the excellence of their productions, avail themselves of every opportunity to visit interesting points, and to take care to lose no good chance to scour the country in search of new fields for photographic labour.”
At the age of 15, Timothy H O’Sullivan began his photography career, under the mentorship of Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner. Together, they photographed the Civil War. Sullivan did not just make pictures of soldiers at battle, but also shot them during moments of relaxation. But his best known image was A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (1863). It was first published in Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War (1866), and comprised eight images by Sullivan. As his popularity grew, he became the most sought-after photographer by army generals. But eventually Sullivan realised that his true passion lay in exploring landscapes. In fact, it was his photographs of nature and the environment, that prompted several Americans to journey to the West. While he wasn’t the only one photographing landscapes, his images convey the pristiness, vastness and the overwhelming force of nature.
“This attraction of mine to the camera and the graphic product was a blind but passionate response to something I could not really analyse or describe. I knew I had to do it.”
Unlike his approach towards photography, which was simple and straightforward, Walker Evans was a rather complex and difficult person, especially in the latter part of his life. Yet, his documentation of America during the Great Depression, would make you think otherwise. He was an extremely shy man, as evident in the portraits, (even in the one above—Second Avenue Lunch, New York, 1931) he made across the country. But this wasn’t the case with the many photographs that he made of still life. Close-ups of ruins, or a portrait of a rundown home, or for that matter, even a signboard, seemed to exude more warmth and intimacy than any of the pictures that he made of people.
“It is only photography, as truthful as a mirror, which could attain such desirable perfection.”
Before the advent of photography, medicine employed drawings to illustrate its concepts. However, even when the camera came about, many were skeptical of its ability to render a detailed depiction. But it was Duchenne de Boulogne who saw the potential of the camera to document moments and instances in scientific experiments, far quicker than an illustrator could. One of these involved researching the effect that electric stimulation had on facial features and muscles. His (recurring) subject was said to be shoemaker, whose wrinkled skin made him the perfect canvas to depict the effects of electricity. The stimulation was long enough for Duchenne to record the involuntary expressions of the man. It was his long-standing belief that only a photograph could effectively capture the ‘truth’ of his experiments, as the subject’s expressions were too fleeting to be drawn or painted.
“When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.”
At the age of 15, Wilson Bentley took an interest in snowflakes, which he observed under a microscope and then illustrated his findings. However, this was a labourous process. This changed when he discovered that he could photograph them using a bellows camera, along with a microscope. After several failed attempts, he managed to get his first clear photograph, during a snowstorm on 15 January 1885. He spent the next 46 years documenting snowflakes. Unfortunately, not many people understood his passion, and he went largely unrecognised, until George Perkins, a Professor at the University of Vermont, discovered his work. However, the recognition brought scrutiny too. Gustav Hellmann, a German meteorologist, attempted to make similar micrographs. But unlike Bentley’s perfect, symmetrical crystals, Gustav’s were irregular. He felt that Bentley manipulated his images, and Bentley did admit to enhancing his photos. Since each snowflake was taken against a white background, he meticulously scraped away the dark emulsion surrounding the image, from a duplicate of the original negative, using a sharp penknife. Later, the photograph was placed on to a clear glass plate and then printed, giving it a dark background. Whether he also manipulated the shape of the snowflakes, remains unknown. In fact, he is claimed to have said, “A true scientist wishes, above all, to have his photographs as true to nature as possible, and if retouching will help in this respect, then it is fully justified.”
“Before I commenced photography, I did not see half the beauties in nature that I do now, and the glory and power of a precious landscape has often passed before me and left but a feeble impression on my untutored mind.”
Samuel Bourne arrived in India at a time when the country was rife with protests against the British. However, he was not interested in documenting this, as he had his eyes set on the lavish Indian landscapes, and the people who resided there. This included visuals of cities too, as the photograph above… a view of Malabar Hills in Bombay, in the late 1860s. He made several expeditions, especially towards the Himalayas. He was the first to photograph the source of the Ganges, high up in the Gangotri glacier. Contrary to popular notion, though, he wasn’t the first to come into India to make pictures. Photographers like Felice Beato and John Thomson arrived before Bourne did. Regardless, his photographs are a testament to his love for the Indian landscape and his sheer dedication to photography. He was so devoted to the craft that on one such excursion, he is said to have endured extreme weather in the mountain, so much so that his hands began aching because of the frost and the chemicals he used for his picturemaking. Regardless, he kept at it… ensuring that the emulsion on the wet plates continued to remain damp throughout the development of the image. Having said this, Bourne did harbour a colonial mindset. He employed native porters and servants to carry his baggage and equipment, and is also known to have beaten them, in case any accidental damage was caused to his equipment.
“Living beings have frequently been… compared to machines, but it is only in the present day that the… justice of this comparison is fully comprehensible.”
Today, when we talk about locomotion, the name that immediately comes to mind is that of Eadweard Muybridge. It’s regrettable that only a very few have heard of Étienne-Jules Marey, who is said to have been one of the earliest researchers in the field. Perhaps, because Marey was a man of science, it was important to him that his experiments and findings were based on sound facts, even if it took him time to arrive at the correct answer. Being a physiologist and a doctor by profession, Marey was captivated by the human body and how it functioned. He lent the same curiosity in learning more about the movement of a variety of subjects like birds, horses, cats, and how air movement was affected when intercepted by objects of different shapes (as seen in the image below). He created various devices to aid him in his endeavours, like an air pantographe—to record the movement of a bird in flight, or the photographic gun, which was then perfected to become chronophotography. This technique combined several successive images of a single movement on a single plate. His first experiment involved recording the flight of a pigeon, at 60 frames per second, on a single strip, and was the first ever motion picture… 60fps, in the early 1880s! Marey also went a step further and recorded his experiments in the form of drawings, which he later converted to life-size models, made up of bronze and plaster. He was a man who was absolutely involved and thorough in the study of motion.
“Only photography has been able to divide human life into a series of moments, each of them has the value of a complete existence.”
What if you were challenged to make the impossible, possible? It was the year 1872, when Eadweard Muybridge set out to accomplish what seemed at the time, like an impossible task… To prove that when a horse trots or gallops, there is a moment that it becomes fully airborne. And the man who convinced Muybridge prove this was Leland Stanford, a railroad tycoon and former California governor. However, Muybridge’s first few attempts proved futile, and it would only be six years later, that he would be successful in his attempt. But, something terrible happened in the midst of these years. In 1875, he was tried for the murder of Harry Larkyns, whom he suspected of having fathered his son. Astonishingly, he was acquitted on the grounds of justifiable homicide. It was only in 1877, that he resumed with his experimentations, and by 1878, he had perfected the method. He arranged 12 cameras along the horse track. As the horse came galloping, it tripped the wires that were connected to the cameras, thus taking 12 successive photographs. Immediately, Muybridge set out to develop the plates, which proved Stanford’s theory. While Muybridge was widely applauded for this achievement, and went on to greatly contribute to the study of motion, he is also said to have been volatile, eccentric and brilliant, all at the same time.
“I enjoyed every portrait that I made in an individual way, but photographing only people who paid me for it bothered me.”
The Migrant Mother is possibly one of the most recognisable photographs in the history of photography. But did you know that Dorothea Lange shot several other frames of Florence Owens Thompson (the mother) and her children? The making of the image began from afar, after which Lange came closer, and shot the mother with two of her children, sidelining the teenage daughter from the latter photos. Then she made the unusual decision to ask the two kids leaning on their mother to turn their faces away from the camera. Lange was building drama and impact by forcing the viewer to focus entirely on the mother’s beauty and anxiety, and letting her body say the rest. It was an iconic photograph in the making, the impact of which would only hit her much later. When the photograph became the face of the Depression, Lange was disillusioned. She became distant, and was no longer able to relate to the subjects in the picture. “Some things do get a life of their own… They cut loose from the person who made them, marched off so you don’t have any relationship anymore,” she had said. However, one of the reasons why the photograph became so popular was because of her wonderful quality of being able to relate to people. Even before she began her documentary work, she worked as a commercial portraitist, shooting the rich and affluent. Yet, she had the utmost respect for her subjects, and spent as much time as she could, into getting to know them. Despite the ramifications of the Depression, she always ensured that her subjects were depicted with dignity, grace and sensitivity. The Migrant Mother too, harbours all of these qualities.
This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Better Photography.Tags: Shooting Technique, Dorothea Lange, Conchita Fernandes, Eadweard Muybridge, henry peach robinson, Duchenne de Boulogne, Samuel Bourne, Wilson Bentley, Anna Atkins, Timothy H O'Sullivan, Étienne-Jules Marey, Walker Evans, Better Photography 2017, Main Story October 2017, Great Masters October 2017