Gary Sampson. Focal Encyclopedia of Photography: Digital Imaging, Theory and Applications, History and Science. Editor: Michael R Peres. 4th edition. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2007.
The story of photography’s past is usually characterized now in terms of histories, and no serious student or scholar of the medium would assume that one single account could pass as an exhaustive reference for such a pervasive phenomenon in modern culture. Neither would one consider without suspicion the argument that a single line of thinking about the meaning of photographic images might somehow comprise the essential properties of their form and significance. The modernist rhetoric of essential meanings and overarching narratives, so crucial for the historical and critical interpretation of the past two centuries until the 1960s, has given way to a more varied cultural discourse, which has fostered contemporary awareness of formerly undisclosed social functions and meanings of visual culture, photography included. This essay will thus first highlight select events, movements, written accounts, and compilations of work, especially with respect to the emergence of a modernist historical and theoretical casting of 20th century photographic image production and reception. It will then take up developments in the later part of the century that led to the expansion in the literature of photography to include a broader regard for its social and theoretical meanings. This essay will not concern itself with the impact of photography on artists who worked in other media (see Photography, Fine Art Photography and the Visual Arts, 1900-2001). With the exception of some concluding remarks, it also will not engage the complications of digital image-making, such as the further challenge to photography’s believability or whether the digital really constitutes “photography” as conventionally conceived by the modernist position.
As a point of entry into the discussion, the reader may find it useful to briefly reflect on the three categories considered in this essay, their interrelationship as well as their distinctive-ness. In taking a historical view, one also assumes, whether explicitly stated or not, a theoretical one, in which one can discern a particular way of thinking; for instance, about events, individuals, innovations, institutions, forms of production, which provides a framework for understanding an aspect of the past over a period of time. Any thinking in retrospect is hence theoretical, although it need not be the immediate concern of the writer to call attention to this. This should be distinguished from the kind of writing that foregrounds theory as a chief concern either in grasping the causes and effects pertinent to the meaning of the past, or proposes a new theory for getting at the significance of things as they are in the present. Further, when historians or theorists make judgments about something, whether implicitly or explicitly, they are being critical. When, however, the writer presumes to make judgments that are backed up by argument (not necessarily rational), and puts it out in the public arena, one can call this criticism. As a fairly recent profession that emerged in the 18th century, being a critic entailed making judgments about cultural activities in a way that could ideally assist the public in attaining a discerning eye and an intelligent regard for things presumably worthy of attention on the basis of noble sentiment and witty observation, universally understood ideas, and formal values.
While one could surely split hairs over these basic distinctions of history, theory, and criticism, they are immediately appropriate to thinking that occurred concerning photography early in the 20th century. By this time a considerable body of material already existed that had laid the groundwork for further response from an historical as well as a theoretical point of view. When closely studied, such sources reveal a history of thinking about the medium in terms of practical application and subject categories for the professional and serious amateur, technical advancements and advice, and more philosophically disposed issues regarding the nature of photography—whether, for instance, a mechanical device like the camera could turn out anything like a conventional work of art. George Eastman’s roll film camera, known as the “Kodak,” and related developments in the late 1880s and 1890s had made it relatively easy for anyone to “snap” pictures, a popularization of photography that annoyed a number of elite practitioners who would rather think of themselves as artists than shutterbugs.
In the United States one of the arch proponents of the photograph as art was Alfred Stieglitz, who broke from the club set to form the Photo-Secession, thus implying there was something special about what he and his affiliates were doing with the camera. Stieglitz was adamant about distinguishing between work of a commercial nature, popular amateur uses of the camera, and pictures by serious photographers who aspired to artistry by endowing the photographic image with expressive qualities. Critically speaking, photographs might then be judged in accordance with similar stylistic and formal criteria that had previously been reserved for painting and the graphic arts. Stieglitz set about supporting an aesthetic lineage for art photography by calling attention to exemplars of the medium including pioneers D. O. Hill and Julia Margaret Cameron in the Photo-Secession’s journal Camera Work. He thus began a tradition of the “canon,” an authoritative selection of artists deemed important enough to consider in any serious history. The brilliance of Stieglitz is that he was able to construct a history, together with an institutional apparatus consisting of a gallery, a journal, and a network of artists and writers. This made a forceful case to establish photography as art.
Secessionists and their allies in pictorial photography had counterparts in Europe, including England, Germany, and France. Together they formed an “international” movement that was essential to the furtherance of critical discourse premised on simulating or applying artistic effects. Writers like Sadakichi Hartmann and Charles Caffin were among the critical voices that took the cause in intriguing directions greatly infused with the aestheticism and japonisme that had endowed western European art with a stylish verve, seductive atmospheric effect, and restrained decadence late in the previous century. Precision of detail was too close to documentary work, to the applied, contrary to the artful manipulations employed by the majority of pictorialists in their portraits, genre scenes, nudes, and landscapes. This fusion of art and photography would be the catalyst for a profusion of popular and sentimentalized pictures that continued to prevail in regional photo clubs well into the 20th century.
Out of the earlier specialized network of artist photographers and their supporters, however, came a resistance to any direct tampering with the negative and print surfaces for aesthetic ends. A respect for what was considered the inherent properties of the medium—maximum depth of field, high resolution, maintaining the integrity of the initial exposure—gave rise to a modernist rhetoric in the next wave of critical material on photography. Proponents of this attitude included Hartmann and Stieglitz himself, who renounced pictorialist devices for the direct or “straight” approach, as it would come to be known to future generations. Paul Strand would come to embody for Stieglitz the new direction, as witnessed in 1916 at the final photography show of the latter’s Manhattan gallery “291” (originally the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession). By the 1920s, Strand, Stieglitz, Charles Sheeler, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and the young Ansel Adams, among others, would contribute to a critical and theoretical engagement with their craft, which activated subsequent generations of writers, scholars, and practitioners in either supportive or critical response. That the reductionist forms and tropes of early modern abstraction were influential in this regard is witnessed in Strand’s corresponding attention to the close-up and the machine. Similarly, Weston would write of “the thing itself” in his daybook entry of March 10, 1924, paralleling what John Tenant said of Stieglitz in 1921; that his work focuses on “the subject itself, in its own substance or personality … without disguise or attempt at interpretation.” The new modernist criticism, so much a collective project of the artists themselves, was further supported by writers and reviewers of the radical journals of the period, such as The Little Review, The Dial, Broom, and The New Republic. The short-lived Group f.64, formed in 1932 to champion the straight approach on the west coast, included Adams, Cunningham, Weston, Willard Van Dyke, and others. Adams, best known for his extremes of delicate grace and epic grandeur in his photography of the wilderness, was particularly emphatic in a series of writings and books about the proper use of photography. He theorized about the notion of “pre-visualization” while strategizing a fool-proof method for obtaining consistently superior exposures called the zone system.
In Europe and the fledgling Soviet Russia, where modernist experimentation had achieved new force following WWI, the “new photography” (as it was often referred to by its proponents) was closely associated with a “new vision” in which radical art and social action would conspire to lead the masses into the future. The Russian Constructivists El Lissitsky and Alexander Rodchenko found new strategies in both the straight radical view and the montage practices that also informed the European vanguard of the 1920s. In Germany, Bauhaus designer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s Painting, Photography, Film (1925) demonstrated how innovative uses of the medium might transform one’s view of the world; in a prophetic utterance quoted by his contemporary, the cultural theorist Walter Benjamin, Moholy-Nagy declared, “The illiterates of the future will be the people who know nothing of photography rather than those who are ignorant of the art of writing.” Though it explored all varieties of photography and recent productions in film, a similar visionary impulse was at the heart of the 1929 international exhibition in Stuttgart, Film und Photo (or simply Fifo), which was sponsored by the Deutscher Werkbund, the German industry and design collaborative. The show was a significant testimony to the industrial world’s embrace of photography in general; a recognition of the camera’s potential for expression and for its applied use as an extended way of seeing and knowing the world. Both sides of the Atlantic were also represented, as Edward Weston and Edward Steichen, Stieglitz’ photographer friend and associate, assembled an American section. From an historical perspective, written support for the serious implications of the work on display came not from the catalog, but from other publications of the period. These include Werner Gräff’s foreword to Es kommt der neue Fotograf! (Here Comes the New Photography, 1929), and Foto-Auge (Photo-Eye), in which Franz Roh offers intelligent commentary on the classes of photography previously explored by Moholy-Nagy and further demonstrated by the photographer’s section of Fifo. In contrast to the diverse techniques encouraged by Roh, Moholy-Nagy, and the Russians, the direct approach represented by the American contingent was only one of numerous possibilities for modern innovation, paralleling especially The New Objectivity, exemplified in close-ups of plants by Karl Blossfeldt (Urformen der Kunst/Art Forms in Nature, 1929) and the patterns of industrial and natural forms in Albert Renger-Patzsch’s pictures (Die Welt ist schön/The World is Beautiful, 1928).
The rhetoric of modernism, having fully emerged in the 1920s and early 1930s, infused the use of the medium in documentary and photojournalistic enterprise with a revelatory sensibility related to Surrealism. Advances in hand-held cameras like the 35 mm Leica and the advent of magazines like Münchner Illustrierte Presse and the French Vu, whose popular appeal depended on the picture story, encouraged a special kind of awareness of the social landscape. Books of photographs appeared of both cosmopolitan and provincial subjects, culturally savvy and formally sophisticated. ParisVu, for instance, ran pictorials by the Hungarian André Kertész, and his compatriot Brassaï produced in Paris de nuit(1933) a haunting impression of the city’s cafes, its denizens, and boulevards at night. In 1952 Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose prolific career ran well into the century, articulated his personal theory of photography in The Decisive Moment. Here he called for an almost preternatural sense of convergence at the time of exposure, which for him resulted in pictures of spirited formal and social piquancy. Undoubtedly inflected by André Breton’s Surrealist notions of the uncanny and marvelous, such photographers incorporated a special awareness of the extraordinary power of the medium to convey the odd spectacle of life. Surrealism offered alternative avenues for expressive photography; Breton and his cohorts had already grasped the aspect of “making strange” the environs of Paris at work in the documentary imagery of Eugène Atget, who became adopted as a precursor of the movement before his death in 1927. The critical reception of Atget’s pictures indicates an awareness of photography’s potential—seen also in Kertész, Brassaï, and Cartier-Bresson—to provide a politically subversive strike against the appropriation of the medium for extremist propaganda, in which a battle was waged for the attention of the masses (Hitler himself had well understood the utility of photography and film in this regard). In his 1931 essay “A Short History of Photography” (published in Literarische Welt), Walter Benjamin noted with respect to Atget’s “voiceless” and seemingly “empty” pictures of the city that “These are the sort of effects with which Surrealist photography established a healthy alienation between environment and man, opening the field for politically educated sight, in the face of which all intimacies fall in favor of the illumination of details.” Though not to be truly appreciated in the United States until the political foment of the 1960s, Benjamin’s writings were nonetheless prescient with respect to the understanding of photography as integral to the development of modern culture, affording insights that few had made thus far.
With the proliferation of pictures in reproduction during the Interwar period, Benjamin had also recognized the crucial importance of the caption to anchor meaning for the reader. The coupling of words and pictures for both informing and entertaining reached a climax in the photo-essay, which in America was the chief form of reportage for magazines like Life and Look, whose circulation began in 1936 and 1937, respectively. A documentary ethos was soon to be articulated, exemplified in bold black and white images, varied scale, and the succinct texts of the essay. As later studies of the photoessay have demonstrated—for instance, the question of authenticity of Robert Capa’s treatment of the Spanish Civil War or of shifting contexts for W. Eugene Smith’s 1951 Spanish Village pictorial in Life—the persuasiveness of a narrative depended not only on these variables, but on the political ideological persuasions of the popular media in which they appeared. Art editors, who must work with the explicit aims of their publishers in mind, and not necessarily on behalf of the photographers’ own wishes, understood that they had the power to shape conditions of representation that in turn would have a pronounced impact on public reception, and hence issues of public debate of sometimes major political importance. The photography journals in America tended to support populist sentiments that at once both reiterated and departed from the high modernist aesthetics related to the New Photography and the straight approach of the 1920s and 1930s. Elizabeth McCausland’s “criteria,” which appeared in the U.S. Camera Annual for 1940, included the terms “honesty,” “truthfulness,” “a popular art,” “historical value,” and “propaganda.”
Distinctive theoretical differences between photography and art are often not easily discerned, complicated by photography’s multiple applications, structural properties, and cultural reception. In the March 1946 issue of The Nation the American critic Clement Greenberg published a review of the work of Edward Weston, titled “The Camera’s Glass Eye.” Greenberg wrote in his review that the appropriate province of photography was the “literary,” which correlated with his modernist narrative of the inherent characteristics appropriate to any given medium. Weston was a case of a photographer who had gone inappropriately in search of a formalist aesthetic more suitable for contemporary painters. By way of contrast, the work of Walker Evans was singled out as “modern art photography at its best.” Evans came into the limelight as the first photographer to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (or simply “MoMA”), which occurred in 1938—a critical gesture in itself from the principal American museum dedicated to modern art. The photographer exercised control over the sequencing of the images in the accompanying publication,American Photographs. Captions were limited to lists of generic titles and place names, allowing the images, some of which dated back to the late 1920s, to convey the passing of an earlier age in America, and the impact of industrialism and the automobile especially on the built environment. (Evans had briefly been one of Roy Stryker’s photographers for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), a New Deal program that sought to create a visual account of the wretchedness of the rural poor and other visible signs of the impact of the great Depression.) Evans actually had more in common with Weston than Greenberg’s criticism would allow. Weston, who tended to disavow theoretical explanations of photography including his own, published several volumes of his work during his lifetime (see, e.g., California and the West, with Charis Wilson Weston, 1940). These were the product of “mass production seeing,” according to him, relating to the rapidity with which photographs could be made, and to other forms of modern technology that symbolized speed. “Authentic photography,” he declared, “in no way imitates nor supplants paintings: but has its own approach and technical tradition.” Weston repeatedly claimed intrinsic properties for the medium, and thus was actually posing a similar modernist argument for photography as Greenberg had for painting. Greenberg, however, would appear to have missed the point of Weston’s strong sense of form, as witnessed, for instance, in his landscapes and close-ups of vegetables, shells, and nudes. For both Weston and Evans, photographs, whether leaning toward a modernist emphasis on form or a narrative approach, underscored the free expression of ideas through “recording the objective, the physical fact of things.”
From its inception in the late 1920s, the mission of MoMA was to inform the public concerning the art and design of the modern age. The selection of certain cultural objects as modern led to its embrace of photography, and in 1937 its first major show was organized by Beaumont Newhall. Trained as an art historian, Newhall brought a significant intellectual framework for comprehending photography as a narrative that paralleled the history of modern culture. Newhall’s exhibition became a central force in shaping the public’s understanding of the medium’s past. The exhibition catalog, revised in 1938 as Photography, A Short Critical History, formed the basis of Newhall’s History of Photography, which told the story in terms of technological developments and practitioners whose photographs were particularly compelling for aesthetic merit and the revelation of events. Twentieth century scholarship owes an enormous debt to him, as well as to his wife Nancy Newhall, for bringing to the foreground numerous photographers whose bodies of work adhered to high standards of practice and stylistic presence. Newhall’s specific contribution in the form of exhibition and the subsequent expansion of the catalog into the book (with editions in 1949, 1969, and 1982) marked another major turning point following the Film and Photo show. Important for its evaluation of genres of images and the articulation of aesthetic lineages like the straight approach and a documentary style, Newhall’s treatment of the photograph as an expressive object tended to overshadow his attention to photography as a social formation responsive to seminal events and world-changing circumstances. It further legitimated the importance of photography through the art museum, but lacked the theoretical specificity found in the literature associated with the German exhibition and critics such as Benjamin. Social history specific to photography in America was explored by Robert Taft in Photography and the American Scene, which came out in 1938. Unusual for its treatment of the history of the medium from a nationalist perspective, Taft’s book focused only on the 19th century.
The immediate post-war period saw an increase in attention to making photography even more intelligible to the public while continuing the historical and critical emphasis on the object, the photographer as artist, and the overall potential to enlarge one’s awareness of the world. Thus, by 1955 Helmut and Alison Gernsheim had brought their sensibility as serious collectors to their own historical account, The History of Photography from the Earliest Use of the Camera Obscura in the Eleventh Century up to 1914, which was dedicated to Beaumont Newhall. This volume, subsequently revised and enlarged to two volumes (1969, with a third edition in 1982), clearly demonstrated the Gernsheims’ interests by using their extraordinary collection of 19th century photographs. It also underscored the importance of collectors and curators, with all their idiosyncrasies, in bringing to light topics germane to photography, culture, and society that were worth careful scholarly consideration. The release of the Gernsheims’ history coincided with Edward Steichen’s Family of Man exhibition at MoMA, which comprised the work of numerous operators who were selected not for espousing any one individual position, but instead for projecting a collective optimistic vision of a world brought together by common aspects of humanity. This was understood by some of the more critically astute writers of the period. The French structuralist Roland Barthes, who would become an influential theorist of photographic meaning a few years hence, noted the exhibition’s imperialist overtones. Steichen’s production, which included a widely distributed catalog, also suggested to later commentators that his was a mission as much as anything else to use the photograph as an ambassador of goodwill in the face of Cold War fears. In retrospect, Family of Man has taken on additional meaning because it puts into high relief several lines of photographic discourse that contributed more specifically to historical and critical assumptions about how the medium could operate as an agent of spiritual rumination and speculation on the one hand, and of photographic wit and socially caustic commentary on the other.
Minor White is generally credited for establishing a path of philosophical inquiry into photography paralleling the subjective experiments and existential evocations in the visual arts and literature of the late 1940s and 1950s (one thinks here of the Beat generation of poets as well as the New York School of Abstract Expressionism). The thrust of White’s concerns together with a number of other American photographers, including Aaron Siskind, Harry Callahan, Frederick Sommers, Walter Chappell, and Henry Holmes Smith, represented a counter-phalanx to the mass appeal of the medium. The writings and photographs of these artists formed a collective body of esoteric, quasi-mystical material that ventured from the popular, tending again—as Stieglitz and company earlier in the century—toward a romantic enchantment with the photographic image as having the potential for expression equivalent to art. The ideas can best be seen in the essays and images published in the journal Aperture, edited by White himself beginning in 1952. It was White too who responded to a call for a method of explicating a photograph that could succinctly be conveyed to the uninitiated. He promoted the reading of images beyond the superficial recognition of its subject to see the possibility of the image as a source of revelation, and finally as a bridge to expression through words. Such a platform encouraged experimentation related to finding startling juxtapositions and features of abstract beauty in the environment, which could then act as poetic metaphor.
If White and Aperture represented an essentially modernist reaction to popular conceptions of photography, another occurrence pressed the case for photography’s importance as a catalyst for reflection on the repressed social realities underlying American cultural values and institutions of the 1950s. The Swiss-born Robert Frank had made an automobile trip across America with a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation in 1954 and 1955. As a result, in 1959 he published The Americans (first produced in France as Les Américains in 1958), something of a 1950s reprisal of Evans’American Photographs. The popular response to Frank’s penetrating experience on the road was anything but positive; his was a vision few would have called beautiful or appropriate for upholding the myth of a heroic and unified world led by America—highway diners, roadside accidents, racially divided buses, movie premiers, patriotic displays, black funerals, and working class ennui. This off the cuff record from a European perspective would soon be joined by the imagery of Bruce Davidson, Danny Lyon, Diane Arbus, and others. Their probing of the subcultures of American society had a hip insider edge that came to comprise a newer, darkly cast mode of urban photography. Such work would come to be characterized as part of the “social landscape,” a term used in conjunction with several shows of the mid-1960s, including the 1966 exhibition curated by Nathan Lyons at the George Eastman House in Rochester, Toward a Social Landscape. Street photography had a long tradition extending back to the mid-19th century, but Frank’s strategies of skewed framing and variable focus led to new approaches in the 1960s in which fortuitous alignments, instantaneity, and a perceptive scavenging for quirky human behaviors challenged the metaphorical assumptions posited by White and his associates. Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander, both of whom acknowledged the significance of Frank’s road trip, developed ambiguities of form and subject that would seem to defy any specific reading. Winogrand’s best known statement, “I photograph to find out what the world looks like photographed,” provides a glimpse into his theoretically subversive posturing.
John Szarkowski, Edward Steichen’s successor as director of the Photography Department at MoMA, championed both Winogrand and Friedlander. He articulated a concise theory of photography in terms of identifiable aspects of production and outcome related to practitioners of all subjects and backgrounds, while still celebrating the canon of previously established photographers and critically distinguishing new artists on the basis of a set of formal principles. These were set down as five key elements in The Photographer’s Eye, his companion volume to the MoMA’s show of 1966: “the thing itself,” “the detail,” “the frame,” “time,” and “vantage point,”—all of which acknowledged the selective process of the photographer in taking from the “actual” world and making a “picture.” For the fourth element, time, Szarkowski revealingly called attention to Cartier-Bresson’s concept of the decisive moment by stating “decisive, not because of the exterior event (the bat meeting the ball) but because in that moment the flux of changing forms and patterns was sensed to have achieved balance and clarity and order—because the image became, for an instant, apicture.” This had the ring of Greenberg’s earlier notions of the appropriate characteristics for each medium, but Szarkowski clearly saw form as equally important to a photograph as it might be for a painting, where the critic had more narrowly gauged a successful photograph in terms of how well it functioned as part of a larger narrative construct. Moreover, Szarkowski seemed to close the door on White’s romanticized vision of photographs as symbolic images, which could be translated into verbal equivalents that would make legible hidden meanings. Szarkowski’s initial theoretical clarity, with its emphasis on the autonomy of the picture, was later complicated by the curator himself, most notably in his exhibition and book of the same title, Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960 (1978), which actually acknowledges White’s notion of the photograph as a mirror.
Theories of the photograph as social artifact manifested themselves increasingly in the 1970s following critical responses to the urban landscape, cultural difference, civil unrest, racial and sexual oppression, politics, and war. Accelerated interest in the medium may also be credited to wider recognition of photographs as a relatively untapped source of collecting, connoisseurship, and scholarship, and the related expansion of museum collections and art and art history programs at colleges and universities now convinced of photography’s importance. And the critics would look to photography as a fertile ground for examining issues of modern culture. Susan Sontag’s commentary on photography, best seen in On Photography (1977), a collection of essays that first appeared in The New York Review of Books, came to represent a newer intellectual stance with regard to the potential of images to take on multiple meanings beyond any specific intent of the photographer. One can never actually acquire knowledge from photographs in themselves, but “are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy.” Neither metaphysically esoteric nor predicated on the subjective vision of the artist photographer, Sontag’s affecting criticism, which drew from her wide knowledge of literature and art, stimulated thinking about the medium as a collective social experience. This awareness stood in contradistinction to prior theories that reduced the meaning of photographs to an easily graspable set of inherent characteristics related to technique and the indexical properties of the analog image, which downplayed the differentiations of historical, emotional, and social reception adhering to the subject. Greater attention to the theory and criticism of photography also became apparent in art journals such as Artforum and October, which by the mid-1970s were challenging the modernist rhetoric of the work of art as an autonomous form and increasing awareness of the potential of photographic images to expand the philosophical investigation of meaning in art. It is not the intent of this essay to explore this avenue (see Photography, Fine Art Photography and the Visual Arts, 1900-2001), but it is important to acknowledge how this recognition of the photograph’s structural peculiarities—its direct indexical and iconic relationship to the phenomenal world—served to expand the scope and depth of inquiry related to the nature of the medium. Paralleling and infusing the art world discussion with a new critical rigor from outside this rather insular circle, the semiotic and social theorist Roland Barthes called the photograph “a message without a code,” while looking at the polysemic function of images in advertising and journalism, instruments of persuasion in the political, racialist, and economic ferment of late modern society. Barthes’ analysis was readily adopted by those who found too self-reflexive the photography-as-art idea witnessed earlier in the thinking of Stieglitz and White. A seminal instance of the challenge is found in Alan Sekula’s essay “On the Invention of Photographic Meaning,” published in the January issue of Artforumin 1974, in which the photographer and author took a semiotic approach to question the former pat assumptions made concerning art photography.
The seventies also saw new histories and specialized studies such as Gisèle Freund’s groundbreaking Photography and Society, first published in French in 1974, and Tim Gidal’s important introduction to the early picture story, Modern Photojournalism: Origin and Evolution, 1910-1933, published in English translation in 1973. Reassessments of specific episodes of photography’s past, exhibitions and studies of important collections, and compilations of writings by photographers and their contemporaries continued to enlarge the public discussion. Alfred Stieglitz’ contribution was re-examined in light of his extraordinary collection of photographs of others (see, e.g., Camera Work: A Critical Anthology, 1973, edited by Jonathan Green, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s The Collection of Alfred Stieglitz: Fifty Pioneers of Modern Photography, 1978, edited by Weston Naef). The writings of Sadakichi Hartmann, Stieglitz’ contemporary who was full of insights about photography as a fine art, filled a volume in The Valiant Knights of Daguerre (1978). Peninah R. Petruck’s two-volume The Camera Viewed: Writings on Twentieth-Century Photography was published in 1979 and a year later Alan Trachtenberg’s Classic Essays on Photography appeared. In 1981, Vicki Goldberg’s Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present was published. The importance of making this material available in such “readers” should not be underestimated as a means of stimulating dialog, scholarship, and innovative responses among photographers and students of photography. In addition to earlier influential figures in American and European circles, they also served to disseminate the critical ideas of more recent writers such as Barthes, Sekula, Sontag, and John Berger, whose widely read The Look of Things (1974) and About Looking (1980) emphasized the importance of photographs as a facet of visual culture.
Following the arc of this concentrated attention to the medium, new historical surveys entered both the academic arena and the public mainstream. Naomi Rosenblum’s A World History of Photography appeared in 1984, and A History of Photography: Social and Cultural Perspectives by Jean-Claude Lemagny and André Rouillé was published in 1987 (originally published in French as Histoire de la photographie, 1986). Challenges to orthodox views of the photograph as an aesthetic object continued as the academic climate shifted within the discipline of art history itself toward interdisciplinary activity and theories of the post-modern. The development of cultural studies, literary theory, feminist theory, Marxist-informed social history and theory, cultural anthropology, and post-colonial studies contributed to nuanced perspectives on how photographic images had an important function in the cultural and social formation of attitudes and ideologies in the modern world. John Tagg examined photographic agency in legal and political contexts in The Burden of Representation (1988), and Rosenblum wrote a History of Woman Photographers (1994). Christopher Pinney and Elizabeth Edwards brought semiotics, anthropology, and photography together in their analyses of images of non-Western peoples in, respectively, Anthropology and Photography, 1860-1920 (1992), and Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs (1997); Richard Bolton edited The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography (1989), an influential assemblage of essays whose authors utilized the new methodologies to examine photography and issues of identity, sexuality, and documentation. The sesquicentennial of photography’s public introduction (i.e., its 150th anniversary) in 1989 led to a flurry of reassessments, such as Szarkowski’s Photography Until Now at MoMA. Szarkowski’s overview, long awaited but now somewhat passé in treatment, only served to underscore how far the scholarship and thinking about photography had come.
Perhaps the passage of the modern age of photography has fostered an even greater zeal to recognize the international scope and culturally diverse uses of the medium (see, e.g., A New History of Photography, edited by Michel Frizot, 1998 and Mary Warner Marien, Photography: A Cultural History, 2002). Among the telling indications that the community of critics and scholars in the field have not arrived at a comprehensive theory of photography, however, is reflected in papers associated with symposia and conferences: questions of whether photography has anything that approaches a consistent theory are evident in such publications as Photography: A Crisis of History (2002). Spanish photographer and historian Joan Fontcubara asked a number of colleagues from a wide variety of institutions a set of questions related to former histories and their shortcomings, wondering if there was indeed any possibility of a consistent theory of photography. Complicating the situation further has been the ascendancy of digital photography and related computer applications. This strategic development has enabled the hybridization of photographs outside the technical parameters of conventional processes, thus precipitating further discussion of cultural perceptions of photography and its meaning. This is seen to be far more elusive than once was believed, so that former modernist assertions about the nature of the medium seem almost naïve. Analog photography seems destined to become a facet of practice that will become ever more arcane as the years pass, but digital photography promises to make the phenomenon all the more acutely intriguing for subsequent generations of thinkers and practitioners.