TEACHING THE HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY
Curator of George Eastman House
The history of photography is such a new field of academic discipline that it is hardly possible at this date to formulate an ideal course of study. It may be helpful to others engaged in teaching it, to describe briefly the courses in the subject which have been given in Rochester during the past three years.
But first it is essential to review the history of the history of photography, for without historians and textbooks no teaching can be undertaken.
Photo history, if we may be allowed to use the term on the analogy of art history, is broadly speaking as old as photography itself. The first inventors, Niepce, Daguerre and Talbot, each wrote detailed accounts of their inventions, and almost all subsequent scientists have left their own records of their work. A wealth of periodicals, beginning with THE DAGUERREIAN JOURNAL of 1850, have been devoted to photography: in their pages is to be found the main source of our knowledge of the technological development of the medium. A number of popular anecdotal historical chronicles appeared in the middle of the 19th century. But no truly scholarly historical research was undertaken until 1881, when Josef Maria Eder published a series of exhaustive and meticulously documented articles on the early history of photochemistry in the Viennese periodical PHOTOGRAPHISCHE CORRESPONDENZ. In 1892 Eder collected these articles in the first volume of the second edition of his AUSFÜHRLICHE HANDBUCH DER PHOTOGRAPHIE. In the meantime another Viennese, Carl Schiendl, published an impressive volume in 1891, titled THE HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY, which was much more comprehensive than Eder’s, and which must be given credit as the first attempt to write a scholarly treatise on the subject. (The book is now forgotten, for Eder accused Schiendl of plagiarizing his 1881 articles, not only in a bitter review, but in all his subsequent historical writings.)
Neither of these historians, who were both photographic scientists, paid much attention to the results of the camera. They were more concerned with the development of processes than with the product. Valuable as their books are to the student, they do not give a well rounded picture of photography as a medium, and no attempt was made by either writer to evaluate photography as a means of expression and a form of communication, or to relate photography with other branches of human activity.
Photography is both a science and an art, and it is quite natural that historians of both these fields should examine photography from their special interests. Art historians, however, were slow to turn their attention to the camera. In 1917 Max Lehrs wrote a short article in the ZEITSCHRIFT FUR BILDENDE KUNST, a professional art history journal, but his enthusiasm fell on fallow ground. It was not until 1929 that photography again appeared in the literature of art
history with the publication of Heinrich Schwarz’s excellent book on David Octavius Hill — the first study of a photographic artist comparable to the hundreds of monographs which had appeared on the work of artists in other media. In 1935 Gisèle Freund wrote a study of 19th century photography which was partly art historical and partly sociological in approach. It is a pity that her book has long since been out of print, and that it has not been translated from the French. She was the first to point out that photography came into being because of esthetic and sociological needs, rather than through the inquiry of pure scientists, and she also pioneered in relating the work of such artists as Nadar and Disdéri with painting of the period and with such philosophical concepts as Courbet’s Realism and the socialistic movement of Prudhomme.
The first edition of my history of photography was published in 1937 as an introductory essay for a catalogue of a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. In writing this essay I was strongly influenced by my training as an art historian and by the work of Schwarz and Freund. I had just become acquainted with the writings of the school of art historians stemming from Jacob Burckhardt and Alois Riegl, who took broad views of the development of the arts in relation to the culture and life of the various peoples who produced it and for whom it was intended. I was fortunate in having enough scientific knowledge and a sufficient command of practical photographic technique to enable me to grasp the technological development of photography and to evaluate the capabilities of each of the several techniques which were introduced in its hundred-year history.
At the time I was writing my book I was unaware that Professor Robert Taft of the University of Kansas was making a similar study. It was my pleasant assignment to read his manuscript for the publisher and I was astounded that he had independently arrived at many conclusions similar to my own. His book, published in 19.38 as PHOTOGRAPHY AND THE AMERICAN SCENE, was limited to the development of photography in the United States. Although his scientific background naturally prejudiced him towards the technological, his book was a history of the use of photography. It has remained a standard text.
Since 1945 the literature of the history of photography has been greatly enriched by several books written by Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, who have formed a magnificent collection of historical material in London. In addition to three monographs, on the photographic work of Lewis Carroll, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Roger Fenton, they have written a HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY which is so fully documented, so crammed with information, and so complete that it is indispensable to all students.
Beyond the works cited above, there have been very few other histories written. Erich Stenger, the leading German photo historian, has published many compilations of historical facts which, although useful, can hardly be classed as histories due to their lack of organization and complete absence of documentation. During World War II a folio size, profusely illustrated history was written in Paris by Raymond Lecuyer. Although extremely valuable for its wealth of superb illustrations, the text leaves much to be desired.
The fact that the bibliography of photography is so small is an indication of the pioneer state of this field of scholarship. With the exception of the magazine IMAGE, published by the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, there is no journal in which historians can publish their findings. Although a few photographic magazines have published historical articles,* scholarly reports of research are obviously out of place in popular periodicals which stress technical instruction rather than philosophical inquiry.
If there are but few histories of photography, it is because there are so few historians. In spite of the fact that in 1945 Nancy Newhall pointed out in the COLLEGE ART JOURNAL that the history of photography offers a most promising field for academic research, universities—with the exceptions noted below — have shown an almost complete disregard for this field of study. Although photography is the most widely practiced picture-making technique known to man, and the most persuasive and influential visual communication of the twentieth century, its history has yet to receive full academic recognition. Little, if any, encouragement is given the budding photo historian. If he has sufficient ingenuity, he can tie his special interest in with some recognized field, usually art history. But he can only be a part-time photo historian at best.
\et the citadel of academic indifference has been breached.
As curator of the George Eastman House I was invited in 1948 by the University of Rochester to conduct a course in the history and esthetics of photography. Due to the pressure of work in organizing Eastman House I was not able to accept the University’s invitation until 1954. In the meantime, however, I directed a candidate for the degree of Master of Arts in a reading course and the preparation of a thesis, which was accepted by the faculty in 1956.
A one-semester evening course was offered by the University in 1954. Although not given as part of the curriculum of the College of Arts and Sciences, a two-hour credit was allowed undergraduate students who took the course. In 1955 I gave a similar course, but the number of meetings was increased to two per week, each lasting an hour and a half. Enrollment was disappointingly low.
The course was conducted at the George Eastman House, where students had free access to its resources. My HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY was used as a text book and the syllabus of the course was basically the table of contents of that book. The lectures were illustrated with lantern slides and were supplemented by a study of original photographs in the Eastman House collection. Basically, the course was similar to the standard undergraduate introduction to painting and sculpture. It was in a sense an appreciation course; the students were not required to have any knowledge of the technique of photography.
In 1956 I was invited by the Rochester Institute of Technology to give a year course in the same subject. By a special arrangement with the University of Rochester credit is offered to students of the University who wish to take the
* Notably MODERN PHOTOGRAPHY (which published the first biography in English on Daguerre, and the most complete biographical study of Talbot) and the AUSTRAI.ASIAN PHOTO REVIEW.
course. In order to fit into the curriculum of R.I.T. the course is given at the Institute with field trips to the George Eastman House. One two-hour meeting is held per week. All of the students have had three years of intensive training in photographic techniques, but very little instruction in the arts and cultural history. Consequently the character of the course has been changed from the ones given at the University of Rochester, and much emphasis is laid upon the relationship of photography to other methods of picture-making. It is felt important to point out to the students that all picture makers face similar problems, and that photography is so important a medium that it mirrors, and in turn influences, the cultural standards and values of the period when it is produced.
In this course of lectures an innovation has been put into effect with gratifying success. The selection of pictures discussed is not entirely limited to those with esthetic content or value. Pictures made for purely informational purposes are analyzed within their own terms. Surprisingly few source books exist for this history of non-esthetic picture-making—-or should we perhaps write "not esthetic,” since no derogatory criticism is intended. With the exception of Mason Jackson’s THE PICTORIAL PRESS (1885), there is no general treatise. Again the late Robert Taft must be recognized as a pioneer: his ILLUSTRATORS OF THE OLD WEST is the first book to present in art historical detail the work of draftsmen who had no pretense beyond presenting the informational. Kouwenhoven’s COLUMBIA PORTRAIT OF NEW YORK has been most stimulating by its example, for he includes pictures of all kinds and in all media. Paul Vanderbilt of the Wisconsin Historical Society, and a specialist in the iconographical approach to history, has been of great help in formulating this aspect of the course. He lectured at the University of Rochester sessions in 1954, and the magazine EYE TO EYE which he edits for the Graphic History Society is a constant source of help.
Although inaugurated when the course was offered at the University, the history of illustration has been found especially meaningful at the Rochester Institute of Technology. All of the students there are training themselves for a professional career as photographers, or in closely related fields. In their daily work they will not often find themselves called upon to create works of art. To leave them with the impression that only artistic expression counts would be unfortunate. It seems to me essential to bring artistic awareness to them in every possible way, providing a background of taste and discrimination. It also seems essential to show them what art is not. Man’s expressive statements are then placed in perspective. Furthermore, the problems of producing informational pictures which, like good expository writing, should possess a clear and concise style, offers obvious practical advantages.
The very youth of photo history presents a challenge to the scholar, the teacher, and the student. Lack of the most elementary scholarly tools, such as bibliographies, collected source material, and organized picture files, makes research laborious and the all-essential summing-up especially difficult. But on the other hand, the challenge is great, and the field is so unworked that important claims can be staked by anyone who is serious.
Best of all, students seem to enjoy it.