Art and Photography: Paul Nash and Charles Sheeler
|March 13, 2012||Posted by admin under Photography|
Over the past 170 years of photography, one theme that has emerged at regular intervals is the question ‘Is photography art‘. In the first few years, perhaps the inventors and pioneers were too busy taking pictures to worry much about the question. After all, most of them were artists. For many it was a matter of simply putting down the brush and taking up camera.
In the main, photographers pursued the same subject matter that was already familiar in paintings. They photographed landscapes, buildings and city vistas, and took portraits. Some, like Talbot, saw the potential of the camera has a scientific tool and as a recording medium. Some of the work from the early years, such as Hill and Adamson’s fine portraits using the calotype process, although made largely as reference document for a history painting by Hill showing the formation meeting of a breakaway church in Scotland, were soon seen to stand as pictures in their own right.
It was some 20 years later when the dust had more or less settled around the original invention, that some photographers began to want to distinguish themselves from the purely routine and mechanical use of photography.
Photographers in the 1860s such as Rejlander and H. P. Robinson made a number of carefully planned and executed works, photographing a number of scenes and combining them to give a final picture. This approach stressed the picture-making or pictorial side of photography. Other photographers, notably Emerson, reacted strongly against this manipulated work. They worked in a more straightforward way, achieving pictorial effect by the careful selection of the moment and viewpoint in the natural environment.
Hallam Tennyson photo: Oscar Gustave Rejlander (1813-1875), c. 1863
Both groups however regarded themselves as artists who worked using photography, and around 1890, they made common cause against the professionals and artisans, who they felt were beginning to dominate photography and the photographic societies. The leading photographic artists of the day set up a group called the Linked Ring. Based in London, its members were mainly British, but they soon invited the leading continental and American photographers to join them.
In their photography, they tried to achieve the appearance of a hand-worked image, both by using processes that tended to blur detail and made use of pigments to produce an image, and by actually working on the negative or prints by hand. The legacy of this movement, which again became known as Pictorialism, lingers in some areas of organized amateur photography to this day. The successor of the Linked Ring, the London Salon of Photography (membership by invitation only), still holds annual exhibitions, although the mainstream of photography has long passed it by.
Henry Peach Robinson “Fading Away” (1858)
The change in photography away from this approach around 1915 was not based on any photographic principles, but on the changes that were taking place in the art world. The rise of straight photography was an outgrowth of Modernism as surely as the architecture of Le Corbusier, with its ideas of form, function and truth to materials.
Surrealism took to photography as a duck to water
Photography had after all been surreal for around 80 years since its birth, often producing unintended results and unusual juxtapositions, catching off-balance moments and cropping regardless. Marcel Duchamp and others made use of photographic images cut from magazines, while Man Ray was a far better photographer than painter. Surrealism was also a literary movement, and its writing – when not simply nonsensical – often seems based on film or photography. A good example – and perhaps its greatest literary work – is Aragon’s ‘Paris Peasant‘ with its and detailed study of a Paris arcade, The Passage de L’Opera, which could be straight from Atget’s pictures.
This photography was of course the tip of an iceberg. Despite the prominence given to the histories of photography it represents a minute fraction of photography as a whole. Ninety-nine percent of photographs were not intended as art. They were documents, records, mementos, press photographs, family pictures, surveys, evidence.
The Terminal, 1892, Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864–1946)
Photography is not art any more than oil paint is art. Some photographers used it to create art. That it was often second-rate and derivative art hardly surprises, so is most painting. The best photography – such as the work of Strand and Weston – can stand beside that of other major figures in art. Few painters have ever produced significant worked in photography, although some have tried. Picasso, as recent exhibitions have shown, is no exception. Two who have produced significant work in both mediums are Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) and Paul Nash (1889 – 1946).
Charles Sheeler, Amoskeag Canal 1948, Currier Museum of Art
Sheeler’s work is the epitome of Precisionism, both in paint and silver gelatin. Clear, detailed, exquisitely formal. In reproduction, it is difficult to tell whether some of his works are paintings or photographs, and in some cases subject matter and composition are virtually identical in both. He trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the early years of the 20th century at a time when the precise handling of paint was ‘first and last’ for a painter, then traveled to Paris to collide with the full shock of Cezanne, Picasso, Braque and Matisse.
Sheeler became a modernist, although it was to take several years for his work to assimilate the new ideas. On his return to America it was clear that there was no market for the new painting he wanted to pursue and he took up photography to earn a living. His photography for the first ten years or so was almost purely commercial. He photographed works of art for museum and galleries and buildings for architects. During this time he met Alfred Stieglitz and became friends both with him and Paul Strand. Together with Strand he made a six minute silent film, Manhatta, long regarded one of the landmarks of the history of American film.
In 1922, Edward Weston traveled to New York and was introduced to Sheeler by Stieglitz. Weston was impressed by Sheeler’s pictures of New York and wrote ‘no attempt to force attention by clever viewpoint. He didn’t try to be different – he was.’ This was the start of a lifelong friendship between the two. When Sheeler – by then a successful advertising photographer – was commissioned to photograph the Ford’s vast Rouge Plant near Detroit, he must have had in mind Weston’s picture (taken on his journey back from their first meeting) of Armco Steel, Ohio which had marked a turning point in Weston’s work.
Rouge was probably Sheeler’s finest work in photography, and although he continued to photograph, from the early 1930′s his attention turned back mainly to painting.
Paul Nash had become well-known as a war artist in 1914-18, particularly for his painting Menin Road. He was 41 when his wife gave him a No 1A pocket Kodak Series 2 to take with him on a visit to Pittsburgh as the British judge for an International Art exhibition in 1931. It was the only camera he ever owned and he had little interest in the technical aspects of the medium – quite a few pictures he took just ‘didn’t come out’.
Those that did, from the first film on (he took some pictures on board ship either on this outward or return journey), showed an ability to use the camera to explore his way of seeing in much the same way as he might have done in a sketch book. Increasingly – especially as his health deteriorated – he painted from his photographs.
Although Nash very much started from the idea of the photograph as a document, over the years his work reveals an increasing interest in the photograph as a work of art in itself. He was also obviously taking an interest in the work of other photographers, including Moholy-Nagy (working in London in the mid-30s) and also Karl Blossfeldt, whose second book of plant close ups he reviewed in 1932. Nash was also a keen collector of photographs from books and magazines. In his photography Nash experimented with still life and found objects as well as finding patterns and textures in the landscape.
In 1935, he was asked to write the ‘Dorset Shell Guide,’ one of a series of guides to English Counties for motorists, and he spent some time in the county researching and photographing. He also produced an article ‘Swanage or Seaside Surrealism’ based on his visits there. Among the more impressive of his pictures are those of the Iron Age earthwork of Maiden Castle, which curiously allow the curves of the landscape to impress their own presence in the picture. The pictures a few years later of the White Horse cut into the chalk downs in neighboring Berkshire are more obviously sensuous.
During the Second World War, Nash was an official war artist, allowing him access to photograph a number of wrecked aircraft; these continue in some respects the series of uprooted trees he had worked on in previous years.
Only some 18 of Nash’s photographs were published in his lifetime (mainly in the Shell Dorset Guide), although a few more were exhibited. He was keen to show his photographs together with his paintings, but when he proposed this for a show in the London National Gallery in 1940 he received a letter telling him:
I am quite sure it would be a great mistake to do so. Some day an art critic of authority must break down the public distinction between art and photography but God forbid the Ministry of Information should be the first to try and do this… Can’t you imagine the indignant letters we would get, and the floods of requests from photographers of the baser sort that there work should be shown too?
It was a response which clearly showed the attitudes of the British Art establishment of the time, attitudes which still to some degree persist in the UK. A book of Paul Nash’s photographs was published by the Tate Gallery in 1973 (with an essay by Andrew Causey from which much of the above information was taken.) Had Nash not been distinguished as a painter, the Tate would have considered his photography of no interest to them.
The 1970s saw a change in the relationships between the art world and photography to which I will return in a later feature.
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