Michel Frizot, the book's editor and author of many of its essays, is a professor at the École de Louvre in Paris. He begins before the beginning that is, before photographs (or images created by the action of light on a sensitive surface) were being produced in any form. Through his selection of essays, he recounts the progression from the first "drawing machines" (essentially tracing paper attached to a frame) to photography as it is practiced today.
As Charles Baudelaire wrote in his critique of the 1859 Salon, photography began as "the humble servant of the arts" and was valued by many less for its inherent artistic possibilities than as a documentation tool for recording history and art history. Of course, using the camera for such purposes was and continues to be important, as underscored by an essay by Hubertus von Amelunxen called "The Century's Memorial: Photography and the Recording of History."
The Mexican-American War, in 1846, was the first to be recorded by photographic images. The pictures taken there, however, were primarily patriotic in tone; the majority are portraits of American officers. But by the time of the Crimean War, in 1853, governments and publishers were recognizingthe"propaganda value of war photography." And it was with the uprising of the Paris Commune in 1871, claims von Amelunxen, that "photography became a weapon of investigation in the logistics of war."
Yet from the earliest stages of the development of photography, writes Mike Weaver in his essay "Artistic Aspirations," photographers strove to be recognized as artists. And by the late 1800s, they were so expanding the boundaries of the medium that photography did indeed come to be considered an art form. A movement called Pictorialism, derived from Impressionism and Naturalism, emerged, with photographers like Alfred Stieglitz in the vanguard. By the early 20th century, Pictorial photography was widely acknowledged as an international fine arts movement. As A New History of Photography shows, the photograph evolved and continues to evolve, simultaneously and inextricably, as both a historic tool and a work of fine art.
In part because of the chaos of World War I and the subsequent founding of Dadaism, the photomontage created by cutting out disparate photographic fragments and pasting them together into a collage became popular as a means of deconstructing the image. Man Ray and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy furthered the impulse by developing photograms, essentially negative images of the shadow or outline of an object. A style known as New Objectivity, which emphasized formal realism and the "cold objectivity of things themselves," writes Frizot, emerged contemporaneously.
But photography has never failed in its preoccupation with the human condition, as illustrated in essays like "Portrait of Society" and "The Way Life Goes: Suffering and Hope." The tragedies and horrors of World War II, made so vivid and undeniable as a result of photographs, helped to galvanize new photographic trends in Europe: notably humanism and neorealism, which emphasized human subjects and an empathetic approach. American photography following WWII was similarly "marked by disillusionment and a quest for the poetic," says Frizot.
By the 1970s, writes Stuart Alexander, "the establishment of photographic institutions and the expansion of the infrastructure for photography" began to make it possible for more photographers to earn a living from their work.
A New History of Photography , which is the English translation of the 1994 Nouvelle Histoire De La Photographie , concludes with essays on the relationship between philosophy and photography, and on the rituals and customs that have surrounded photography since its inception.
While the written history contained in A New History of Photography is laudably complete, the pictorial history is the most enjoyable and vivid aspect of the book. A random cataloguing of some of the included photographs offers this impressive roster: an 1848 daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe; Timothy O'Sullivan's "The Battlefield at Gettysburg"; Frederick Evans's famous "A Sea of Steps" (1903); a Stieglitz photo of Marcel Duchamp's infamous "Fountain"; Lewis Hine's "Construction of the Empire State Building" (1931); a 1935 portrait of Marlene Dietrich by Edward Steichen; Walker Evans's 1936 depiction of a southern roadside stand; Andy Warhol's "Orange Car Crash" (1964); a Helmut Newton Vogue cover from 1967; and Cindy Sherman's "Untitled Film Still" (1979). This volume, published to celebrate the official 150th anniversary of photography, will delight any fan of photography, whatever their familiarity with the medium's history. The pictures alone are worth the price of the book.
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