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Idea Photographic | After Modernism

IDEA Photographic: After Modernism
Steve Yates

Modern photography was not born in isolation. It evolved from a number of sources in the first decade of the twentieth century. As with the inventions of photography the century before, individual artists and writers forged new directions through experimentation. They redefined the position of photography with other arts around the world.

Photographs played an integral role in progressive art movements from futurism, cubism, Dadaism, and constructivism, to surrealism. Some artists expanded new subjects and applications with the camera. Others invented new art forms with elements of chance, from related mediums such as photomontage and photograms to the printed page. Nontraditional media and materials provided an endless means for innovations as the artist applied inventive approaches to past standards.

Critics who were first to recognize aspects of the modern idea were also the ones to distinguish change from past forms of art. Sadakichi Hartmann, who also wrote under the name of Sidney Allan, noted a shift of intent in the work of Alvin Langdon Coburn in 1904. Reviewing the artist's soft-focused platinum prints, Hartmann wrote about "the significance of form and structure" by the artist through the photographic process. The change "represents a firm foundation of artistic perception, in which the accessory motives of lighting, tones, and texture.may surely be developed." 1 The distinction was a subtle one for the moment in history. The shift in vision by the artist to ideas within the medium became a standard for modern photography throughout the twentieth century.

Two years later, in 1906, playwright and amateur photographer George Bernard Shaw further compared Coburn's liberated approach to the art of Auguste Rodin and his modern sculpture. "It is the technique that has been adapted to the subject," Shaw concluded. "Mr. Coburn can handle you as Bellini handled everybody. according to his vision of you. He is free of that clumsy tool-the human hand.He drives at the poetic.with-out any impoverishment or artification." 2

The photographs that Shaw analyzed consisted of soft patterns and forms made from ship docks and unconventional viewpoints of urban subjects, such as the city of London (Figure 1). The work was included the next year in the "Exhibition of Modern Photography," a group of works shown at the Goupil Gallery in London, and in a solo exhibition at the Photo-Secession Gallery in New York. "Coburn presents these things in a new light," commented Editor Juan Abel of The Photographer magazine. "He is the enfant prodige of modern photography." 3

Other artists, such as Pierre Dubreuil, developed their own modern style. In 1901, Dubreuil began to conceive of photographs as a means for ideas. His work moved beyond the descriptive power of information rendered by the camera. The artist combined imaginative viewpoints with new subjects and forms independently. Like Coburn, Dubreuil and others developed a new direction from some of the tenets of Pictorial photography characterized by its soft-focus style and popularized in exhibitions around the world. Early modern photography evolved from experimentation with different facets of Pictorialism. Artists connected new subjects and points of view with past Pictorial conventions. By the second decade, modern photography had evolved into the mainstream of modern art movements, as the artist worked within the medium of photography (page 19). 4

The Clarence H. White School of Photography established the first curriculum in modern photography when it opened on Fifth Avenue in New York in 1914. Photographer Clarence H. White and Cubist painter Max Weber developed the original program in artistic expression, art history, and design. Paul Anderson taught various dimensions of process and technique (Anderson, page 11; White, page 22). Guest artists were invited to lecture; among them, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Gertrude Käsebier, Karl Struss, Edward Steichen, and Paul Strand. The school was instrumental to the first generation of modern photography students, among them Bernard Shea Horne, Laura Gilpin, Margaret Bourke-White, Paul Outerbridge, Ralph Steiner, and Paul Vanderbilt.

Artists surrounding Alfred Stieglitz helped to bring modern art to the walls of his 291 Gallery, into the pages of the quarterly Camera Work, and to all of America. Not until the last issue of Camera Work, in 1917, was modern photography fully acknowledged through the work of Paul Strand. Strand's recent photographs were included during the last year for both the gallery and the finely printed publication. The photographer defined his modern photographs by their autonomy and his use of the inherent characteristics within the medium. "Photography.finds its raison d'être, like all media, in a complete uniqueness of means," the photographer wrote. "This is an absolute unqualified objectivity. Unlike the other arts which are really anti-photographic, this objectivity is of the very essence of photography, its contribution and at the same time its limitation.The full potential power of every medium is dependent on the purity of its use." 5. Generations of photographers throughout the twentieth century further contributed to modern photography, as defined by Strand, including Stieglitz, after closing the 291 Gallery.

The early modern photographers moved away from simulating other art forms, such as drawing and painting. While Pictorialists provided a conscious attention to the fine print, modern photographers worked within the limitations of the medium by creating finely crafted prints in the darkroom. Photographers turned cameras towards more urban subjects and began to develop meaning in form and content, especially in architecture, landscape, and portraiture, even as painters turned from Impressionism towards abstraction.

Others invented modern aesthetics through related photographic mediums and themes. Geometric form replaced natural subjects in camera-less photographs, later known as photograms. The idea of authorship and originality found in traditional hand-drawn and painted works of art was replaced by photomontage, where photographic imagery was cut and pasted from magazines. These and other modern-adapted print mediums offered expressive forms of ideas over the purely descriptive power of conventional photographs made firsthand with the camera.

Photographers further explored facets of modernism by expanding still-life subjects into human-scale sets to be photographed, thereby extending self-portraiture through strategies of identity and inventing photo-graphic realities beyond the conscious world. 6 Others altered accepted perceptions of the landscape.

The landscape also reflects aspects of history in the form of human values. The idea of the cultural landscape was established by John Jackson: "If we are again to learn how to respond emotionally and esthetically and morally to the landscape, we must find a metaphor-or several metaphors-drawn from our human experience. We can best rely on the insights of the geographer and the photographer and the philosopher. They are the most trustworthy custodians of the human tradition; for they seek to discover order within randomness, beauty within chaos, and the enduring aspirations of mankind behind blunders and failures." 7

The history of photographic ideas is not fully written; ideas photographic will continue long after the modern era and far outside the limitations of the medium. Advances in modern photography over the last century helped to lay the foundation of constant review and change. Artists are again using vocabularies from the past to forge new models-much as photographers used the tenets of Pictorialism a century ago to establish modern photography. Ideas are applied through a wide range of sources-from cubism, Dadaism, and surrealism, to pop art, to conceptual art, and through postmodern discourse as well. Using historical styles and movements only as a starting point, today's artists move beyond the "isms" of modern art. In contrast to the modernists, they transform ideas among the art mediums without a single style or shared standard.

Avant-garde art a century ago remains a primary source of innovation in photographic expression. Many of the avant-garde experiments included photography as well a variety of related materials and media. These, and a wide diversity of experiments with the printed page, photomontage, and the combination of mediums, provide some of the precedents for today's changing digital technologies (Rodchenko, Radio City, page 93).

Since the 1950s, artists have abandoned even more modern tenets and related practices. New generations of photographic work outside modernism, beginning with Robert Rauschenberg and advancing to the proponents of Feminism, as well as others using unconventional forms of photography, helped to transform the content and orientation of art. Photographic ideas became central to those historians and critics who broke away from traditional ways of seeing. Key writings unrelated to modern photography provided a new foundation for a new art history, which itself is now being written. Formative studies can be found in Leo Steinberg's Other Criteria, which first introduces the term "postmodern" to the visual arts within Rauschenberg's contribution; Lucy Lippard's cultural viewpoints in Overlay that rethink history; John Berger's way of seeing in The Look of Things; and Dore Ashton's introduction to English-speaking audiences of the seminal French work by Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space. 8

Today, artists explore and express the new epoch through an ever-increasing diversity of photographic ideas that began with modernism and will continue long after. Photographic ideas better express the life and art of change, which advances throughout the world.

Image Credits:
Figure 1. Paul L. Anderson, Under the Brooklyn Bridge, 1917 gelatin silver photograph. Princeton University Art Museum. Gift of Raymond C. Collins.

Figure 2. Paul L. Anderson, Max Weber and Clarence C. White at the Clarence H. White School of Photography, c. 1914, platinum photograph, Collection of Joy S. Weber.


  1. Sadakichi Hartmann, "Some Prints by Alvin Langdon Coburn," Camera Work, A Photographic Quarterly, Number 6, April 1904, 17-8.

  2. G. Bernard Shaw, preface for Catalogue of the Exhibition of the Work of Alvin Langdon Coburn, The Liverpool Amateur Photographic Association, April 30May 14, 1906, unpaginated.

  3. Juan C. Abel, "Editorial Comment: Alvin Langdon Coburn," The Photographer, Volume 6, Number 151, March 19, 1907, 323.

  4. For unprecedented studies on the origins of modern photography see Proto Modern Photography (Santa Fe: Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of New Mexico, 1992). For historic analyses of Pierre Dubreuil's contribution see Tom Jacobson, "A Modernist Among the Pictorialists," Pierre Dubreuil, Photographs 1896-1935, San Diego: Dubroni Press, 1987.

  5. Paul Strand, "Photography," Camera Work, A Photographic Quarterly, Numbers 49-50, June 1917, 3.

  6. For an original source of researches in modern photography history see Van Deren Coke with Diana C. Du Pont, Photography, A Facet of Modernism (San Francisco: The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1986).

  7. John B. Jackson, The Essential Landscape: The New Mexico Photographic Survey with Essays by J.B. Jackson (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press and the Museum of New Mexico, 1985), 84.

  8. For Dore Ashton's introduction of G. Bachelard's treatise in literature and its further application to the history of photography see Poetics of Space, A Critical Photographic Anthology, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995), S. Yates, Editor. Further key writings noted are Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (London: Oxford University Press, 1972); Lucy Lippard, Overlay, Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983); and John Berger, The Look of Things: Essays by John Berger (New York: Viking Press, 1974).

Steve Yates
Curator of Photography
Senior Fulbright Scholar


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