An Adventure in Photography
by Allegra Baggio Corradi
Was photography best understood as an art or a science? What subjects should photographs depict, what purpose should they serve, and what should they look like? Should photographers work within the aesthetics established in other arts, such as painting, or explore characteristics that seemed unique to the medium? This first generation of photographers became part scientists as they mastered a baffling array of new processes and learned how to handle their equipment and material. Yet they also grappled with aesthetic issues, such as how to convey the tone, texture, and detail of multicolored reality in a monochrome medium. They often explored the same subjects that had fascinated artists for centuries — portraits, landscapes, genre scenes, and still lifes — but they also discovered and exploited the distinctive ways in which the camera frames and presents the world. In the late nineteenth century, improvements in technology and processing, along with the invention of small handheld cameras such as the Kodak, suddenly made it possible for anyone of middle-class means to take photographs. Many amateurs took up the camera to commemorate family, friends, and special events. Others, such as the sociologist Lewis Hine, used it as a tool for social and political change. Partially in response to the new availability of photography, more serious practitioners in America and Europe banded together to assert the artistic merit of the medium. Called pictorialists, they sought to prove that photography was just as capable of poetic, subjective expression as painting. They freely manipulated their prints to reveal their authorial control, often resulting in painterly effects, and consciously separated themselves from amateur photographers and mechanized processes.
Alice French, better known with the pseudonym Octave Thanet, was an American writer. Among her numerous passions were woodworking and photography. French developed her pictures herself and eventually published her experiments with focus, lighting and exposure in An Adventure in Photography (1893).
John C. Hemment was a racing industry’s photographer. His collection of over 5,000 photographs mainly depicts track and paddock scenes, horses and the social gatherings of prominent figures associated with Thoroughbred racing. In “Cannon and Camera”, Hemment took photographs of sea and land battles of the Spanish-American war in Cuba, of the soldier’s camp life and the return of the soldiers from the front. Hemment described himself as a war artist at the front.
Richard Kearton was a British naturalist and wildlife photographer. Together with his brother Cherry, he developed innovative methods to photograph animals in the wild. Nature and a Camera was illustrated by 160 photographs of animals captured in their habitat and shot by the Kearton brothers. Cherry was also the first man to ever take a photograph of a bird’s nest with eggs in 1892.
Edward Augustus Samuels was an American naturalist and president of the Massachusetts Fish and Game Protective Association. He developed a method for engraving by photography directly from nature or from a photographic print. His main interest was ornithology, about which he published vastly. In “With Fly-Rod and Camera”, he illustrated his fishing trophies with one hundred and fifty plates. His compositions showed heads of sea trout disposed geometrically against a neutral backdrop, bearded men proudly standing next to forty-eight pounders, pun-rich bass reliefs and as nice a sea trout as you ever will take.
About Pierre Guichard we know little to nothing. He was a civil engineer with an interest in underwater photography, a subject about which he wrote a book. The focus was specifically on the difficulties that the activity presented to the amateur. The state of the art was closely tied to the development of the physics as a whole. Optics was key to the understanding of the transparency and the colour of the water as well as of its refraction.