Changing Role of Photography in the 20th Century

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  • Topic: Photography, Constructivism, Russian avant-garde
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History Of Photography 1 Essay 3
Lecturer: Chad Rossouw
Title: THE CHANGING ROLE OF PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE EARLY 20TH CENTURY Handing in date: Monday 19th September 2011
Student: Katinka Bester

“The artist’s world is limitless. It can be found anywhere, far from where he lives or a few feet away. It is always on his doorstep.” –Paul Strand Photography in the early 20th century fast became a dominant medium in documenting the changes in a mass growing society. Artists like Paul Strand and Alexander Rodchenko were avid participants of the movement called straight photography, composing nuanced images from ordinary moments. This new exploration in imagery led to the presentation of a photo through a clearer eye, without the manipulation of a negative. This essay outlines the aspects of a formal analysis on photographs taken by Paul Strand and Alexander Rodchenko, enlightening how these photographs changed elements of the 20th century. Further onwards in the essay I will clarify how these elements were applied to a contemporary social and political issue. Straight photography is photography in which the image is not obviously manipulated. In straight photographs, the mechanical objectivity of the camera and lens takes precedence over the creativity of the artist in the altering of the print to achieve artistic effects (Merrell, date unknown, 342). The adventure of European Pictorialism lasted for thirty years. Its practitioners were united primarily by the establishment of aesthetic concepts that were intended to give photography legitimacy as a medium of artistic expression on the same footing as painting and the graphic arts. The Pictorialists sought to create effects with the use of framing, composition, backlighting, lengthened perspectives, and low camera angles. They perfected special lenses, enabling them to restrict their camera’s vision. Picture’s were given an artistic touch by means of out-of-focus effects, blurring their photographic sharpness in favor of a mysterious , poetic atmosphere and modern versions. The pictorialists however were divided by a disagreement, centering on the use of ‘sharp’ or ‘soft’ focus. The partisans of straight photography disagreed with those who advocated manipulating the print to achieve the desired effect. The British in general, considered the subject itself more important than the way it’s treated. In the 1880’s the British photographer Peter Henry Emerson became the first to make a stand against any kind of photographic manipulation. Emerson’s extremely simple photographs of English landscapes have a hidden lyricism, in which manipulation of the print plays no part. This aesthetic of simplicity attracted many British photographers. The most remarkable of the British Straight Photographers was Frederick H Evans, known for his interiors of English Gothic cathedrals, photographed in soft focus (See image 1).The purity of his work was due to platinum printing process, which is less easy to manipulate than gum bichromate (a printing process based on light sensitivity of dichromates) and faithfully reproduces subtle nuances. For Evans straight photography was the medium for any artistic value. The German-Born Baron Adolphe de Meyer was another representative of straight photography, preferring optical and chemical means to control the treatment of light and the reproduction of transparent substances in his still life’s(See image 2).

Image 1 Image 2
Strand and Stieglitz were part of a movement called Photo-Secession. Secessionists and their participants in pictorial photography had counterparts in Europe, including England, Germany and France. Together they formed an “international” movement that was essential to the furtherance of critical discourse premised on stimulating or applying artistic effects. This fusion of art and photography would be the catalyst for a profusion of popular and sentimentalized pictures that continued to prevail in regional...
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