The art of the frozen moment

Every photograph is a small miracle. It captures a beat of time, fixing it forever. It is nothing short of magic and, like most things magical, its genesis is wreathed in controversy. For some, it is as old as the first primitive who noticed that the hot African sun darkened his skin even further. Others date it to the ancient Greeks or the medieval Arabs. Some historians say that its origins lie in Renaissance Italy, 17th-century Holland or 18th-century Britain. The purists say that it began with a fuzzy view of a barnyard roof in southern France; the literalists side with a faded imprint of a latticed window frame in rural England. But in terms of the popular imagination, the age of the photograph dawned on a bright morning in Paris early in the 19th century. It was then that Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre, a struggling artist-inventor, managed to freeze a fleeting image upon the face of a piece of polished copper. “I have seized the light,” he exclaimed at that moment. “I have arrested its flight.”


Although there may be others with a stronger technical claim to have invented photography, it was Daguerre’s discovery that launched the world upon a dizzying adventure. His “mirror with a memory,” as the 19th-century American author Oliver Wendell Holmes termed the device, would set in train events that were destined to change the very manner in which we see and think. It would take us around the planet and to the stars. It would show us the intimate face of joy and grief, poverty and luxury, war and peace. It would condition what we buy, the way we dress, eat, vote, make love. It would spark a technological revolution, placing in people’s hands a universal tool of communication unhampered by the bonds of language. “Photography,” said the legendary American photographer Edward Steichen, “is the best medium ever devised for explaining man to man.”

There will be ample opportunity this year to put that claim to the test as the 150th anniversary of photography is celebrated across Canada and around the world. Galleries, museums and exhibition halls are mounting a series of expositions throughout the year. A summer long program scheduled for the new National Gallery in Ottawa includes A Survey of the Portrait and a mass retrospective of the work of Yousuf Karsh (page 50). Across town at the National Archives, there are two shows planned – a collection of rare metal imprints from the early years of photography, and a retrospective of the work of photojournalist Kryn Taconis, best known for his clandestine photos of the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam – he’s also famous for his collection of weapon’s photography that a lot of prestigious writers use his photos on their article, such as: the brief history of firearms, amazing gun safe reviews 2015. One of the most ambitious exhibitions opened in February at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. The Art of Photography: 1839-1989 displays 463 works by 85 seminal photographers. After closing in Texas later this month, it will move to Australia in June and England in September. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., will mount a similar exposition of 400 photographs, travelling later to Chicago and Los Angeles. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City will stage The History of Photography. There are also programs planned for Montreal, Milwaukee, Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver, Halifax and dozens of other locations, large and small.

It all amounts to a major effort to mark photography’s sesquicentennial, which is a far cry from the situation that prevailed as the medium was still suffering its birth pangs 150 years ago. It took the world some time, in fact, to realize that a powerful new tool had suddenly appeared on the scene. It took even longer to appreciate many of the individuals who were responsible. The man who took the first-ever photograph, Joseph-Nicephore Niepce, died destitute and disillusioned. The man who invented the process upon which modern photography is based, William Henry Fox Talbot, labored for years in relative obscurity. The man who staged the first photographic exhibition, Hippolyte Bayard, never managed to achieve real recognition. All three were eclipsed by Louis Daguerre, who did not really invent photography but who possessed a genius for making it work and making it popular.

Daguerre won acclaim from the start. When his work – a refinement of that initially created by his collaborator Niepce – was presented in a lecture at the French Academy of Sciences on Jan. 7, 1839, it created a sensation. “From today, painting is dead,” artist Paul Delaroche declared. The 79-page manual that Daguerre published soon afterward, detailing his process, sold out in days. Within a few months, it had gone through 30 editions in French and appeared in translation from New York City to Saint Petersburg in Russia. The French Chamber of Deputies showered honors upon him, and King Louis Philippe awarded him a lifetime pension. His very name was immortalized in the “daguerreotype,” the polished-metal forerunner of modern paper photographs and color transparencies. And the apparatus he devised and manufactured for taking daguerreotypes, a wooden box with a ground-glass lens, made him wealthy. Sold in opticians’ shops, each model was stamped with a serial number and signed by the inventor.


  • It is primarily because of Daguerre that the world is celebrating the 150th anniversary of photographythis year. That is because the Frenchman not only unfolded his own discoveries in 1839, he also goaded his chief rival into action in the same year. The English aristocrat Fox Talbot, spurred by Daguerre’s tumultuous success at the French academy, hurriedly announced the results of his own pioneering labors in photography. On Jan. 25, 1839, he displayed samples of what he called his “photogenic drawings” at London’s Royal Institution. On the last day of the same month, he read a paper to the Royal Society that described a process for capturing images on sensitized paper. He eventually labelled those pictures “calotypes,” from the Greek word kalos, or beautiful.
  • There was no similarity between the daguerreotype and the calotype. The Frenchman’s images were startlingly clear, a delicate silvery grey that gradually oxidized into purplish brown. The Englishman’s were tiny, faded and blurred, the color of lilac. What is more, the processes for producing each were totally different. Daguerre manufactured a single opaque metal plate upon which the image was reversed, while Fox Talbot created what was essentially a paper negative. At first glance, it seemed to be no contest. Even the English astronomer Sir John Herschel, who named Fox Talbot’s invention “photography” (from the Greek words for “light” and “writing”) and who also applied the words “positive” and “negative” to the principal elements of the process, favored the French product.

Fox Talbot’s invention, however, did possess one advantage. His calotype negatives were capable of producing any number of positive copies. The daguerreotype could not be duplicated. In the end, Fox Talbot’s multiple-copy technique provided a benefit that would prove to be critical; his negative-positive system is the basis of modern photography. The daguerreotype is extinct. It passed into history a mere 20 years after it had appeared, with such fanfare, to the world.

The story was far different when Daguerre started it all. Daguerreotypes swept the world. Travelphotography began in the first year of Daguerre’s invention as enterprising publishers quickly saw the profit in turning the populations of Europe and North America into armchair tourists. It was the beginning of photojournalism. Daguerreotypes still exist that document the 1842 fire that swept Hamburg, the 1844 Catholic-Protestant riots in Philadelphia and the 1846 Mexican-American war. It was also when portraitphotography began. The first daguerreotype parlor opened in New York City in 1840, the first in London in 1841. In 1847, 2,000 cameras and 500,000 photographic plates were sold in Paris alone. The parlors charged as much as $5 – then a massive sum – for a portrait. And their subjects had to endure some considerable torment as well. They were required to sit absolutely still for as long as 20 minutes, often in bright sunlight, faces coated in white powder.

Almost all of the traits that would come to distinguish photography were established when Daguerre’s invention was king: the first telescopic picture of the moon, the first microscopic image of blood cells. Even some of the more sinister aspects of the medium developed. Pornography took on a whole new dimension. So did the unsubtle art of influence. It was one of Daguerre’s eclipsed rivals who manipulated what is probably the first-ever propaganda picture. Hippolyte Bayard, in despair at being forced to live in the great one’s shadow, took a picture of himself posed as a corpse.


The changes that have overtaken photography in 150 years are principally a matter of degree. Daguerre’s process slipped from the scene, replaced by Fox Talbot’s. There have been unimagined technological advances (page 51). Daguerre’s 110 pounds of equipment have been reduced to a few ounces. Along the way, George Eastman’s Kodak company democratized the medium in 1888, the American Speed Graphic put it in the newspapers in 1912, the German Leica A took it to war in 1925 and the classic Japanese Nikon F kept it there, beginning in 1959. But despite all of the gains, the principal elements have remained the same. Pictures continue to be taken by a box with a glass eye. As Marvin Moore, a Halifax photographer, put it: “Strong images remain strong images, and technology is irrelevant to the truth. Beethoven has been dead for years, but in artistic terms he is up to date.”

Much the same can be said about the way photographs are taken. Alterations in technique and approach have led photography some distance from the pictorial essays of the late 19th century. The early-20th-century Modernists wrenched photography from the hands of the genteel rich. Such pioneers as Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand chose to portray the world as it was, an unembellished, sometimes brutal place. They inspired generations of social documentarists, a line running from Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans all the way to the photojournalists who documented the Vietnam War, among other catastrophes, with such graphic results. They were such men as Larry Burrows, Don McCullin and Philip Jones Griffiths. Some of them paid heavily for their efforts. Burrows was killed while on assignment in Vietnam, as were 44 other journalists who monitored that war.

In the 1970s, the medium began to move away from documentary realism and veered across the ill-defined border into art. The school of so-called Postmodern photographers has taken to constructing its own images, much the way a painter does. Among the young in particular, it remains a potent influence. “Photography is a loaded medium that is extremely powerful,” said Maureen Donnelly, a photographystudent at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax. “We know that photographs do not tell the truth. They always have a bias.”

That view is new, in line with Postmodern thinking about the essence of the medium. For the moment, it is a minority opinion, but it is an example of the wide range of sentiments that photography is still capable of evoking. There are others, some of which are particularly relevant to an immigrant society like Canada’s. “For many families, photographs are often the only artifacts to survive the passage through exile, immigration and the pawnshop,” Canadian historian Michael Ignatieff wrote in his 1987 award-winning family memoir, The Russian Album. “In a secular culture, they are the only household icons, the only objects that perform the religious function of connecting the living to the dead and of locating the identity of the living in time.” That is an opinion that Uran Ishnjam, a Mongolian refugee who lives in Calgary, seems to share. “I left my past with my photos,” she declared. “Now, I want to start all over again.” At the same time, that new beginning also involves photography. “One of my first purchases here was a $17 camera,” she said. “I wanted to fix my daughter’s development, her personality, as she grew, in pictures.”

For much of the world, photography has become as familiar as an old pair of sturdy shoes – and just as necessary. “The camera is an essential part of life,” said Olive Dawson, a former professional photographer who has retired to Dartmouth, N.S. “It’s something everybody can do. People go on trips and they bring back memories – of that sun in Bermuda, or whatever.” For many, photography is even more than that. Aubrey Kyte is a retired airline pilot who lives in Montreal. He said he is glad that he can now devote himself full time to taking pictures. “It’s an obsession with me,” he said. “I will sit down anywhere and talk about two things – flying and photography.” According to Jane Corkin, who runs a commercial fine-art photo gallery in Toronto, photography’s allure is based on the fact that it is “a democratic medium – nonelitist.” Added Corkin: “It crosses all boundaries. It describes the human condition and it speaks to people in a very direct way. As the world gets smaller, that is very important.” Richard Graburn, director of the Nickle Arts Museum at the University of Calgary, has another view. “People are not frightened by it,” he said.

Some would dispute that opinion. Anthropologist Edmund Carpenter of New York City’s Rock Foundation recalled photographing natives in New Guinea, people who not only had never seen a camera before, but who lacked mirrors or any other kind of reflecting devices. When he showed them pictures of themselves, said Carpenter, “suddenly they could see themselves, and when you see yourself for the first time, it’s very frightening. You think your soul is outside of you, like your shadow. They would cover their mouths in self-conciousness. Mouths and speech are the self, the source of intelligence and identity, and they wanted to prevent the self from escaping. They would stamp one foot in fear and turn away in embarrassment.” For his part, Asen Balikci, an anthropology professor at the University of Montreal, experienced something similar – although more frightening – when he tried to film the Danikil people of Ethiopia. “They hated it,” he said. “They thought it was soulstealing. They were afraid that the camera might capture their souls and that the owner of the picture would be able to control their souls. Their rejection was brutal. They became very violent and we had to abandon it.”

  • It is not only primitives who fear photography. The medium is powerful and, like all powerful things, there are moments when it has to be treated with circumspection. Although the natives of New Guinea are in a sense light years away from most modern societies, Carpenter pointed to something that significantly narrows the distance. “We do not stick pins in pictures to do people harm,” he said, “but we can literally kill someone by sticking their image in a negative context in a newspaper.” There are none who understand the nature of that power better than photographers themselves, which may be one of the reasons why many of them are so reluctant to have their pictures taken. Henri Cartier-Bresson, for one, says that he hates it to the point where he once physically attacked a photographer who was about to take his picture.
  • Sometimes the pressures are more subtle, as in advertising. Some industry observers have noted a new trend in advertising photography that appeals to some but which others find vaguely disturbing. “The products are hidden, or out of focus, or not even appearing in the photographs,” said Anthony Jazzar, art director of Flare magazine. “They contain a certain amount of information about the product, but the mood and the image created are what is really important.” The mood is frequently erotic: one advertising photograph for women’s hosiery portrays nothing but a naked woman’s legs upon a bed. It is a testament to photography’s power that, while technically a visual phenomenon, it still manages to arouse other sensations. Fred Bird understands the phenomenon well. He is a Toronto-based photographer specializing in shooting food advertisements. Said Bird: “Food itself touches all the senses – it is erotic. And the hardest thing is to touch all of those senses in a photo, so you can hear the bacon sizzle.”

That is precisely what a photograph is capable of accomplishing. If the hand wielding the camera is skilful, if the eye behind the lens is astute, a photograph can make bacon sizzle. It can hear a laugh, touch a tear, summon a memory. A century and a half after Louis Daguerre seized the light, the magic is still there.

PHOTO : HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON The Banks of the Marne (1938). Known as the father of photojournalism, Cartier-Bresson was a pioneer in the use of small cameras to record stark reality.

PHOTO : ALFRED STIEGLITZ The Steerage (1907). In one of the most famous pictures ever taken, Stieglitz marvellously evoked the contrast between the rich and poor aboard a steamship bound for Paris.

PHOTO : JACQUES-HENRI LARTIGUE Bibi in the New Restaurant of Eden Roc, Cap d’Antibes (1920). A painter by profession, Lartigue is better known for his intimate snapshots and portraits – many of them in delicate, nocturnal colors – of his family and friends in the childhood of the century.

PHOTO : IRVING PENN Italian Still Life (1981). One of America’s most imaginative photogrphers, Penn is known for his variety of styles. This cool and whimsical arrangement, like many of his still lifes, borders on surrealism and displays all of his intense and scrupulous vision.

PHOTO : BERENICE ABBOT Traveling Tin Shop. Ohio-born Abbott became a highly regarded portraitist of Paris celebrities. In the 1930s, she chronicled bitter-sweet street scenes in New York City.

PHOTO : JOE ROSENTHAL Flag-Raising on Iwo Jima (1945). After one of the most vicious battles of the Pacific war, U.S. marines raised the American flag on top of Mount Suribachi. Joe Rosenthal’s record of that dramatic event became the most widely reproduced photograph of its time.

PHOTO : BOB LANDRY Rita Hayworth (1941). In another aspect of the war, pin-ups boosted morale among the troops. This memorable favorite appeared in Life.

PHOTO : BOB JACKSON Millions saw it on live TV, but the record that lingers in the mind is this still photo – the graven image of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin of President John F. Kennedy, in the basement of the Dallas police building on Nov. 24, 1963.

PHOTO : BORIS SPREMO Pierre Trudeau, settling into his office after his election victory on Feb. 20, 1980, found time for some fun and games before resuming his work.

PHOTO : CHARLES MOORE The civil rights movement of the 1960s produced some of the most provocative and heart-wrenching photographs of the decade. This violent incident occurred on May 17, 1963, in Birmingham, Ala., after Sheriff Eugene (Bull) Conner ordered an attack on peace marchers.

PHOTO : LARRY BURROWS One of the greatest combat photographers of all time took this horrifying 1966 picture of a wounded soldier reaching out to help a fallen comrade.

PHOTO : WILLIAM ANDERS Earthrise (1969). Astronaut Anders, who was circling the moon in Apollo 8, put the world in a haunting new perspective from the cold darkness of space.

The Photography of Julia Margaret Cameron

Herb Greer is a contributing editor to the Arts section of The World & I.

Photographer Julia Margaret Cameron won the praise of the British artistic and intellectual elite through her classic, nineteenth-century iconographic images of the great and the good.

Amateur photography is taken for granted today. Anyone can point a camera, see a picture through the viewfinder, press a little button, and the camera clicks and winds. You finish the roll, have it developed and printed, and the brightly colored prints are delivered to you across the counter. There is little sense of process from object to image.


It is not easy to cast the imagination back almost two centuries, when the creation of a photograph was messy (in fact poisonous, involving potassium cyanide); it was also long, laborious, and–where portraits were concerned–the necessarily lengthy exposure times often made it a hit-and-miss affair. The results were usually stagy, somewhat stiff images produced by a photographer who had first to mix a stew of chemicals and collodion, spread it carefully and evenly over a thin glass plate, insert this into a large box camera, and expose it, not for fractions of a second but for minutes, while the plate was still wet. It was developed with a solution of pyrogallic acid, with cyanide used to remove any excess. The fragile negative was then printed. In such circumstances it was surprising that many photographs of any kind survived, let alone those that can be considered works of art today.

In 1864 Julia Margaret Cameron, the Anglo-Indian wife of an official in British India, wrote to her friend, the famous astronomer Sir John Herschel:

  • “At the beginning of this year I first took up Photography ie my kind and loving son Charles Norman gave me a Camera and I set to work alone & unassisted to see what I could do.”
  • “All thro’ the severe month of January I felt my way literally in the dark thro’ endless failures, at last came endless successes! May I not call them so?”

It was the beginning of one of the most remarkable artistic careers in Victorian England. Without training, without any but the most rudimentary sense of what she was about but full of enthusiasm and dedication, Mrs. Cameron plunged into the dangerous complexities of early wet-plate photography and soon proved that she had a sensitive and wonderfully skillful way with the clumsy equipment of the time.

Her talent was not always given the recognition it deserved. When she sent twenty-three examples of her work to the Scottish Society’s ninth annual exhibition, photographic critics of the time sneered at her “out of focus portraits of celebrities” and added a patronizing note: “We are sorry to speak thus severely on the works of a lady, but we feel compelled to do so in the interests of art.”

Visitors to the J. Paul Getty Museum had their own opportunity to see the absurdity of those remarks. The exhibition Julia Margaret Cameron, Photographer, mounted at the United Kingdom’s National Portrait Gallery and Yorkshire’s National Museum of Photography, Film and Television earlier this year, was shown at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles from last October 21 until January 11, 2004.

Given Cameron’s reputation as a giant in the history of photography, the exhibition was at first sight something of an anticlimax. The pictures are a peculiar brownish sepia and often seem either strangely theatrical or mannered in the style of sentimental Victorian paintings. Many of them show young children, apparently annoyed or bored, looking into the middle distance and longing to be somewhere else, anywhere but in a photographic studio.

On closer examination, one comes to understand that he is looking through the eye of an artist who on the one hand was deeply influenced by the literature and the Pre-Raphaelite painters of the day and on the other had an uncanny knack for capturing both the personality of her famous contemporaries and an aura of their powerful reputations. The exhibition, at first glance no more than a collection of the relatively small sepia prints we associate with the mid-nineteenth century, is distinguished by an astonishingly wide range of effects, emotions, visual echoes from other media, and sensitivity to the peculiarly human qualities of her subjects–often enhanced by her skill in creating deliberately iconic images drawn from literature and painting.

The oval portrait of Alice Liddell, the model for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, exudes an atmosphere of fantasy and half-submergence in a dream; it projects more the Alice of Carroll’s book than a flesh-and- blood young girl. The effect, paradoxically, is at the same time highly calculated–Alice pensive and nestling her head into a background of thick and flowering foliage.

Other portraits, like the likeness of the actress Ellen Terry (entitled, in Victorian fashion, Sadness), have a curiously modern air; looking at the picture carefully, one can discern an unmistakably hard edge in the character of what appears at first glance to be a mere snapshot of a beautiful young girl in a skimpy blouse idly fingering her necklace and thinking of nothing in particular.


Cameron was an enthusiastic producer of amateur theatricals in Victorian style, and this flair shows in many of her pictures, giving them the quality of tableaux rather than simple photographs. Some of the pictures are overtly theatrical, with Tennyson’s son Lionel (an enthusiastic amateur actor) costumed in the role of the Marquis de St. Cast, or Cameron’s friend Val Prinsep, got up in tights and a plumed cap as Henry VIII. A Study of King David might be found in the pages of a Victorian Bible; Hypatia, in a clearly Pre-Raphaelite costume, or Isabel Bateman, to our eye like the ghost of an ancient Greek caryatid caught by the camera lens (an illusion, of course: the exposures of the time lasted minutes, and the figures had to be carefully posed).

Sometimes the necessity for long exposures led to a slight fuzzing of the subject, as in A Study After the Manner of Francia, with only a still bunch of flowers in the foreground in sharp focus. It is a mark of Cameron’s peculiar gift that even such an image projects an uncanny and evocative atmosphere.

Sometimes her powerful portraits of famous contemporaries drew wry comments from their subjects. Thomas Carlyle remarked that his portrait in Cameron’s Hall of Fame series made him look “like a mad labourer.” Her friend Alfred Lord Tennyson, of whom she made several portraits on her Isle of Wight studio, labeled one of them The Dirty Monk–an extraordinary profile image seen in this exhibition. Another, a full- face image taken in 1866, shows Tennyson’s features teetering on the fine edge of coarseness but exuding an intensity and power associated with a great poet in those days.

Among the most impressive and startling portraits in this show are the images of Sir John Herschel, who had discovered how to fix prints with hyposulfite of soda, or “hypo,” and coined the word photography. It is recorded that Cameron, perhaps to enhance the penetrating intimacy of the portrait, insisted on mussing Herschel’s hair before he posed. In one of these portraits, The Astronomer, taken in 1867, the use of soft focus to capture Herschel’s harshly lined features and alert gaze brings out a spontaneous and eloquent image of a man whose spirit is grounded in other worlds.

Cameron hoped for financial success from her work, but the expense of the complex process always defeated this ambition. Adverse criticism did not help. She did, however, have her admirers, who spoke of her avoiding the cliched manner of sharply outlined portraits seen “as if through opera glasses” in stilted and stale poses and offering instead “wonderful and charming sights and suggestions.”

Some of these images, like the 1875 Maud, taken to illustrate Tennyson’s phenomenally successful poem of the day, may appear sentimental and, as it were, over-Victorian to our eyes. The same might be said of Gretchen, King Lear allotting his kingdom to his three daughters, and other tableaux drawn from literature, such as King Ahaserus & Queen Esther in Apocrypha. But, whatever the response of today’s (perhaps) cold eye, these literary scenes bear ample testimony to the skill developed by Cameron in her obsessive pursuit of what for her time was an unusual and personal vision.

Given the inescapably long exposures required for her work, Cameron displayed an amazing success with her portraits of children. These did not always work out; she tells of one exposure ruined when the children broke their pose with a burst of laughter. But those that did–among them Two Little Girls Wearing Hats, Earnest and Maggie, A Child’s Head: “Little Bee,” and her curious images of very young children got up as angels–are remarkable testimonies to Cameron’s flair for the curious religious and literary conventions of the day and her ability to translate them into visual terms. These images, brilliantly conceived and executed, must be seen in the context of her own time, not with cynical, twenty-first-century eyes. Like all the best art, they require an effort of imagination from the viewer.

Other pictures, such as Iago, study from an Italian–actually a portrait of a professional model, Angelo Colarossi–or the studies of her husband Charles Hay Cameron, the painter G.F. Watts, and Charles Darwin, strike the eye as superb portraits that would fit easily into the visual conventions of any age.

It will help the viewer to have at least some acquaintance with the literary, social, and especially the poetic conventions of Cameron’s time. It is against this background that one must see a portrait like The Mountain Nymph Sweet Liberty or Lady Clara Vere de Vere, both posed by Mrs. Keene, one of Cameron’s favorite models. Victorian belief in the spiritual qualities of a certain sort of woman are perfectly expressed in An Angel in the House or After the Manner of Perugino, both of which might appear to the jaded modern eye as simple snapshots of rather weary ladies who have been pressed unwillingly into service as models. Two pictures of turbaned girls, both titled Beatrice Cenci, seem at first no more than mildly eccentric. However, a glance into Percy Bysshe Shelly’s closet drama, The Cenci, reveals a more sinister aspect of the images; they are Cameron’s imaginative vision of the young heroine in that play who murdered her father after he raped her.

Today, when the arts are split between the fashion for abstract images that are nothing without the painter’s explanation and the demand for hard-edged clarity, these apparently modest photographs from another age seem to span both areas of sensibility. There is plenty of scope for explanation where Cameron dipped into the Bible, historical myth, or poetic drama. But on the other hand, where she reached out to her sitters and touched them directly with her own amazing talent, the result speaks to the viewer without rhetoric or description. This is largely true of her last works, scenes and natives of Ceylon–where she had spent her early years and where she returned in old age. In them she broke away from the literary and the poetic and simply recorded the lives and faces among which she had been brought up.

Even in this simple endeavor, however, her outstanding flair for the humanity of her subjects remained intact and profound. These late pictures come alive with flesh-and-blood character and the uniqueness that she discerned in her subjects and was able to capture even with the technically slow and awkward means at her disposal.

The scope and qualities of Cameron’s images are rarely matched in the contemporary art scene; they display none of the irony, sarcasm, and half-seriousness that scar so much new work today. This work is, in a word, serious without being pompous, pretentious, or overbearing. In this respect it is so unusual, so satisfying, and so completely valid as art that only the most obtuse or impenetrably sour viewer can fail to be enchanted by it.

An Artistic Bottom Line

Art dealers find new ways to fuel sales

When Toronto businessman Ted Simon moved into his first house 25 years ago, he had little money left over for pictures to brighten it up. But he says that the bare walls bothered him so much that he decided to create his own art. Using wallpaper, aluminum foil and dried flowers, he made an image that he says “stayed hanging over the couch for a long time.” That experience convinced Simon that there was a strong demand among Canadians for reasonably priced art.


Now, Simon runs a $2-million art publishing company that he says is growing dramatically by selling so-called limited edition reproductions of original art. The popularity of such reproductions, which are signed and numbered, is a clear indication of the growing appetite among consumers for original art and high-quality reproductions. Said Hamilton art consultant Karen Mills: “More and more yuppies think art is the cat’s pajamas. It’s part of having something better than their parents had.”

Record-setting prices at the world’s leading art auction houses have made headlines in the past year (then, there were the best acoustic guitar sold at the price of $500,000, which was considered to be a phenomenal event last year), but Canadians of more modest means are also buying art in unprecedented numbers, many for the first time. Records show that the average value of a painting sold in Canada has increased by 300 per cent in the past 10 years, with much of that increase coming in the past five years. Said Andrew Sylvester, director of the Equinox Gallery in Vancouver: “Growth in the last few years has been astonishing.” To take advantage of that burgeoning demand, sellers are using a variety of new marketing techniques to promote their products. Galleries have become more specialized, targeting customers by restricting their offerings to particular areas of interest, including native, regional or folk art. High-quality photographic reproductions, such as those sold by Simon, have become a $20-million-a-year business in Canada, up from almost nothing a decade ago.

Still, selling art is not easy. Artists, gallery owners and art consultants struggle constantly to increase the public’s awareness about the art that is available for sale. To help overcome the sense of intimidation that sometimes discourages new buyers, lunches, cocktail parties and other social events in support of artists are becoming more frequent. Art rental programs, which give neophyte buyers an opportunity to try out a painting before deciding to keep it, are becoming more popular. But once bitten with the art-buying bug, purchasers seem to become addicted. Said Sylvester: “People are more concerned about their environment at home. In the last few years, we have noticed that they are spending more on each piece and buying more pieces. And once they get one, they start to buy more.”

Knowing what to buy, rather than cost, is the biggest hurdle for many new collectors. Mills said that, typically, they begin with conservative art and progress toward more challenging works. She added that buyers may be committed to buying what they like, but they are also concerned about receiving good value for their art dollar and are cautious about their choices. And Ian Muncaster, director of the Zwicker’s Gallery in Halifax, said that even though Canadian consumers are becoming more sophisticated because of better education and increased international travel, “representational art is still what sells to the mainstream art purchaser in Canada.”


A growing number of buyers are renting before they buy, in an effort to avoid mistakes before making a major financial commitment. The Art Gallery of Ontario has offered an art rental program since 1964, but in recent years the number of patrons using the service has increased dramatically. Clients may rent for up to six months at prices ranging from $6 to $110 per month. As an incentive to buy, part of the rental cost can be applied against the purchase price. Most of the works are contemporary Canadian art, including many abstracts. Said gallery volunteer Marjorie Lenz: “We encourage people to live with a painting first, to see how it fits into their environment–and to see how much grief they get.”

Whether buyers of art know what they are buying and are receiving good value remains a matter of controversy, especially in the market for photographically reproduced limited editions. Critics argue that the public frequently mistakes such reproductions for true original prints, or lithographs, which are usually produced individually by the artist and which may require several months’ work. When the edition is completed, the plates used to make the prints are usually destroyed, making further prints impossible and preserving the value of the existing prints. Photographically made reproductions, on the other hand, are made mechanically and large quantities can be produced quickly. They are signed and numbered, as are handmade prints, and are called “limited editions” because the photographic plate and film used in their reproduction is destroyed.

The enormous success of such reproductions is due partly to their issue price–typically between $200 and $700–and the huge popularity of the artists whose works are reproduced. Les Tait is a Toronto-based water-colorist who is known for his unpretentious images of Toronto street scenes. His paintings have been collected by the City of Toronto as well as several corporations. But Tait, who is married with one child, said that he still needs to supplement his income by authorizing the photographic reproduction of his paintings in limited editions. Tait said that the technique is a “good way for artists to gain an audience for their art–and that is the hardest thing for an artist to do.” Added Tait, who produces only about 10 paintings a year, and whose exhibitions usually sell out quickly: “This way, everyone can get the one they like.”


Simon defends the technique, adding that buyers of his company’s reproductions are informed about what they are buying and that the resale value of copies made from popular works often climbs into the thousands. Said Simon: “It makes normally unaffordable art affordable.” Yuppies are his biggest clients, Simon said.

Large corporations have also noticed the potential of photographically made limited editions. The consortium building Toronto’s new domed sports stadium, including Trilon Financial Corp., has commissioned a painting of the Dome by Tait. A series of limited edition copies, published by Simon Art Ltd., will be sold for about $300 each at the Dome site, with the proceeds to be donated to charity.

Still, many artists, dealers and consultants agree that the old rule, “I may not know much about art, but I know what I like,” remains a reliable one for most buyers of art. Said Tait: “Art should be a personal experience. You should only hang something on your wall if you are drawn to it–not because someone else tells you it’s great.” For most buyers of art, that remains good advice. Appreciation of a work’s dollar value is, for most, merely a pleasant bonus.

PHOTO : Tait: artists are eager to cash in on the growing yuppie craze for their work


–> View more: Lifetimes Under Apartheid




January 2011

Bountiful Cancon here, including an eight-page portfolio of photographs of the pride of Ladysmith, B.C., Canada’s Centennial Year Babe, Pamela Anderson. Mind, these aren’t new pics of Pammy, rather supposedly “never-before-seen nudes” from the early 1990s. The inspirational text that accompanies the pictures, however, is fresh from her PC: “I’m sending love and fire to everyone who reads this…. Do something so giving and truthful today.” Uh, sure.


Pamela Anderson, however, isn’t the reason Canadians will be buying this issue. No, the lure here is Toronto-born architect Frank Gehry, who’s the subject of the Playboy Interview. The Interview used to be a much sought-after platform for politicians, performers, activists and authors – Betty Friedan, Miles Davis, Jimmy Carter, Jean-Paul Sartre and Malcolm X all found their way there – but with the waning of Playboy’s fortunes in the last two decades, the Interview has lost much of its cachet. So it’s a bit of a surprise to find a dude as major as Gehry submitting to the Q&A. The conversation isn’t going to make headlines; nevertheless, it reveals that Gehry, at 81, is as sharp as ever.


January 2011

Former Torontonian and Calgarian, con man and novelist, philosophy professor and alcoholic, Clancy Martin bears a fair amount of his soul here in an absorbing 11-page memoir on his involvement with Alcoholics Anonymous. Martin, who now teaches in Kansas City, isn’t an A.A. novice. “Like some people grow up Southern Baptist or Orthodox Jew,” he writes, “I was raised Alcoholics Anonymous” in that his father was an A.A. regular as was his stepfather. In fact, when Martin was 4, his mother left his father to marry his dad’s best friend and A.A. sponsor.


Unsurprisingly then, Martin has conflicted feelings about A.A.., not least what he sees as its problematic attempt to cast alcoholism as both existential choice and “a sort of manageable disease,” like diabetes or a peanut allergy. Still, A.A. works, he declares – not on its own, mind you, or at least not for Martin, who confesses to seeing a psychiatrist and daily ingesting pharmaceuticals such as Valium and lithium. “The Drunk’s Club” is likely going to generate controversy not just for its honesty but for its violation of the A.A. canons of “personal anonymity” and “what’s said at A.A., stays in A.A.”


Dec. 2010/Jan. 2011

Until the Second World War, Paris was the capital of the international art scene. Then, with the rise of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, New York claimed the title – a ranking it holds, more or less, to this day. Now, though, Los Angeles seems to be mounting a challenge to the Manhattan-Brooklyn axis as “the next capital of contemporary art.” Or so New York-based Interview asserts here in an impressive 20-page showcase of sundry movers and shakers in the El-Lay scene.

Used to be when a magazine surveyed art in Los Angeles, it invariably cued up the likes of Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari and the late Edward Kienholz. While they get nods here, Interview, blessedly, focuses on names and faces less familiar. Like 75-year-old “mixed-media artist/bohemian pioneer” George Herms and Canadian expatriate/”conceptual art photographer” Davida Nemeroff, 29, who earlier this year opened a happening space, Night Gallery, in “a run-down Lincoln Heights strip mall surrounded by taco stalls.” Also featured is Jeffrey Deitch, whose transformation from hard-core SoHo gallerist to director of L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art is deemed emblematic of the changes afoot.

The New Yorker

Dec. 20 & 27, 2010

Astonishing! The Peace Corps turns 51 in March, and here I was thinking that somehow it had been vaporized during the Dubya era. Admittedly, as New Yorker staffer Peter Hessler writes in his substantial profile of Peace Corps lobbyist Rajeev Goyal, the agency now “sends fewer than 60 per cent as many people abroad as it did in 1966,” the Corp’s high-water mark. By 2008 its annual budget was $342-million, “less than what the federal government spent on military bands.”

Enter Goyal, a Long Island native, law student at New York University, former pre-med student at Brown University and an ex-Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal. Two years ago, he was tasked with going to Washington to boost the Corp’s budget and thereby expand its operations. Indeed, in 2009, the budget was hiked to $400-million, a record increase all the more impressive, observes Hessler, since it occurred “despite partisanship in Congress and a brutal economic climate.” Hessler’s feature is largely the story of Goyal’s resourcefulness, a resourcefulness not without its critics, especially congressional aides who dislike the way Goyal disrupts their day-to-day affairs.


Candid camera focused on past: Eileen Galer’s images recall mountaineers

Eileen Gardner Galer proves that you’re never too old to begin. After all, this photographer and published author didn’t see her first book in print before she was 86.

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A native of Charlotte, N.C., Mrs. Galer, 92, has penned five books and contributed photographs for the series “Photography at the Turn of the Century,” published by Five Corners Publications Ltd. several years ago.

She chats clearly about the history she witnessed over the past century – the passing of horse-and-buggy transportation, the fears raised over Alexander Graham Bell’s invention, the advent of space travel and one of her favorite subjects – the kind, gentle people of Appalachia.

I’m of the firm intention that the amateur photographer should consider himself [a] historian of his time and place because you can so easily miss the things that are important and are gone after a bit,” says Mrs. Galer, who lives in Arlington.

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To preserve the past, she started taking pictures and jotting down dialects on her note pad as a youngster. Her family bought her first camera with Octagon soap coupons.

She combined her love of photography and prose to write books about real people, places and loyal pets that span a century.

One of her favorite novellas, included in her book “Just Folks (Here and There)” introduces readers to a proud and gracious group of country people whom she befriended. The folks lived in the Appalachian Mountains near Asheville, N.C. – their simple lifestyle and log-cabin houses are gone.

“I hope now that the century is ending, people will look back to the people who were there and remember them. Nobody speaks the dialect anymore. I went back two years ago, and only one log cabin remains, and it’s falling to ruins. So the picturesqueness is gone, but I was able to be historian of my time and place,” Mrs. Galer says.

Those people didn’t have any education, but they were fabulous folks. They were so individual. I just wanted to preserve them.”

Her father, Frank Gardner, an optometrist in Asheville, delighted the young Mrs. Galer with stories about the interesting people who would venture into town to be fitted for glasses, she says.

Eventually, an acquaintance introduced Mrs. Galer to a charming elderly woman who lived at the top of a mountain. Her newfound friend became a character named “Aunt Titia” in “Just Folks” and is one of Mrs. Galer’s favorite personalities.

I was friendly, and she enjoyed the company, and I was a listening ear,” Mrs. Galer says. “Her family were all hard-working, so she and I became friends immediately. She’s a gem; I’m so glad that I could save her.”

Mrs. Galer graduated from George Washington University in 1929. Shortly after graduation, she married Charles Galer, now deceased. The couple built their home in Arlington in 1938, when it still was a rural area.

An unexpected house guest led her down another trail with her photography. “We moved into the house and had a visitor in the shape of a big, handsome male cat. He came to the door and welcomed us into the neighborhood. He stayed so long, we had to get in touch with the Humane Society,” she says.

Since then, Mrs. Galer has worked at the Arlington Animal Welfare League. Initially, she photographed animals that had been mistreated. One of her assignments involved a horse that wasn’t properly housed.

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A racehorse was put in a shed and was unable to raise its head. the Arlington humane officer went out and handled the case, and I took the pictures,” she says.

Mrs. Galer’s work with the league also put her in touch with children. When she was in charge of the league’s public relations office, she showed slides and talked to schoolchildren about their pets.

Their mothers reported that the pets had taken on a new status – the children weren’t as neglectful, and they appreciated their pets more,” she says.

In one of her books, “God Barking in Church: And Further Glimpses of Animal Welfare,” Mrs. Galer engages readers with a collection of black-and-white photos that she developed in her kitchen after midnight on moonless nights. It depicts her years in animal welfare and is chock-full of kittens, puppies, ducks and even frogs. The book’s curious title is explained in the opening pages.

“After an emergency call that a dog was disturbing choir practice, a dyslexic animal shelter attendant wrote in the office log that the Almighty himself was making the ruckus,” Mrs. Galer writes.

She loves a good story and still writes for the Photographic Society of America.

All in all, “it’s been a wonderful century what mankind has been able to do, if only he can eliminate his wars,” the congenial author says.

Eau Claire man photographs vast array of creatures

Oct. 08–Jim Backus has tangible proof of his personal encounter with a grizzly bear. “I literally could have reached out and touched his nose,” said Backus, 66, who lives east of Eau Claire. The incident occurred during his 2008 trip to Princess Royal Island, one of several islands off the north-central coast of British Columbia, Canada. He was sitting with a tour guide and five other photographers when the grizzly came a few feet away and sniffed at their rubber boat. Backus took aim through the 50mm lens of his Canon camera — he normally uses a lens with greater focal length — and shot a close-up of tiny brown eyes peering from the bear’s massive furry face. He has made five trips to British Columbia, the first in 2007. Although he enjoys photographing grizzly bears, his real target is the spirit bear.

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Part of his love for the majestic animal — a white variant of the North American black bear — is its rarity. National Geographic magazine put the population at 400 to up to 1,000 in its August 2011 issue; other sources estimate there are less than 400. “I’ve seen 20 of them. Just think of the privilege of that,” Backus said. He wrote an article on spirit bears that will appear in an upcoming issue of the Photographic Society of America Journal. Backus’ studio, a renovated barn in the backyard of his town of Seymour home, displays images of fields, flora and fauna. “I try to share my love for nature and the world we live in through my photographs,” he said.


He has collaborated with area writers on children’s books. He also self-published collections of photos from his travels, ranging from the Rocky Mountains to Lake Superior, Baja Mexico to Canada’s Northwest Territory and British Columbia. The lifelong Eau Claire area resident also focuses his viewfinder close to home. “I’ve photographed owls in my backyard and got as excited about seeing them as spirit bears in British Columbia. … We have so many things to see here in Wisconsin nobody should be bored in their whole life,” he said. Photography has been a hobby since he was 16, but he only began doing it professionally in 2004. “I just wanted people to enjoy what I’m doing because I’m seeing things most people can’t spend time and money to visit, like the spirit bear,” Backus said. In his studio, myriad photographs hang on walls or lean against easels. He reproduces digital images on archival paper and canvas, using a printer and computer software. He sends photos elsewhere to be printed on shiny acrylic or aluminum.

The photos depict a virtual animal kingdom: lynx, bighorn sheep, fox, red-tailed hawk, cardinal, eagle, bison, cougar, wolf, river otter, skunk, bobcat, deer, wild horse, badger, raccoon, owl, Karner blue butterfly, prairie dog, squirrel and — of course — bear. “The spirit bears are my real love, but it’s two days by airplane to get there,” Backus said. His images offer glimpses into animals’ lives: Three cubs play while an adult wolf watches. An eagle rises from water with a fish clutched in its claws. A bison walks through snow followed by her calf, born two hours before he took the picture. A minute before the birth, seven wolves walked within 5 feet of the mother, he said. “They don’t bother bison. They’re smarter than that.” When photographing animals, patience is key, Backus said. To capture images of the endangered Karner blue butterfly in Necedah, it took a month of walking and looking before he found the newly hatched creatures.

He might wait all day for one shot. “You don’t want to put pressure on animals,” he said. “Every animal knows you’re there, everything from a butterfly to a grizzly bear. Leave them alone, and they’ll play or do other things.” Backus also enjoys landscapes: A rainbow descends from a cloud north of Jackson Hole, Wyo. A dock and rowboats are lit by sunrise. Red and gold trees stand out against the bluish Teton Mountains. Lighting is one of the big challenges in shooting outdoors, Backus said, because he relies on natural light.


You spend hours looking for the correct light so you can get that shot of a lifetime. They call it chasing the light.” He avoids one subject: “I shoot anything that is interesting except for people. People ask me to photograph weddings. I won’t. I’m not interested in that.” His work ranges from $95 to $1,800. Backus became interested in the spirit bear after watching a Public Broadcasting Service show in 2001. About 10 percent of the black bears in British Columbia are born white — actually off-white with a golden tinge — because of a recessive gene. “I said, man, someday I want to go see that and I finally did,” Backus said. The animals live almost exclusively in Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest, located along the north and central coast of British Columbia. Backus reached Princess Royal Island after two days of air travel and another 200 miles of sailing along the coast. He returns from his adventures with thousands of images. “The day of the digital camera has made it so easy for us.” No human being has lived on Royal Princess Island for hundreds of years. According to the legend of area Indian nations, their god, Raven, created the spirit bear as a reminder of the Ice Age and issued a decree that the spirit bear should live in peace forever on an island where people never have lived. Backus doesn’t worry about being near the massive creatures as he takes photos. He goes when the bears have a lot of food — when the salmon are running in the river, he said. “The last thing they’re worried about is me.” “A bear won’t bother you unless you steal their food, they’re hungry and looking at you like food, or they feel in danger or their baby is in danger. If anything like that happens, you’re in trouble.” He travels as an independent photographer to British Columbia in fall. He goes with a guide who offers trips to see spirit and grizzly bears. He recalled thinking that the first spirit bear he saw looked like a big teddy bear. His wife, Donna Wagner Backus, doesn’t accompany him on the expeditions. He goes during the rainy season, and “she doesn’t want to be a camera sherpa,” he joked. She does, however, help him with his work, including editing his books and writing his website address and photo credit on greeting cards. She taught math at DeLong Middle School and North High School but is now retired. “I love his work,” Wagner Backus said. She especially likes landscapes and floral scenes, although she also appreciates the beauty of wildlife. “So often he captures the character of the animal,” she said, so it looks like it has a personality.

Backus only hunts animals with a camera, not a gun. “I have nothing against hunting. I just never got into it.” Backus calls his business Magoo Nature Photography, a humorous nod to the cartoon character Mr. Magoo, voiced by the late actor Jim Backus. Backus also owns Mack Equipment Sales. He and a partner, Scott Wichlacz, represent and sell automotive machine shop equipment. At an age when many people are thinking about retiring, Backus started his photography business. He faced a few challenges, including learning how to use the digital camera his wife bought him for Christmas, how to use computer software to process photos and how to use a computer in the first place. “When everything went from film to digital, I didn’t know a computer from a pencil. I had to learn how to run a computer at my age. We didn’t have computers in my school,” he said. He now owns seven. Backus displays his photos at sports and travel shows, Aldo Leopold Foundation shows and Necedah National Wildlife Refuge exhibits, as well as galleries and other businesses throughout Wisconsin. His daughter, Heidi, has his photos hanging in her home, but he displays none in his own, despite his wife’s encouragement to do so: “I’ve got other nature art I’ve collected.” His photos appear in 13 books — mostly photographic stories for children, along with nature and poetry books. He also creates greeting cards. The children’s books cost $19. One deals with a family of wolves. He wants to teach children about how wolves live, he said. Another features pictures and stories of animals that correspond to alphabet letters. One book focuses on the whooping and sandhill cranes at the Necedah refuge. He now is working on a book about Wisconsin’s grasslands. One fan is Kim Wilson, a retired kindergarten teacher who lives in the town of Wilson. “Children love photos of real animals,” said Wilson, who owns several of Backus’ books.


The books teach science, math and reading skills, along with knowledge of wildlife, she said. And, she noted, “I think he’s such a wonderful photographer.” Wilson wrote a blurb for Backus’ book about wolves, “A New Pack on the Prairie“: “Jim’s photography captures the essence of our earth family. He offers us all — children and adults — the exciting opportunity to observe the amazingly beautiful, tender, and intrepid nature of our home … our earth.” Wagner Backus said the books for children were her idea as a way to get them involved in nature. “Some really great people” wrote the stories, she said.

We test-run them with the grandchildren,” she added. Backus stresses the need for people to connect with nature, especially children.

“The future of this world is based on getting kids interested in nature and their parents interested in nature, and they can bring that inside their living room through my photographs and books,” he said.

Backus, who estimates he has nearly 100,000 images stored just on his computer, isn’t ready to put down his camera. “People ask when I’m going to retire. I say when I die. I do three or four things in my life and enjoy them all,” he said. One of his goals is to photograph the Southwest. He’s always looking at — and sharing — the world around him. “You’re always looking for the next perfect shot, the one no one else has, the one everybody else wants,” he said.

Capturing Nature’s Palette : The Photography of Eliot Porter

Explorer, scientist, conservationist, and, perhaps above all, gifted photographer, Eliot Porter cataloged nature’s majesty like no one else.

True art,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “is but the expression of our love of nature.” Perhaps no artist embodies this insight more than Eliot Porter, observer of the natural world for more than half a century. “A true work of art,” Porter once said, “is the creation of love, love for the subject first and for the medium second.” His subject was nature, his medium color photography, and his images manage to combine literal description, formal beauty, and abstraction. Concerned with the intimate details of nature, they miniaturize the world, giving his work its power, appeal, and accessibility. A steady interest in detail and a startling clarity of color combine unexpectedly.


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Eliot Porter: The Color of Wildness, an exhibition organized by the Amon Carter Museum in Forth Worth, Texas, the designated repository for his photographs, offers the first in-depth assessment of Porter’s artistic legacy and his singular importance in engineering the acceptance of color landscape photography. Whether the images are of New England, the Southwest, Antarctica, Greece, or Egypt, they display a resonance and depth seldom experienced in nature photography. “The big view,” Porter once said, “conveys less information about the quality of a subject–the forces that shaped the Western landscape–than does close focusing on a particular rock, eroded cliff, or gnarled tree trunk.”

Porter was born in 1902 in Winnetka, Illinois, in a house overlooking Lake Michigan. His father took Porter and his four siblings camping and on nature walks, holding forth on geology, paleontology, astronomy, and marine biology. In the “Skokie“–Indian for marshland–near their home, he and his siblings waded through cattails, searching for birds’ nests and turtles. He would later recall how sights like the large buff eggs of a bittern on a mat of reeds gave him “intense and inexplicable pleasure.”

Porter’s love of nature was further expanded by family trips to the Grand Canyon, the Canadian Rockies, and Alaska. When the boy was eleven, his father purchased Great Spruce Head, an island off the coast of Maine in Penobscot Bay where the family subsequently spent their summers. An hour’s boat ride from the mainland, the island, like the skokie before it, became a universe. Porter used a box Brownie to photograph the birds, plants, forests, and views that would later form his life’s work.


Determined to go west on his own “to experience firsthand the appeal and romance of the vast wilderness lands and mountain ranges that lay beyond the plains,” Porter spent two summers during his studies at Harvard, traveling first by Model T and then “on the bum”–catching rides with truck drivers and on freight trains–following the stream of migratory workers from the wheat fields of the Dakotas to the lumber camps of Oregon. On graduating from Harvard with a degree in chemical engineering, he entered medical school, looking toward a career in biomedical research. After graduation he worked in the bacteriology department at Harvard as a teaching assistant.

During this time Porter became increasingly interested in photography, shooting on weekends and summer vacations, gradually building a body of work he would first show to Ansel Adams and, later, to Alfred Stieglitz. He made his first serious photographs with a Leica, the 35-millimeter camera introduced in 1924 that revolutionized photojournalism. Abstract forms in nature–details of trees and flowering plants, barnacled rock on the coast of Maine, a close-up of blueberries enlarged to the size of tennis balls–as well as street life were his early subjects.

In 1933 Porter met Adams at dinner at the home of a mutual friend. He knew nothing of Adams’ work and had the misfortune to show his photographs first. Adams followed, introducing Porter to what would be one of the few influences he acknowledged on his work. Sensing Porter’s embarrassment, Adams offered encouragement, suggesting that he use a large camera to improve his images. “Adams’ photographs took my breath away by their perfection and strength,” Porter later wrote. “Never had I seen any photographs like them.” The only image he would recall later was of a frozen lake in the Sierra Nevadas.

Porter met Stieglitz through his brother, Fairfield Porter, a painter and critic. “Once a year I went to New York with a book of photographs to show Stieglitz, who continued to give me kindly advice [he described Porter’s early prints as “wooly“] until one unforgettable day in October 1938, when, after twice looking through what I had brought, he said, ‘You have arrived. I want to show these.’ ”

Calling his exhibition at An American Place the event that changed the course of his life, Porter realized he was a better photographer than scientist, gave up his teaching appointment at the end of the year, and made the additional audacious move of working almost exclusively with color. His knowledge of photography was still sparse. Porter recalled hearing of Camera Work but never seeing a copy; he knew the work of Paul Strand and Edward Steichen but was unfamiliar with most other artists active during this period. Freed by family money to find his own course, he showed a disregard for trends and an absence of response to commercial markets that favored his experimentation with color.

Introduced in 1906 with the autochrome process, color was first made popular by Alvin Langdon Coburn, Baron de Meyer, and Frederick Evans. The process proved to be short-lived; glass transparencies didn’t lend themselves to exhibition, and facsimile prints had to be made on a printing press or in a scientific laboratory. Advances in the 1920s and ’30s made color photography more practical, leading to Porter’s own experimentation.

Porter began working with Kodachrome transparencies, from which he made prints in wash-off relief, later marketed under the “dye-transfer” label. Working with a color transparency, he made three black-and-white separation negatives. From these, three positives were made, one for each of the three secondary colors–cyan, magenta, and yellow–which were superimposed to realize the final dye-transfer print. In the three-color, dye-transfer process he found color could be controlled, just as one manipulated tonal values in a black-and-white print to enhance the photographer’s interpretation.

In 1939 Porter spent the winter in New Mexico, “a land that gets into one’s blood and bones,” photographing adobe buildings, the landscape and churches, and desert birds. He found himself drawn to the landscape’s sparse beauty, sharp outlines, and “unaffected simplicity.”


In 1941 he was awarded a Guggenheim grant to photograph certain species of birds in color, a project, like his interest in New Mexico, that was soon put on hold by World War II. He moved back to Cambridge where he worked at MIT helping develop radar. After the war, Porter and his family made a permanent move to Santa Fe.

His Guggenheim grant renewed in 1949, he completed his work on birds and began making graphic equivalents of specific sections of Thoreau’s writings. While he traveled East to photograph actual Thoreau haunts, he also included images culled from Maine, New Mexico, and other landscapes. Published in 1962, In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World paired photographs with selected quotes from the philosopher and naturalist.

I hoped to be able to complement in feeling and spirit Thoreau’s thinking one hundred years ago,” Porter wrote in his preface. While Stieglitz’s equivalents, the series of cloud pictures made in 1920s, represented obscure, inner feelings, Porter’s pictures are straightforward representations of his personal experience with nature. And powerful ones they were, at that.n

Eliot Porter: The Color of Wildness, is on view at the National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C., through July 27, 2003; the Orlando (Florida) Museum of Art, September 6–November 23, 2003; and the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art, January 22–April 4, 2004.

Judith Bell writes on the arts from Arlington, Virginia.

Eudora Welty as Photographer: A Passionate Observer

Eudora Welty became known to America and the world mostly because of her writings. At least four volumes of her short stories have been published, as well as five novels, including The Robber Bridegroom, Delta Wedding, The Ponder Heart, and Losing Battles. Probably her best- known work is The Optimist’s Daughter, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize. Her short stories appeared in numerous magazines, including The Southern Review, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Bazaar, The New Yorker, and others. She was among the most honored of American writers, winning such awards as the National Medal for Literature, the National Institute of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for the Novel, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She received numerous honorary degrees for her literary work, and she taught and lectured at many colleges and universities.

-> View more: A world of their own: photographs evoke the mystery of childhood

What has been less well known is that Eudora Welty was also a photographer, and a quite good one at that. In fact, her work in photography preceded her writing, and what she learned in making her photographs as well as the attitudes and style she used all fed into and were mirrored in the style and interests she brought to her writing. In her autobiography One Writer’s Beginnings (1984), she wrote, “Life doesn’t hold still,” and “Photography taught me that to be able to capture transience, by being ready to click the shutter at the crucial moment, was the greatest need I had.” This is the same point made by the late world-renowned French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson in his declaration that photography is based on capturing what he called “the decisive moment.”

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Mississippi roots

Eudora Welty was born April 13, 1909, in Jackson, Mississippi. Although she traveled widely and held many lecturing and teaching posts, she remained a lifelong resident of Jackson, returning to her parents’ house; she died in that city on July 23, 2001. Her father was an insurance executive from Ohio and her mother–an avid and passionate reader–was from West Virginia. Eudora left home for a year of college at the Mississippi State College for Women and then attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison and received a degree there. After that she went for a year of business school at Columbia University in New York City. Those were the years of the Great Depression, and she went back to Jackson to live with her parents, who were well-off enough that Welty would later write in One Writer’s Beginnings, “I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. [But] A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.”

Welty’s father “loved all instruments that would instruct and fascinate” and this seems to have been passed on to his daughter. She loved time and clocks, travel, and telescopes and cameras. Her father had a camera that he used to record his travels, his wife, and special occasions with his family, and this provoked in Eudora a visual sense and a love of photography.

Welty had a coterie of Jackson friends and acquaintances who were artists themselves, so she was not without people who shared her concern for visual arts. At first she used the camera mostly for entertainment, but about 1929 she began to think of photography in more aesthetic terms as something she could use to fulfill her artistic ambitions.

She began with a Kodak camera with bellows and used it to snap pictures of the people of Mississippi. As she became more deeply involved in photography, she purchased first a Recomar and then a Rolleiflex camera. (Years later in an inattentive moment she would leave her Rolleiflex on a metro train in Paris. This loss and her response to it ended her work in photography.) In the early 1930s, she began to think of photography as a means by which she might earn her living.

By 1934, after she had seen but disliked–because of the sentimentality of its pictures–Doris Ulmann’s book Roll, Jordan, Roll with its pictures of African Americans, Welty had prepared a book of her own photographs. Her friend Hubert Creekmore, a novelist and poet, urged her to wait to send it to publishers because he wanted her to include some pictures of a ballgame and a baptizing. But Welty rejected that advice because, she said, “I am afraid somebody else will get out something like it or the publishers or the public will become saturated with photography books.”

Throughout the 1930s, Welty worked at various jobs: She was with radio station WJDX; she worked with the WPA, and she produced stories for the Mississippi Advertising Commission. In all those jobs, in addition to taking pictures required for her jobs, Welty continued taking pictures for herself. In 1936 a one-woman exhibition of Welty’s photographs was presented in New York City at Lugene Opticians’ Photographic galleries. These pictures were primarily of the lives of black people in Mississippi. A second exhibition, again in New York, was held in March, 1937, at The Camera House. This included some pictures of churchyards and of white people in Mississippi. Welty had also done a series of graveyard and tombstone pictures, and some of these too were included.

In 1933, Welty and Creekmore took pictures for the Jackson Junior Auxiliary, but they found this work boring. In 1936 Welty applied for a photographer’s position with the Resettlement Administration–this was one of the Roosevelt-era New Deal programs set up to help alleviate the hardships of the depression–but instead got only a short-term job as a junior publicity agent for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), through which she occasionally got to take photographs to publicize WPA projects; work she found tedious and unfulfilling. In 1937 Life magazine rejected her tombstone pictures and what the editor called her “Negro Holiness Church Story,” but then published six of her pictures in its November 8, 1937, issue and another in its issue of January 17, 1938. These pictures dealt with the tragedy of a Mt. Olive, Mississippi, doctor and another doctor who was making a campaign against tuberculosis.

Welty’s first story, “Death of a Traveling Salesman,” was published in a little magazine in 1936. Welty herself explained her transition from photography to writing in remarks she made to Hermione Lee: “I had to go to fiction from photographing. That’s the only way you can really part the veil between people, not in images but in what comes from inside, in both subject and writer.”

A non-intrusive stance

Probably the best known woman photographer at the time was photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White, who was first hired by Fortune magazine in 1929 and then moved on to Life and became one of its first photographers when it began in 1935. Bourke-White became internationally known, taking photographs of Gandhi in India, of Stalin in Russia, and of other figures throughout the world. But Bourke-White’s way of working was significantly different form Welty’s. In 1937 Bourke-White published a book of photographs from the South, including Mississippi, entitled You Have Seen Their Faces, with text by Erskine Caldwell, who later became her husband. Caldwell has described Bourke-White’s working method: “She was in charge of everything, manipulating people and telling them where to sit and where to look and what not. She was very adept at being able to direct people. She was almost like a motion picture director.” Bourke-White herself described her work in a black church: “We decided to slip lightly equipped into the Holiness church after the sermon was started. Mr. Caldwell with his pockets full of bulbs, and I with Ikonta [camera] and synchronizer attached. I believe the only reason we were successful was because the minister had never had such a situation to meet before. Photographers walking into the middle of a sermon and shooting off flash bulbs [was] something he had never had to contend with.”

Welty’s photographic stance and method, in contrast, was far more sympathetic to the sensitivities and complexities of other people. She too did photography in a church at about the same time, and described her method: “I asked for and received permission to attend the Holiness Church and take pictures during the service; they seated me on the front row of the congregation and forgot me… The pictures of the Bird Pageant [an observance in that church in which the women dressed in bird-like costumes] were made at the invitation, and under the direction, of its originator … I would not have dared to interfere with the poses, and my regret is that I could not, without worse interfering with what was beautiful and original, have taken pictures during the Pageant itself.”

The female photographer at the time with whom Welty seems to have had the closest affinity was Berenice Abbott. In fact, Welty wrote to Abbott, who was teaching photography in New York at the time, asking whether she could join Abbott’s course and seeking Abbott’s help in furthering her career. But Abbott may not have replied because it seems that Welty did not, in fact, ever study or work with Abbott.

Welty called her photographs “snapshots.” By that she meant to value the unpredictability and spontaneity of the moment. She described her pictures, “They were taken spontaneously–to catch something as I came upon it, something that spoke of the life going on around me. A snapshot’s now or never.” She continued, “The human face and the human body are eloquent in themselves, and stubborn and wayward, and a snapshot is a moment’s glimpse (as a story may be a long look, a growing contemplation) into what never stops moving, never ceases to express for itself something of our common feeling. Every feeling waits upon its gesture. Then when it does come, how unpredictable it turns out to be, after all.”

Eudora-Welty -as-Photographer-2

A window, not a mirror

John Szarkowski, then curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, once used the term “Mirrors and Windows” as the title of an exhibition of American photography. Briefly summarized, Szarkowski’s term was an attempt to divide or classify photographers and photography into two types. Photography as mirror has to do with the photographer’s use of photography like a mirror, looking at and calling attention to himself, or depicting or expressing something coming out of himself. Photography as window means that photography is used as a way of looking away from the photographer into the world outside, and receiving and depicting that world with a minimum of personal intrusion by the photographer.

Those two might best be thought of as the two end points on a continuum- -most photography and photographers occupy a place somewhere between those end points. Documentary photography is nearer the window, while expressive photography, such as the abstract work of Aaron Siskind or Man Ray, is more like a mirror. But even the purest documentary photographer works by making decisions: where to point the camera, what to frame and how to frame it, and when to trip the shutter. So there is a mirror-like quality even to the most “pure” documentary–the photographer himself or herself never completely disappears.

Using Szarkowski’s classificatory scheme, Welty’s photography is about as near to being a pure window as is possible. Bourke-White could also be called a documentary photographer, but she did so by directing the people into her idea of what should be documented and how things should look. Welty, however, worked as a responder, not a director. The scene presented itself to her, and she recorded it as an observer.

An individualist, not a generalist

Welty photographed both well-off and poor people in Mississippi, and both blacks and whites. Although most of her pictures depicted poor blacks, she was nevertheless not out to make a romanticized, sociological, economic, or other statement–both her photographs and her writing were focused on individuals. She wrote, “I was too busy imagining myself into their lives to be open to any generalities. I wished no more to indict anybody, to prove or disprove anything by my pictures, than I would have wished to do harm to the people in them, or have expected any harm from them to come to me.”

Welty did make a series of photographs in New York City around 1935- 1936. These pictures, including some from Union Square and others of outdoor stairways and building facades, are less intense, intimate, and successful than the ones she took in Mississippi, possibly because she felt less connected with New York and its people than she was with the people and locations in her home in Mississippi. Some of her pictures were also made in New Orleans and elsewhere in Louisiana, but these too are not as good or important as her Mississippi ones.

What is most striking about Welty’s photographs is their humanness as well as their unerring eye for composition and what has been called “visual poetry.” Most of the black people in her pictures are poor, yet she does not sentimentalize them or make them into caricatures or props for some political or artistic or sociological statement. They are intensely human, and, as the exhibit is entitled, Welty was a passionate observer, compassionate and optimistic.

Rene Paul Barilleaux, deputy director for programs of the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, and the leading expert on Welty’s photographs, has written, “Consistent in her photographs is the pervasive sense of hope and quiet understanding of human nature during trying times.” He continues, “Welty shifted her lens away from misery or personal despair to capture and celebrate simple pleasures and everyday triumphs. Often, too, Welty’s photographs transcend the ordinariness of their subjects and take the viewer on a journey that resonates with her sense of spirit and myth.”

Welty exhibitions

At least five selections of Welty’s pictures have been published, including One Time, One Place (1978) and Photographs (1989), and her photographs are beginning to attract attention from critics and photography connoisseurs. Her photographs were exhibited in Rennes, France, from October 15-26, 2002, entitled Mississippi 1930’s, les photographies d’Eudora Welty.

From October 27, 2003, to February 29, 2004, an exhibition of more than 50 of her works from the 1930s, entitled Passionate Observer, Photographs by Eudora Welty, organized by the Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson, Mississippi, under the direction of Barilleaux, was on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC. The exhibit contained many of her best pictures from Mississippi, including some from the Bird Pageant, black Sunday School teachers and children, some portraits, workers on laundry day, and many others. There were also some of her pictures from New York City (among them the Union Square pictures and others), and some from Louisiana and other southern locations. But the best remain her Mississippi pictures. This exhibit has helped bring her work to increasing attention of photography critics and those who appreciate photographic art.

This exhibit of Welty’s pictures is scheduled to travel to other museums: From March 21, 2004, through June 13, 2004, it was at the R.W. Norton Art Gallery in Shreveport, Louisiana. From August 12, 2004, through October 17, 2004, it was at the Elizabeth Stone Harper Gallery at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina. May 29, 2005, through October 30, 2005 it is expected to be at the Columbus Museum in Georgia. From September 1, 2005, through October 30, 2005, it is scheduled to be at the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia. There are tentative plans for it to appear later at the Wiregrass Museum of Art in Dothan, Alabama, the Davenport Museum of Art in Iowa, and the San Antonio Museum of Art in Texas.

A world of their own: photographs evoke the mystery of childhood

Surprise, joy and innocence jostle with vulnerability and nightmarish despair in the young faces that peer out of the pictures. The exhibition of photographs now on view at Halifax’s Dalhousie Art Gallery, and scheduled to tour eight other Canadian cities, is a tribute to the essence, and the mystery, of childhood. The pictures represent disparate cultures and several flash points in the world’s recent history. They are shot mostly in black and white, but executed in an array of artistic styles. Yet for all its diversity, the show titled Children in Photography–150 Years displays a remarkable unity. Jane Corkin, the Toronto gallery owner who selected the photographs, writes in a preface to the show’s handsome catalogue, “These photographs provoke, they demand response and, like children, require it more of the heart than the mind.”


Corkin has nourished the idea of the exhibition for almost 10 years. During travels abroad to sell photography from her own Jane Corkin Gallery, she says, she was intrigued by the fact that such a wide variety of photographers had made children their subjects. Corkin assembled works that range from such internationally renowned artists as Henri Cartier-Bresson and war photographer Robert Capa to such contemporary photographers as American photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark and Canada’s Louise Abbott and Greg Staats. In doing so, Corkin discovered a remarkable link between children and the artists who photographed them. “Both have a way of cutting through to the essentials, of stripping things down,” she says. “It became clear we could make a historical show around that relationship.”

With a contribution in excess of $200,000 from the Hongkong Bank of Canada, and the Winnipeg Art Gallery organizing the show, Corkin’s idea became reality on June 27, when the display opened at the Dalhousie gallery. From the outset, the exhibition–152 photographs by 104 photographers–has been marked by controversy. But few who have seen it have been left unmoved. Kathleen Flanagan, a photography instructor at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, says that she has urged her students to see it. “It is a really important, historically wideranging show,” she said.

In a sense,

The show is an index of shifting tastes and attitudes across more than a century. It begins with such elegiac visions of children in Victorian England as Julia Margaret Cameron’s idealized 1869 portrait of mother and daughter titled The Kiss of Peace. From there–using the conventions of portraits, social documentary and street-scene photography–the show encompasses scenes of war and its aftermath, poverty in the Americas, Eastern Bloc conformity and the gritty cityscapes of contemporary urban life. “This is not just a sentimental show built around children,” says Shirley Madill, curator of contemporary art and photography at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, who worked with curator Corkin to prepare the show. Added Madill: “One of its strengths is its ability to cover a number of social, historical and political issues.”

But the show does capture many happy moments. For every neglected or wounded child, there are others depicting that state of grace peculiar to childhood. Children are shown at play or bonded happily to their parents. There are good-humored and trusting children, many caught in the act of laughing. Toronto critic Gary Michael Dault, author of the pungent and thoughtful text in the 312-page catalogue, writes a particularly apt note to accompany Luxembourg Garden, one of eight pictures by the great Hungarian-American photographer Andre Kertesz. “When children laugh,” writes Dault, “especially when they laugh immoderately, something breaks open in the universe.”

Still, the exhibition includes a counterpoint of sobering photographs: children in bomb shelters, children in hospital, children resoundingly alone, children old before their time. Among the most affecting of those is Mary Ellen Mark’s 1987 photograph of a family living in a car, called Homeless Damn Family Life. Two enervated parents and their equally morose children are squeezed into the family car, as if permanently. Says Corkin: “If the show does anything, it heightens our awareness of how children live.”


In fact, some viewers have complained that, in places, the exhibition is too explicit. At least two visitors to the show in Halifax in July left behind blistering messages in the visitors’ book about a 1983 print by American fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo. A study in precocity, the portrait depicts a small girl in a wide-eyed, bare-shouldered pose that is strongly reminiscent of a fashion model. One Toronto visitor called it “appalling,” while a Halifax gallery-goer wrote, “I just wept: the child is portrayed as a sexual object.”

Dault says that he wanted to address that particular aspect of the work and of other controversial photographs. The text he originally submitted for the catalogue, published by Toronto’s Firefly Books and now on sale across the country, contained the comment “This is a case of the commodification of the girl’s extreme youth and the selling of it as a species of desire.” Dault’s comments on the Scavullo picture and five others were either replaced or altered by the book’s publishers. Dault, himself a 50-year-old father of four, said that he had been “aggressively censored” and in an interview added that “I wasn’t pleased about this at all. I considered it a breach of trust.”

Corkin refused to comment to Maclean’s on Dault’s allegations of editorial interference, although earlier she had told a Toronto newspaper that Dault had “crossed the line from mere description to personal polemic.” For his part, Dault says that “nobody asked me to write descriptions; this was a text.” Susan Foshay, exhibitions curator of Halifax’s Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, agrees that the Scavullo portrait is “quite provocative,” but added, “that, too, can be a statement of the times.” And despite his problems with publishers, Dault says that, overall, the show is “beautiful and spectacular.”

Amid the show’s classics from such international masters as Cecil Beaton and Margaret Bourke-White, 44 of the exhibition’s 152 photographs were shot by Canadians. They include a 19th-century studio portrait by William Notman–the best known of early Canadian photographers–to a flowering of recent photographs that include Tom Skudra’s haunting Three Banman Children, an austere but hopeful portrait of three Mexican Mennonite children who are in Canada with their parents to harvest vegetables. Also noteworthy are two photographs of native Canadians by 27-year-old Greg Staats, a resident of the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ont., whose declared aim is to break stereotypes held by non-natives about natives.


The exhibition leaves Halifax in September for the Saidye Bronfman Centre in Montreal, and will later travel to St. John’s, Nfld., Winnipeg, Toronto, Hamilton, Vancouver and Calgary, before closing in the Edmonton Art Gallery in May, 1992. Exhibition organizers say that some large galleries are loath to give space to a photographic exhibit. Said the Winnipeg gallery’s Madill, the issue of whether photography is an art “is still floating” in the minds of some cultural executives–“some museums still shy away from it.” But many of the striking images presented in the show provide a telling essay not only about childhood and society, but also about the artistry of fine photography.


–> View more: The art of the frozen moment

Mario Testino: Portraits

Mario Testino: Portraits (National Portrait Gallery, till 4 June)

Judging from the queues of excited crowds straggling round the dreary, drizzle-swept Trafalgar Square last week, it would appear that the National Portrait Gallery is on to something. Not only has the launch of its new exhibition Mario Testino: Portraits appeared to have tapped into the public’s craving for celebrity and gloss, but the gallery itself has received the type of media frenzy usually reserved for the arrival of a new pop idol or movie.


The exhibition — 120 portraits in colour and black-and-white of the rich and famous, ranging from Madonna to Diana, Princess of Wales, Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss — is a wonderful blend of the sumptuous, the beautiful and the luxurious that most of us have access to only when diving into Hello! and Vogue at the dentist. The show has been open for only a week, and already rave reviews have been praising Mario’s technique, subtlety and sensitivity, endorsing the gallery’s own adoration of its new champion. `There is meticulous preparation for the decisive moment when the portrait is made …’ croons the exhibition catalogue. `This process is akin to that of cinema and theatre where the subjects are perfected and transformed into intensified versions of themselves … he follows in the tradition of Cecil Beaton.’

Please. Let’s not get carried away here. It is true that entering the lavish world of Mario is a theatrical sensation in itself. There is something wonderfully seductive about standing before polished portraits of famous (and infamous) people who are staring straight at you. For one brief fantastical instant in the Madonna section, or in front of those famous images of Diana, Princess of Wales, it is possible to imagine that you have access to that person, and that you can have a tiny part of that world of smooth surfaces and flawlessness.

There is no doubt, too, that Testino is a superb photographer: he has the silky ability to disarm his subjects and make them relax into the camera’s eye — Prince Charles looks elegant but approachable feeding his chickens; Robbie Williams looks naughty but nice peeking through his Union Jack knickers; and dear Gwyneth Paltrow seems graceful and airy floating in her spectrum of light. There is the pervading sense, too, as you glide around the rooms, that should Testino deign to focus his lens on you, you too would look your best. This man knows what he is doing — he lets his photos flatter and charm, and you sense how much he enjoys his work.

Testino, to give him credit, has never claimed to be a great artist, or a chronicler of life. `I am a fashion photographer,’ he has said on many occasions, and in a documentary by the BBC admitted he himself did not know where to place his portraits in terms of art. But disturbingly, watching the sycophancy surrounding him, much of it from the stars themselves who allow him to photograph them, you would think this was the launch of a major art retrospective of someone who has changed the way we think about art and portraiture. He has not.


Instead, what the National Portrait Gallery has tapped into, apart from entertaining us for a very few popcorn moments, is selling products (Testino and the National Portrait Gallery) — and perpetuating the products the magazines were selling in the first place: clothes, make-up, an album or the stars themselves. Amusingly, none of the photos has labels, except in a discreet exhibition guide you are handed when walking in, presumably because we are supposed to know who all these `products’ are. Note, too, that the show itself is sponsored by Burberry, Vogue and Dom Perignon. These are products most of us take or leave depending on our whims and tastes.

This is not to say that these portraits are not ravishing, flattering and very entertaining. But most people sashaying through this exhibition will forget them very quickly when they go home, in the same manner we most likely forget last month’s Vogue and Hello!. The photos are intriguing for the products they are selling. But they should remain in the world to which they belong — glossy, luxury magazines which have never pretended to be anything other than glossy, luxury magazines which sell products.

Fashion plates

WANDERING THROUGH the rooms of the Irving Penn exhibition that was recently at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York–past the austere pictures of sleek models in Balenciaga suits and Dior bonnets; the Ektachrome still lifes; the platinum-palladium prints of squashed food cartons, fleshy nudes, and corroded cigarette butts; the quizzical, research-project portraits of writers and artists, of street artisans and Asaro mud men–I couldn’t help but feel a kind of numbed admiration for the range and virtuosity of the work. But after a while my admiration gave way to impatience and then irritation with the photographer’s cool, self-satisfied presentation of his own mastery. It wasn’t until later, when I read John Szarkowski’s introduction to Irving Penn, the book of Penn’s photographs which accompanied the show, that I realized what was wrong: what I had found lifeless and enervating in Penn’s work was what the exhibition had been designed to celebrate.


Both the book and the exhibition were fascinating, not so much for what Szarkowski intended to demonstrate about Penn’s long and varied career as a photographer–namely, its “high craft” and “artistic seriousness”–as for what they inadvertently revealed about photography’s attitude toward itself and the nagging insecurities it harbors about its position as an art form.

In the anything-goes atmosphere of modern photography, where a picture is a picture, and passport photos, newspaper stills, and family-album portraits are embraced by critics and theorists, the work of the commercial fashion photographer-the pictures of swanlike beauties draped in peau de soie and Russian sable, of perfume bottles and Courreges sunglasses and Cartier watches–should also be accepted. But the relationship between the whole of photography and the specialized subdivision of fashion photography is an uneasy one. Fashion photography is the medium’s bastard child. Aside from its ties to the fashion and publishing industries, which are presumed to compromise its artistic purity, its most nettlesome aspect is that in no other area are photography’s unfortunate imitative tendencies more baldly exposed.

SINCE ITS INVENTION, in the mid-nineteenth century, photography has tried to prove itself as something other than an art toy–a pale, mechanical adjunct to the other visual arts–and to assert itself as a medium with its own aesthetic personality. At the turn of the century Alfred Stieglitz and the members of the Photo-Secession movement-Edward Steichen, Clarence White, and Gertrude Kasebier, among others–attempted to propel the medium into the mainstream of modern art not by simulating the work of painters but by exploring the formal issues of Impressionist, Symbolist, and Pre-Raphaelite art in purely photographic terms. Stieglitz said that the camera, and the various techniques and manipulations of the developing process, could be a means of individual expression. But what he sought to achieve with his machine was, essentially, the pictorial formalism that modern European and American painters and sculptors, many of whom were exhibited for the first time in his 291 Gallery shows, were striving for.

Fashion photography was largely the invention of Baron Adolf de Meyer and Edward Steichen, both of whom took fashion pictures for Conde Nast at Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and contributed celebrity portraits to Vanity Fair. De Meyer was not officially a member of the Photo-Secession, although his photographs were exhibited at 291 along with those of Steichen, White, and Kasebier. He was, however, of the same artistic spirit.

Nowhere is fashion photography’s ability to hold a bright mirror up to the world more evident than in the pictures of Adolf de Meyer. In his romantic portraits of the grand ladies of the Belle Epoque and his record of the courts of Edward VII and Diaghilev, De Meyer followed, and on occasion surpassed, the style of fashionable portraiture practiced by Whistler and Sargent. His pictures have a serene, timeless quality, as though he had captured his subjects at the peak of their flowering, the way they had never been before and would never be again. De Meyer transformed chic into a kind of spirituality–Cecil Beaton called him “the Debussy of photographers.” Looking at his pictures of his wife, Olga (who was rumored to be the daughter of Edward VII and the inspiration for What Maisie Knew), Nijinsky, John Barrymore, and Rita de Acosta Lydig, one feels cut adrift in the evanescent, vanished world of Proust and Wharton and James.

The fashion photographers who joined the staffs of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar after the First World War–many of whom had trained in architecture or painting or design and had taken up the camera almost by accident–combined the attitudes toward photography defined by the Photo-Secessionists with De Meyer’s impeccable sense of elegance and romance. But each responded to these influences in his own way, marrying them to ideas from other areas–from the Bauhaus style, surrealism, Dadaism, classical art, and Hollywood. Photographers like George Hoyningen-Heune, his protege Horst, Cecil Beaton, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, and Martin Munkasci approached the culture of their time as if it were an immense banquet table brimming with delectable surprises, and they were impulsive, undisciplined eaters. Their pictures have a voluptuous eclecticism that skips flirtatiously along the edges of kitsch.

During the period between the wars the great fashion photographers held a position on the front lines of art and culture. Just as photojournalists gave us firsthand information about international affairs, fashion photographers gave us our first glimpses of what was new and exciting in art and fashion–an iconoclastic new artist or a bold new designer. But although the fashion photographers of the time were responsive to the avant-garde currents surging through the art world, they used them primarily as a backdrop for their opulent fantasies–as part of the fashionable baggage that they dragged onto the set. The fashions of Chanel, Schiaparelli, Molyneux, and Adrian, which were at least ostensibly the photographers’ subjects, also absorbed the influences of the other arts. And so fashion photographs, printed in the glossy fashion magazines, became a peculiar hybrid of theater and reportage–the stage on which that season’s hot cultural events and the artists who created them were showcased.

To those who are reluctant to accept photography’s claims to a place of equal status alongside the traditional visual arts, the photographers of the golden era seem to exemplify the medium’s inherent parasitic relationship to the other arts. Following the collapse of the Photo-Secession, the so-called straight photographs of Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Andre Kertesz, and Walker Evans pursued the same art-photography pictorialism but were influenced more by Cubism than by Impressionism or Symbolism. In taking advantage of the camera’s documentary virtues–its capacity for clarity and factualrealism–the straight photographers were concerned less with reproducing the literal surface values of modern painting than with finding photographic equivalents of its deep structure of geometric patterning and design. Pictures like Weston’s famous pear-shaped nude, his fist-like peppers, and Evans’s sharp-focus American storefronts and houses were more “modern,” more “photographic,” than the softer-edged pictorialism of the Stieglitz school, but they were pictorial nonetheless.

True modernism in photography (what, for lack of a better term, has been tagged “postmodernism”) began, as Janet Malcolm wrote in Diana & Nikon, “not, as has been supposed, when it began to imitate modern abstract art but when it began to study snapshots.” Since that time, around the late sixties, the messy, unartistic photographs of Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and Robert Frank–who, among others, rejected the quaint, painterly formalism of both the Photo-Secessionists and the straight photographers in favor of the haphazard, vernacular style of tailgate-party amateurs and church-social snapshooters–have sent shock waves through the art-photography establishment. The snapshooters broke the chains that bound photography to the other arts when they declared that to move forward,photography had to follow the lead not of Picasso, Matisse, or Manet but of the everyday photographers who without the slightest concern for the artistic design of their images pointed their Brownies and Instamatics at anything that moved.

SET AGAINST THIS avant-garde background, the fashion pictures of Horst and Beaton appear embarrassingly retrograde, like relics of photography’s mimetic infancy. For Szarkowski, Irving Penn is a crucial figure, because he, along with Richard Avedon, has brought the world of modern photographyinto his portraits and fashion pictures.

Szarkowski doesn’t suggest that Penn’s cigarette butts, or any of his other pictures, should be thought of as part of the snapshot school (which he doesn’t even mention in his introduction). As the carefully controlled and manipulated images of a disciplined studio photographer, Penn’s photographs are the stylistic opposite of snapshots. But, Szarkowski suggests, by this stubborn pursuit of opposite means Penn has achieved the same end as the snapshooters–a purely photographic image. In doing so, Szarkowski implies, Penn has done something extraordinary, something that the Photo-Secessionists, the straight photographers, and the snapshooters have all been unable to do–he has created images that satisfy our longing for a glimpse of the artist’s designing hand but that also follow the unique dictates of photography rather than those of painting or the other arts.

As Szarkowski has made clear in his introduction, what he appreciates most in Penn’s work–its “classical rectitude,” its spartan rigor and “devotion to the sober elegance of clarity,” and Penn’s dedicated attention to purely photographic concerns–are precisely those aspects of his style that separate him from the old masters of fashion photography. Examining the fashion pictures, portraits, and still lifes that Penn took in 1947, the year in which the “essential Penn” emerged, Szarkowski writes that the “calm spareness of vision and manner in his pictures was breathtaking.” He goes on, “Seen against the background of the various trilling, ornamental styles that had seemed intrinsic to the very substance of fashion magazines, they seemed to represent a new beginning.”

The distinction that Szarkowski is eager to make is that although Penn does fashion photography, he isn’t a fashion photographer in the usual sense of the term. As Szarkowski’s wall label for Penn’s 1975 “Recent Works” show at MoMA stated, “In Penn’s case, one might guess that he has only rarely enjoyed more than a cursory interest in the nominal subjects of his pictures. For him the true subject has been not haute couture or cuisine, but line, tone, shape, and pattern, and the photographic intuition that will define their just relationship.” Unlike the photographs of Horst, De Meyer, Heune, Beaton, and others, which were filled with references to the prevailing world of culture and which narrated the life of the time, Penn’s photographs presented themselves as autonomous, self-contained works of art–“not stories, but simply pictures.”


Penn is also a comforting figure for the photography establishment because, although the photographs of the postmodern snapshooters are undeniably “pictures,” no matter how hard everybody tried to accept them they just didn’t look like art. A postmodern photograph by Stephen Shore or Bill Owens or Larry Fink looks funny hanging next to a Cezanne still life or even an Ansel Adams landscape. But put up one of Penn’s cigarette butts instead, and the problem vanishes.

If Szarkowski’s claim were true, Penn would indeed be a breakthrough figure in photography. However, his evaluation of Penn’s career presents us with a kind of ersatz breakthrough–one that reflects the legerdemain of the critic rather than the skill of the photographer. Pictures like Penn’s Ektachrome still lifes of frozen foods and iridescent decaying flowers have a stark, unequivocal modernist look, and the brusqueness and clarity of the images show how distinctly Penn has broken with fashion photography’s baroque stylistic conventions. But they are much more in the mainstream of art photography than Szarkowski is willing to admit. By taking the driftwood, the fruit baskets, and the birdcages out of his pictures and replacing them with lighting cables, frayed ratty carpet, and bare gray backdrops, Penn hasn’t transcended pictorialism–he has merely exchanged one form of artifice for another, one brand of pictorialism for another. (With his bleached-out, dehumanized nudes Penn could be called the Edward Weston of fashion photography.) In his fashion pictures and his personal work his concerns, like those of his art-photography predecessors, are both photographic and painterly–a point Szarkowski seems to ignore. Where Penn and his predecessors differ is in their choice of sources and the temper of their sensibilities:

THE SENSIBILITIES of the old masters of fashion photography and the rebellious mavericks who followed them are radically different, and these differences are displayed most vividly in their attitudes toward the content of their fashion pictures. There is a critique, a trenchant commentary on the cult of beauty and glamour and art-world hauteur, built into the fashion pictures of Avedon and Penn. A picture like Edward Steichen’s famous photograph of three models dressed in white and posed with a white horse, or Man Ray’s surrealistic picture of a sleekly outfitted beauty lounging in a wheelbarrow, gently pokes fun at the absurdity of fashion and the outrageous lengths to which it is driven in the pursuit of something ever more stylish and daring. But the criticism of fashion and fashion photography in their pictures is closer to parody; it is playful and good-natured. (Helmut Newton’s sultry pictures, with their rhinestone chains, black leather, and riding crops, satirize fashion photography in much the same way.) It doesn’t have the acrid, moralistic flavor that you get from the fashion pictures of Avedon and Penn. Avedon and Penn seem to want us to feel guilty about the opulence and beauty on display in their photographs. Their fashion photographs–for example, the pictures that Avedon took in the fifties contrasting the rarefied, artificial perfection of his models with the “ugliness” of normal people–point out the ludicrous triviality at the heart of the fashion business. There is, as well, a distinct hint of misogyny in their fashion pictures. Penn’s models may be alluring, but he emphasizes their self-absorbed beauty in a way that makes them seem cold and inhuman: they’re desirable but inaccessible.

Both photographers appear also to offer their serious work, the pictures they take for themselves, as a counterpoint to the ones that they take on assignment for their commercial employers. Avedon’s studies of the ravages of age and disease, of blotchy skin and collapsed profiles–usually those of celebritiesand artists–are, like Penn’s unforgiving images of bulging fatties, reactions against the uniform flawlessness of the young and preternaturally attractive men and women who pose for his fashion layouts. But there is an important difference between Avedon’s interests and Penn’s. You feel that Avedon takes his probing, unflattering portraits, which are shot head-on in the white glare of an electric strobe, because it allows him to confront certain truths about life, its unavoidable cruelty and unpleasantness, which in the day-to-day pursuit of his career as a fashion artist are cosmetically softened, painted over. But Avedon’s private and commercial work are more of a piece than one might think. His main criticism of fashion is its dishonesty. His pictures suggest that fashion photography may be an art but because it has cut itself off from the real world it is a moribund one. In both his portraits and his fashion pictures one can feel his struggle to push against the constraints of his profession, to strip away the artifice and let life in.

Penn’s pictures are set in the sealed-off world of art. The light that Penn throws on his portrait subjects is like the north light of the painter’s studio, which often casts the sitter’s face partially in shadow, obscuring his features. Most of his portraits aren’t unflattering (though some of the recent flaw-magnifying, microscopic portraits that he took for Vanity Fair are), but they’re not myth-making either. The most curious and off-putting aspect of them is how little interested Penn seems in the personalities of his subjects. The neutral, austere style he has adopted isn’t designed to accomplish what is thought to be the primary concern of the portrait artist–to capture something of the subject’s inner self. Instead, Penn positions himself emotionally at a middle distance from his subjects, examining them dispassionately, almost as objects, to be admired more for their abstract visual qualities (the herringbone pattern of Evelyn Waugh’s jacket, the ghostly, parchment-like texture of Colette’s skin, the walrusy bristle of David Smith’s moustache) than for their human ones. Some personalities–those of S. J. Perelman, Carson McCullers, John Marin, and, ironically, Saul Steinberg, whose face in Penn’s picture is covered with a cardboard mask–come through, but the others seem of little more interest to him than his street trash and steel blocks. There is an austerity and rigor to Avedon’s work, too, but you can’t imagine Penn taking a picture that has the raw animal vigor that Avedon’s portraits of Anna Magnani and Bert Lahr have.

In 1933 the Hungarian photographer Martin Munkasci, who had worked in Europe as a photojournalist, created a sensation in Harper’s Bazaar with his picture of a model in a bathing suit running toward him on the beach. It was, as his editor Carmel Snow remembers, “the first action photograph made for fashion.” Munkasci’s pictures celebrate women’s bodies in motion and capture the excitement of being dressed up and out in the world. They express the same values of clarity, craft, and design that Szarkowski has so lavishly praised in Penn’s work. But because Munkasci wasn’t as concerned as Penn and Szarkowski are with photography’s status as an art, he didn’t drain all the life out of his pictures. The liveliness and immediacy of his images break up the equation that Szarkowski has constructed between artistic seriousness and artistic achievement and illustrate what a theoretical corner he has painted himself into.

In the end Penn’s work refers only to itself. Everything he places before his camera is given the same high-art gloss. Looking at his pictures, one feels that they were taken by a man whose true passions are reserved for the contrast of textures and colors and the play of light and shadow–for whom style is an end in itself and who has very little real curiosity about people or life or the world outside of art.

On war photography

AS WE BEGAN climbing the mountain that separates Pakistan from Afghanistan, it soon became clear that slogging through the snow at 15,000 feet was not the same as running laps around the Yale pool. I had hoped that the latter form of torture would prepare me for the former. I felt plenty strong. I just couldn’t breathe.

“Leave me to die,’ I suggested, collapsing in the snow.

Itebari, my native guide, declined. Apparently, leaving helpless refugees from the bastions of effete intellectualism to die in the snow is forbidden by the tribal code of Afghan hospitality.


We got going again. Periodically a malnourished Mujahed would come bounding by, cavalierly balancing a case of ammunition on one shoulder, passing us as if we were standing still, which we frequently were.

As one lies face down in the snow, gasping for breath, one is willing to make certain concessions to the school of photojournalism that forsook tripods and wooden cameras sixty years ago. I hoped to put these all-but-forgotten tools back into action on this journey. It was and is my belief that war photography reached its peak during the American Civil War. The photographers of that day used awkward and bulky equipment similar to that which I was now finding so burdensome as I crossed the Durrand Line.

In a perverse paradox, it was as a result of the most unpleasant attributes of their equipment that the work of the nineteenth-century photographers achieved its distinctive character. They used large wooden view cameras. View cameras require tripods; they are heavy and difficult to move, and, in those days, they required exposures of at least several seconds. These limitations precluded action pictures and severely limited the number of images the photographer could record.

A 35-mm. photographer can easily take several hundred photographs in a day, an ordeal that would probably be fatal to a view-camera photographer. With fewer opportunities, the viewcamera photographer must choose his subjects carefully Composition is more critical for him than for the photographer using the one-hundred-monkeys approach.

Moreover, the view-camera photographer must view the image of his subject as projected upside down on a large piece of ground glass. The artistic effects of this inversion are not quantifiable, but I believe it forces one to give more thought to the composition of the image. Meanwhile, because the view camera uses large sheets of film rather than narrow strips, it reproduces the subject with exceptional resolution and tonal gradation.

  • The contrasting qualities of the 35-mm. camera are responsible for the course of modern photography. First of all, it’s fast. Photographers can get shots that would have been long gone before a view camera could be set up. It freezes time. We can go back again and again and watch a South Vietnamese officer blow some VC’s head off, as in the famous photograph by Eddie Adams. It is a slow-motion instant replay. It is a style made of moments.
  • Second, the 35-mm. camera is portable. It can go anywhere the photographer can and get as close as the photographer is willing to risk getting. Third, with the multitude of pictures a 35-mm. photographer can take, a few of them are bound to be OK. And finally, because the viewfinder of a 35-mm. camera is so much smaller than the ground glass of a view camera, and because the smaller film will not record as much information as large-format sheet film, the 35-mm. photographer has a tendency to narrow his view, to make his subject larger and show less of the overall scene. View-camera photographers, using wider lenses, can stand back, showing a larger vista, recording with great detail and artistry the lasting images of war.

The evolution of the technology of war photography mirrors the evolution of the technology of war itself. Over the course of the twentieth century the infantryman has been equipped with ever lighter rifles, firing more bullets with less power, requiring less effort to carry, less skill to master. The 35-mm. is the photographic equivalent of the modern assault rifle.


Henri Cartier-Bresson, although not a war photographer, was the first photographer fully to realize the potential of hand-held cameras. His expression “the decisive moment’ refers to the moment when the photographer, upon seeing his composition reach perfection in the viewfinder, clicks the shutter, freezing time. Robert Capa, the famous photographer of World War II and other conflicts, used to say, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.’ No one could gainsay Mr. Capa’s bravery. In fact, he was killed pursuing his craft. (He stepped on a land mine in Vietnam in 1954. A few seconds before, he had snapped a picture of the spot where he was killed.) He greatest works were a product of his disdain for his own safety and his ability to click the shutter at “the decisive moment.’ His most famous photograph, of a Spanish Loyalist, was taken at the moment his subject was shot, before his dead body hit the ground. It is in some ways a magnificent photograph. But to me it is less artistically and journalistically pleasing than, say, George Barnard’s great photographs of the ruins of Charleston, South Carolina, after General Sherman had been there.

Much of what war photographers seek to capture is an expression of tragedy. Modern sensibilities, with the help of modern cameras, find the ultimate expression of tragedy in the destruction of a single human being. The view-camera photographer, compelled to shoot stationary subjects, found the expression of tragedy not in war’s action, but in its aftermath: the destroyed cities and villages, the battered edifices, the smoking ruins, the tragedy of an entire community, an entire society. Considered artistically, the story of the battle for Charleston is told with greater power by Barnard’s haunting images of the once great city’s skeletal remains than it would have been by a Robert Capa photograph of a soldier at the moment of death or by an Eddie Adams picture of a Union officer executing a Confederate spy without trial. For within Barnard’s study of war’s aftermath these unseen images are contained as well, visible to the mind’s eye for the larger truth he has told us.

The best photographs are those which, standing alone, tell the most. By that criterion, the nineteenth-century photographers remain unequaled; modern war photography is less true to life and far more subject to manipulation. A good example of the problems with present-day photography can be found in the Eddie Adams execution photograph. Perhaps the most famous image to come out of the Vietnam War, this picture was widely believed to be graphic proof of the injustice of the American cause in Southeast Asia. Whether it is or not, it is undeniably a photograph of a man getting his head blown off. It cannot tell us why.

Eddie Adams was in the right place at the right time to reduce the Vietnam War to a photographic statement as simple and direct as a bumper sticker. A photographic concept without context. By contrast, it would be difficult to take a photograph by George Barnard or his contemporaries out of context. War photography swings between the objective and the subjective, sometimes creating moods, sometimes stating stark facts. The Vietnam War should not have been reduced to a single image of apparently irrational cruelty.

In Vietnam, as in most of our wars, the enemy got a lot less press coverage. Had American photographers been allowed to follow around the Vietcong or the North Vietnamese army, pictures like Eddie Adams’ would have been a lot more common. Adams’s picture was a journalistic feat precisely because it was so unrepresentative.

For a profession that would have a hard time getting by without the expression “the big picture,’ journalism makes scant use of big pictures. For too long, photographers have been earning their pay by providing newspapers with small pieces of the big picture.

A year after my first trip there, I returned to Afghanistan. In Peshawar, Pakistan, I met Robin Moyer, a well-known photographer on assignment for Time magazine. When I explained my interest in photographing the ruins left by the war, he gave me a business tip: “Nobody buys rubble.’

A sad comment on the state of war photography.

WAR PHOTOGRAPHY should show the story of war. If photo editors can only find room for sensational frozen moments, then they are not telling the whole story. Good journalism inspires thought; frozen moments of violence, out of context, apparently without purpose, inspire not thought but superficial responses to sensational images.

I’ve had enough of gruff managing editors who say gruffly, “Don’t bother me with art–bring me news!’ as though there were some contradiction. Gruff managing editors should stop posturing and think from time to time.

A few months after returning from my first trip to Afghanistan, I spread photographs of a ruined village on the floor of New Republic editor-in-chief Marty Peretz’s office. Peretz looked like the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia–an aging hoppie in blue jeans. We sat cross-legged on the floor of his executive suite and discussed my pictures. The New Republic’s literary editor, Leon Wieseltier–not exactly a gruff managing editor, but temporarily assuming that role–argued against my photos as follows: “These pictures are too beautiful.’

I can’t help it. That’s the way it was.

Photo: Left: The ruins of the Gallego Flour Mills, Richmond, Virginia, 1865. Two separate glass plates were needed to record this panorama. The two images, taken by a member of Mathew Brady’s studio, are here reproduced as one, possibly for the first time.

Photo: Above: A British military cemetery in the Crimea. Roger Fenton, 1855.

Photo: Below: Bombed-out ruins of a village in Paktia Province, Afghanistan. Charles Bork, 1983.

Photo: Opposite: Ruins of the Railroad Depot at Charleston South Carolina. George Barnard, 1864.

Photo: Tools of the Trade

Top: The author in Afghan drag with wooden camera in Paktia Province.

Bottom: Roger Fenton’s photographic van, the Crimea, 1855. Five cameras, seven hundred glass plates, and a darkroom.