Loss of Vision: How Early 20th century Photography Was Misjudged by Critics and How Archives Obscure the Image

exposure magazine
Jun 18, 2018 · 19 min read
Double portrait of an unidentified woman, courtesy University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.

While both historical archives and museums collect photography, they approach it in different ways. Whereas museums collect a few pieces, a historical archive which has photographs in the millions may take the photographer’s entire body of work. I have been working with large collections of photography for 35 years now in my job as the Visual Materials Curator/archivist. Such collections which may range from 10,000 to 100,000 images allow you to see their work in a way that viewing just a few pieces of a photographer’s work can never match.

Having worked with many collections of early commercial photography, I become particularly interested in the misinterpretations of commercial photography by modern critics and art historians who judge it using incorrect standards, and I also became interested in how the photographic document can be obscured by both photographers themselves and by archival practice. First I am going to discuss how photography critics, can misjudge the work of commercial photographers due to their lack of understanding the social milieu and the working methodology of the commercial photographer. A great example of this is in Max Kozloff’s 2007 book Theater of the Face: Portrait Photography Since 1900. Kozloff is a historian and art critic and has written numerous books and articles on art and photography.

Photograph by E.J. Bellocq © Lee Friedlander, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

In Theater of the Face, Kozloff discusses a photograph by E.J. Bellocq, a turn of the century New Orleans photographer. Bellocq worked as a professional photographer recording landmarks, ships, and machinery for various clients in the New Orleans area. Little is known about him; after his death his work was destroyed. Eighty-nine negatives of prostitutes in the Storyville area of New Orleans made in about 1912 were found and later in 1966 were purchased by the art photographer, Lee Friedlander. Friedlander printed the 8x10 negatives on gold toned printing out paper (to emulate how he thought Bellocq might have printed) and a show of the work was hung at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1970. Several books of the photographs have been published based on the prints made by Lee Friedlander. There are no Bellocq prints of the Storyville prostitutes but recently, some examples of his regular work came to light. They are typical commercial work of the time.

Photograph by E.J. Bellocq © Lee Friedlander, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

In discussing this Storyville prostitute photograph, Kozloff says in rebuttal to Lee Friedlander’s praise of Bellocq as a worker of exceptional skill:

Rather than being the work of an accomplished or knowledgeable artist, however, Bellocq’s pictures in truth betray a real lack of command over their material. The young women are sometimes posed before back sheets whose edges show…figures are swallowed up by inexplicable shadows. One fashionably dressed lady seems unaware of the laundry on a line behind her….Bellocq took little care — or had no idea how — to frame his sitters in any accord with their presentation of self. This makeshift exposition is so blatant that one almost pities it.

The first sentence of Kozloff’s statement shows that he is not aware of Bellocq’s motivations for making the image. He says, “Rather than being the work of an accomplished or knowledgeable artist…” Well, to understand the basis on which Kozloff is judging this image we should add the words “late 20th century” to make his statement read, “Rather than being the work of an accomplished or knowledgeable [late 20th century] artist…” Kozloff is apparently unaware that the product of the commercial photographer in 1912 is far different than an artist’s presentation of an image for exhibit in an art museum in the 1970s.

Kozloff observes that the photograph shows the laundry behind the woman and feels that this proves Bellocq’s “real lack of command over the material.” However, while Lee Friedlander attempted to emulate the papers of Bellocq’s the time period, the way the images were presented to the public was accordance with a late 20th century art photographer’s aesthetic and not in the manner in which they were intended for Bellocq’s clients in 1912. Friedlander made contact prints of the negatives and they were displayed showing the entire image all the way to the edges, a practice, which was not done until late 20th century art photographers, took it up. In Bellocq’s time, they didn’t worry about composing to the edges of the negative; his composition was refined afterwards when he cropped out the extra image area he didn’t need.

Portrait of Chief Joseph, 1901 © Lee Moorhouse , courtesy University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.

In the above portrait of Chief Joseph, we can observe that photographic strategies such as hanging up a blanket as a backdrop was a common practice. Many itinerant photographers or those working outside the formal studio used this method. Often photographers did not have more than one or two lenses and therefore did not have the option of controlling composition by changing lenses. They worked with what they had on hand. Commercial studio photographers also didn’t bother to worry about the edges of the image.

Portrait of Dee Wallace, Junction City Kansas, 1897, © Joseph Pennell Collection, Kansas Collection, courtesy Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas.

This view of Dee Wallace, by Joseph Pennell showing the entire negative, is a wonderful record because it allows the modern viewer to see what his studio was like. However, when the photograph was printed by Pennell, it was most likely cropped to be a small oval of face and upper body. This is born out by many vintage portraits printed by Pennell. Throughout Pennell’s collection of 30,000 negatives, it is common to see the backdrop and props appear in the pictures because he never intended the edges of the image to be seen.

Tintype from 1880s of Mabel and Grace Thomason with Spencer Frederick Butler, with oval showing where the mat was laid over the image. Photograph by Joseph Pennell, courtesy University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.

The above tintype showing the backdrop and studio beyond also shows that the photographer presented the finished image with an oval mat. The uneven cut of the tintype and the extra studio edge shows that the photographer didn’t worry about a tight composition to the edges of the image.

Photograph by E.J. Bellocq © Lee Friedlander, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

Kozloff mentions the darkness of the shadows; this is hard to discuss looking at a reproduction which can’t show all the detail of Friedlander’s print. However, one reason a modern print would look darker than a vintage print of the time is that glass plate negatives were printed with papers at the time that rendered more of the tones of the glass negative. It is difficult to print glass plates with modern papers which have less tonal range.

John Szarkowski, the Museum of Modern Art curator, who put on the 1970 Bellocq show, said, “It is possible that the pictures were made as a commercial assignment, but this seems unlikely; they have about them a variety of conception and a sense of leisure in the making that identify them as work done for love,” [Looking at Photographs] I would disagree with this statement because Bellocq made his living as a commercial photographer and most likely the prostitutes like everyone else wanted personal photographs for themselves along with marketing photographs.

While Bellocq may have been interested or involved with one of the women, and possibly photographed her out of personal connection (a man who met him said he always talked about “Adele”), his Storyville images clearly reflect the dichotomy of personal and business photographs. There are images like this one on the left that would have been for made for advertising and images like this on the right which were made for personal use. The man who met Bellocq said that pictures of prostitutes were commonplace at that time.

He said there was a room over a saloon that contained that contained “thousands of pictures; they looked like they were made in France, of fornication and anything related to that…” The men would go to the saloon to drink, look at the photos, and then go over to the Storyville “District which was two blocks away.” (E.J. Bellocq Storyville Portraits, 1970)

Photograph probably used for advertising by E. J. Bellocq, before 1918 Via http://www.compagnosegreto.it/NUMERO4/autore1.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3205177.

The photographer Joseph Judd Pennell, who worked at the same time as Bellocq, opened his studio in Junction City, Kansas, in 1893 and photographed the people, the community, and nearby Fort Riley until his death in 1922. As the town photographer, he photographed all aspects of life in Junction City and Fort Riley including the illegal saloons and the prostitutes both of which operated openly in the town.

Madame Sperber Group, Junction City, Kansas, 1906. © Joseph Pennell Collection, Kansas Collection, courtesy Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas.

Another good example of how the lack of understanding of the working techniques and intentions of the turn of the century commercial photographer is contained in the 1995 book, The Body and the Lens, by the curator of photography at the University of Kansas Spenser Museum of Art, John Pulz. He compares two photographs — one of a group of middle class white women, a delegation to a prohibition meeting, and the other of a group of African American prostitutes in Junction City, Kansas.

After discussing the photo of the group of white women Pulz goes on to say:

A very different group is assembled in a photograph by the Midwestern photographer Joseph Pennell. In his Madame Sperber Group, six black and mulatto prostitutes are gathered in a semicircle around the woman who runs the brothel where they work. These women, too, do not show their flesh, nor engage the viewer by overtly erotic means. But to the extent that the photograph seems to rob them of their subjectivity, of their life and liveliness, their souls and psyches, they are reduced to their bodies. They are the viewer’s “other”: women, blacks, whores. Pennell has photographed from higher than eye-level (note the expanse and angle of the flooring), creating the kind of physical and psychological distance from his subjects that Frith took from his. These women are neither friends nor peers of the photographer but specimens under examination.

Pulz is completely wrong in his interpretation of this photograph. He is looking at it out of context with the rest of the collection. He looks at it with a bias based on late 20th century/21st century attitudes and prejudices which immediately presumes that because the photographer is a white male and the subjects are African American women, the making the photograph is an act of white male dominance. He has not examined the photograph in the context of Pennell’s work and of the time period and social culture when it was made.

The first and most egregious error is that he assumes that Pennell is working as an artist and is free to construct images to his own desires. But Pennell was not making photographs as personal statements; he was making them to sell to his customers. A commercial photographer depends on pleasing his clients to make a living. Pennell’s job was to describe his world filtered through the expectations of his clients. This is very different from the work of an artist. The first point given in Alain Briot’s 14-point checklist from the book, Marketing Fine Art Photography is “Fine art photography is first about the artist” –but the commercial photograph is first about the client.

Madame Sperber was Pennell’s client and is entered in his register book along with the rest of his clients. He also made studio portraits of Madame Sperber and of her husband along with this photograph. It is probable that Madame Sperber, like any other businessperson, commissioned this photograph to use for advertising, just as Tom Dixon also commissioned a photograph of his laundry.

(from l-r): Tom Dixon’s Laundry, 1899; Madame Sperber Group, Junction City, Kansas, 1906. © Joseph Pennell Collection, Kansas Collection, courtesy Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas.

Prostitution was a thriving business in Junction City because of its proximity to Fort Riley. Both African American and white prostitutes catered to the soldiers who were based at the fort.

In the case of this image, the client is the one who has all the power in this transaction, not the photographer otherwise he will not be paid. If Pennell did not make the image she wanted, he would have wasted his time in taking his heavy equipment out of the studio and over to the brothel.

Pulz is also mistaken in saying that, “These women, too, do not show their flesh, nor engage the viewer by overtly erotic means.” In fact, in this era, it was shocking to show women’s ankles and certainly not their shoulders; the woman on the right of the photograph is dressed as a modest lady in stark contrast to the rest of the group who are wearing “Mother Hubbards.” That these women are wearing “Mother Hubbards” would definitely be considered as erotic to the eyes of the 1906 viewer. A story in the NY Times, 1884 related, “The Mother Hubbard dress…has fallen into legal disfavor and police now eye the wearers of that garment with suspicion….Women of this same class [prostitutes] have worn…a dress made after the pattern…but cut much lower in the neck and higher in the skirt.” The intentional eroticism of the image would also back up the conclusion that this is an advertising photograph for Madame Sperber’s operation.

Pulz also shows a lack of understanding of the photographer’s tools (camera & lens) and Pennell’s personal aesthetic as it is reflected throughout his imagery. “Pennell has photographed from higher than eyelevel (note the expanse and angle of the flooring), creating the kind of physical and psychological distance from his subjects that Frith took from his.” Pulz is assuming that Pennell is composing the photograph specifically to subordinate the women. But the composition is in fact, typical of all of Pennell’s work and is not specific to these women. Pennell used a large view camera and wide angle lens for much of his work.

(l-r) Rudy Sohn’s Barber Shop, 1903; New operating room at Ft. Riley, 1906. © Joseph Pennell Collection, Kansas Collection, courtesy Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas.
Portrait of the Nat Jones family in Junction City, Kansas, 1910. © Joseph Pennell Collection, Kansas Collection, courtesy Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas.

The Sperber photograph is no different than any of his other work. He did not photograph prostitutes or African Americans any differently than other community members as can be seen in his studio portraits of average African Americans which are similar to the rest of his work. He was hired to photograph the elite of the African American community as well as the lower classes of that community just as he was hired to photograph all levels of the white community creating parallel views of the two communities.

(l-r) Portrait of John Welch, 1901; Portrait of Jesse Johnson, 1904 © Joseph Pennell Collection, Kansas Collection, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas

Pulz’s conclusions are based solely on the fact that a white photographer was photographing African American women. Ironically in trying to be politically correct, he is actually being racist in his assumption that because the women are African American they must be victims — Madame Sperber as the client was actually the one who had control of the photograph because she was the one who commissioned it.

While art critics can often come to erroneous conclusions through lack of information about the practice of early commercial photography these turn of the century photographers themselves would create misinformation about photographs in their search for profit. Early commercial photographers would often use each other’s work without concern about authorship. Work would not only be appropriated but sometimes also changed.

Chief Seattle, carte-de-visite, 1864. © E.S. Sammis, courtesy University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.

The above 1864 studio portrait of Chief Seattle made by E.S. Sammis, was appropriated and changed many times over by other photographers without attribution to Sammis.

(l-r) Copied, changed and issued by Asahel Curtis, Frank La Roche and unknown postcard maker. Courtesy University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.

The photographer Frank Nowell borrowed a negative from Eric Hegg who made the photograph in about 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush. Nowell used it to make (uncropped) prints to sell during the 1909 world’s fair in Seattle, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition which was a celebration of the Klondike and Alaskan Gold Rushes. Nowell put his name on the image and covered up Hegg’s. A photograph of Native Americans selling baskets to tourists in Sitka, Alaska in about 1898 was also borrowed by the photographer Frank Nowell who printed it and sold copies at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition world’s fair. In this case, he left the original photographer’s name on the image and added his stamp “Printed by F.H. Nowell” as his signature on it. The Case & Draper image was then appropriated by the photographer Edward Mitchell to make postcards. Here the image was colored and also retouched to remove the white tourists and an inaccurate caption, Eskimo Curio Vendors, was added making it likely that Mitchell never came anywhere near Alaska since Eskimos live very far away from Sitka, Alaska. These are most likely Tlingit Indians who live in that area and commonly sold baskets to tourists.

(left): Native Street Scene at Sitka, Alaska” ca. 1906 (Tlingit women selling baskets and other crafts), photograph by Case & Draper, printed by Frank Nowell for sale at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, 1909, courtesy University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections. (right): Case & Draper photograph retouched and made into a postcard by Edward Mitchell. (The tourists have been removed, the attribution is changed to Edward Mitchell, and the caption has been changed and is now incorrect:“Eskimo Curio Vendors” — these are not Eskimos, they are Tlingit Indians). Courtesy University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40778315.

In a crossover of sorts between misinterpretation by critics and photographers appropriating images, one “historian,” Michael Lesy appropriated the work of a turn of the century photographer to create his 1973 cult classic book, Wisconsin Death Trip. Lesy took work of a Black River Falls, Wisconsin photographer, Charles Van Schiack, and created a “history” that basically presents life in this small Midwestern town as a landscape run rampant with crime, disease, and insanity.

He did this by using Van Schaick’s photographs in ways that the photographer never intended them to be seen. He showed images of grim looking people, photographs that were cropped reversed, manipulated and related through montages to help transmit his perception of the depressing nature of the community. One such manipulation was the way he used a portrait of George Blackhawk, a local Ho-Chunk Indian. It was presented tightly cropped in a montage that made the image seem part of the grimness of the community — the juxtaposition of images implied that Blackhawk had his finger cut off when it actually was just curled back in his hand. In the book Lesy paired manipulated photographs with newspaper accounts of suicide, murder, and despair from all around the state, medical records from a distant psychiatric asylum, and other quotes about events not actually related to the town, and he infers a relationship between the photographs and the written accounts that never existed — to create this seeming “history” of the town as a place of darkness and despair.

Because the book came out during the Vietnam War era, it struck a chord with people who wanted to “Expose the dark side of the American dream” and dispute the 1950s nostalgic version of American life. In a New York Times review, photo critic A.D Coleman praised Lesy’s “approach to historiography which attempts to go beyond the dry analysis of data to reconstruction of the actual experience — the mood, the feel, the spirit –of an era.” In actuality the book is a complete fiction that usurped the work of a normal commercial photographer from a normal small town — rather than being the work of history as it was presented. Even Lesy’s introductory description of the actual Van Schiack collection is a fiction; for example, he claims there are 30,000 photographs when in fact the current collection is only around 5,000 items and contained only a fraction of that number of images at the time of Lesy’s visit to the archive. What was in the archive at the time of his visit had been divided into various unrelated parts so Lesy most likely could only have viewed a very small portion of the collection.

The way photography collections are held in archives and museums can also lead to misunderstanding commercial images, when they are presented to the researcher out of context — such as tearing the collection apart and putting the photos in subject files which was a very common practice in the past. Many archives still retain vestiges of this practice. The Van Schaick collection, for example, was divided into a series of random unrelated collections losing the overall context of the work. At the University of Washington, I found a set of photographs made by Adams and Larkin in our Yukon Territory subject files which I removed and brought together as a collection. In presenting the images to the researcher separately in a large file of random photos you miss the meaning of a group of them which is that they are actually one image — parts of a panorama of Dawson, the site of the Klondike Gold Rush in the Yukon Territory, Canada.

The Adams & Larkin panorama photograph (part of a four-part panorama) of Dawson, Yukon Territory, Canada, courtesy University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.

Sloppy or quick archival processing without examining a collection can also lead to misinformation as in this set of photographs of Windy Point in Lassen Park which probably were originally contained in one of those commercial photo processing packages with the negatives and prints that the average person would get back when they had their photographs processed. The packet probably had “Windy Point” written on it. A previous archivist who processed part of the collection put the photographs into these four-part pages in a notebook and titled it, “Color prints, slides, and negatives” which was part of a series titled “Photos by format.” Both the title and the series are useless and unhelpful to the researcher — this is the same as cataloging a book as “the book with red binding and white stripes.” It’s clear that the archivist never actually looked at the photographs carefully. Upon removing the them from the notebook and examining them we found that they actually are individual sections of one large panoramic image of Brokeoff Mountain seen from Windy Point.

(top) Lassen Park Photographs of Windy Point arranged in a notebook by the archivist; (bottom) The real subject of the photographs is revealed when arranged properly: Panorama of Brokeoff Mountain. Photographs by Gina Rappaport.

I found photographs of the ruins of the 1889 Seattle fire in our Seattle subject file, some of which have a 1912 copyright on the image by a photographer named McManus. We also have an original album of photographs of the ruins of the Seattle fire created and marketed by John Soule as a souvenir of the fire. And we have Soule’s original glass plate negatives. These photographs were kept in separate locations but when you bring them together you discover that all the photographs were made by John Soule. McManus acquired Soule’s negatives (probably after his death in 1904). Soule had not put his name on the negatives but McManus did so in 1912 and claimed authorship. When the archive treats these as random prints in the files, the context is lost and people assume McManus was the creator of the images.

(top) John Soule original print of the ruins after the Seattle Fire in 1889; (bottom) Modern uncropped print of Soule negative with McManus copyright 1912
Both have Soule’s number 13 in the corner. Courtesy University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.

The independent commercial photographer at the turn of the century in America was engaged in making a living by satisfying their clients. Their work should be examined in relation to the social culture of their community and in methods they used to produce their work. Because some of them created aesthetically beautiful photographs they end up in museums or books which often present them in a manner not related to the production of the original photograph. Modern critics and historians who write about them generally base their judgments on the late 20th or 21st century art photography aesthetics and completely overlook the original context of the image.

Understanding the work of these commercial photographers is also complicated by the practices of the photographers themselves who frequently appropriated the work of others and published it under their names — sometimes drastically altering the original image. And it can be further complicated by how the work is presented in the institution where it resides. While commercial photographs can be iconic, powerful and artistic, they have a broader context that is often overlooked when they are interpreted with 21st century standards. This work deserves a closer examination before passing judgments.

I will leave you with this double negative studio portrait by an unknown commercial photographer — so, what is the photographer intending to tell you? What does the archive, museum or historian intend you to see? How will you judge this photograph?

Double portrait of an unidentified woman, courtesy University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.
Image provided by author

Nicolette Bromberg has worked with historical photography collections for 35 years. She is currently the Visual Materials Curator for the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections. Previously she was the Visual Materials Curator at the Wisconsin Historical Society and before that she was the Photo-Archivist for the University of Kansas Library, Kansas Collection. She has taught courses on management of photograph and film collections, visual literacy, and on understanding photographs as historic documents. She is the author of four books, Wisconsin Revisited; Wisconsin Then and Now: The Wisconsin Sesquicentennial Rephotography Project; Picturing the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition: The Photographs of Frank H. Nowell ; and Shadows of a Fleeting World: Pictorial Photography and the Seattle Camera Club.” She also spent many years making platinum/palladium photographs, which fits nicely with her interest in historical photography.

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