In 1839 a new means of visual representation was announced to a startled world: photography. Although the medium was immediately and enthusiastically embraced by the public at large, photographers themselves spent the ensuing decades experimenting with techniques and debating the nature of this new invention.
The works in this section suggest the range of questions addressed by these earliest practitioners. Was photography best understood as an art or a science? What subjects should photographs depict, what purpose should they serve, and what should they look like? Should photographers work within the aesthetics established in other arts, such as painting, or explore characteristics that seemed unique to the medium? This first generation of photographers became part scientists as they mastered a baffling array of new processes and learned how to handle their equipment and material. Yet they also grappled with aesthetic issues, such as how to convey the tone, texture, and detail of multicolored reality in a monochrome medium. They often explored the same subjects that had fascinated artists for centuries — portraits, landscapes, genre scenes, and still lifes — but they also discovered and exploited the distinctive ways in which the camera frames and presents the world.
In the late nineteenth century, improvements in technology and processing, along with the invention of small handheld cameras such as the Kodak, suddenly made it possible for anyone of middle-class means to take photographs. Many amateurs took up the camera to commemorate family, friends, and special events. Others, such as the sociologist Lewis Hine, used it as a tool for social and political change. Partially in response to the new ease of photography, more serious practitioners in America and Europe banded together to assert the artistic merit of the medium. Called pictorialists, they sought to prove that photography was just as capable of poetic, subjective expression as painting. They freely manipulated their prints to reveal their authorial control, often resulting in painterly effects, and consciously separated themselves from amateur photographers and mechanized processes.
Müssiger Augenblick, 1894. (Photo by Rudolph Eickemeyer Jr.)
Wasserlilien, 1894. (Photo by Rudolph Eickemeyer Jr.)
Sonnenschein, 1896. (Photo by Dr. Edward Arning)
Studie, 1896. (Photo by Baron Albert De Rothschild)
Lied Ohne Worte, 1896. (Photo by Dr. Edward Arning)