I have collated my thoughts after reading Snyder’s (1994) essay: ‘Territorial Photography’ and have made some observations, while summarising my responses to his points.
Firstly, I thought the reason photography was (and still is) largely seen as different to other picture-making traditions, is the often-assumed need for the photograph to originate from something real. This would be because it apparently has the unique ability to record effectively (and at least relatively easily) something from ‘real-life’. Maybe photography’s apparent ‘need’ to possess something real, however sublime or abstract the subject, is at least in part due to its history. This would be because most people, having historically (recently in their immediate lives or looking back to the past) looked at photographs, will have almost undoubtedly seen it as a depiction of ‘real-life’.
Snyder described photography’s advent as ‘a mind-numbing puzzlement’ in regards to what it was; particularly in relation to the painting or picture-making tradition. I decided that was in part due to its similarities but simultaneous differentials to painting/picture-making traditions. So it was very engrossing to see how photography developed in its early years (1839-1850), as people (photographers and viewers alike) tried to get their heads round these conundrums.
One way it developed was how the prints were produced. Photography was believed to be different than other picture types and were ‘mechanical’ in nature. Maybe in response to this, the photographers then, actively tried to make photographs, which looked ‘like a mass-produced item’. This way, photographs were more obviously distinct from other media.
Where photography nowadays often is seen as a way of sharing, it was hard to produce photographs in volume then. The idea of photographs not being mass produced and finite in nature fascinated me; I hadn’t really thought of photographs like this before. I suppose I had kind I taken for granted the reproducibility of film and of course digital printing. So the subsequent development of production of photographs interested me greatly. Snyder makes the point that (landscape) photographs were, in the mid to late 1850s, distributed nearby to the source of where they were actually taken – ‘prints were initially sold at or close to points of geologic or geographic interest’ (Snyder, 1994)). Then, by the 1870s, through internal redistribution it was possible to acquire prints at a much wider geographic span. In a strange kind of way I felt that photography nowadays had almost taken a step backwards in that the prints were not as widely distributed as they once were and more to the point often not printed at all, which I felt was a shame.
However, it was the correlation between looking ‘machine-made’ and becoming increasingly mass-produced during the 1870s that interested me most. The two appeared to go hand in hand but by my understanding, the ‘machine-made’ look was actually, maybe a way to set apart photography from other art forms. Whether this was subconscious or deliberate or a combination of the two, Snyder impressed on me that the photographers and their audience then subscribed to the notion that photographs were recordings of real-life and so should be treated (manufactured) differently. This goes back to my previous suggestion that photography requires some element of truth in most viewer’s eyes. By making photographs that appeared machine-made and mass-produced perhaps the photographers were reassuring on some level that photographs were infinite in nature and so possessed a quality different to paintings for instance. The underlying quality would have been apparent authenticity of the scene the photographer had seen before them.
While photographic printing and distribution developed during the 1850s, there remained an underlying theme that photography could not exist as Art. This was while drawing from the picturesque backgrounds already established in the minds of photographers trained in traditional Art, where ‘tropes of landscape depiction’ portrayed some of the sentiment of the photographer/picture-maker. Eastlake (1980), was adamant therefore that photography would ‘consequently fail to possess aesthetic merit’, because it remained a personal depiction of how the photographer saw nature themselves. However, as new photographers emerged (mid 1850s); untied by conventions, a different approach became apparent among these ranks. Here, attention to detail and accuracy took a much more prominent role, reflected by the way the photographs were clinically printed – ‘looked like it had been machined on a production line’ (Snyder, 1994).
The (highly conflicting) arguments of Baudelaire (1859) and Holmes (1863) both seemed to me to back up my initial argument that photography was to some extent (assuming it was non-imagined), a highly realistic depiction of real-life or: ‘photographs were in some resect transparent and true’ (Snyder, 1994). However, it seemed that at that time, landscape photography was widely accepted as completely a recording of a real-life view. Whereas, I was arguing that at least one part of a photograph should be a ‘real-life’ depiction, in order for the photograph to be appreciated by the viewer as a photograph.
The apparently unconstrained, detached ‘recording’ of views, which became popular by the early 1860s posed a new challenge for the photographer: how to best marry this new, divergent style with technical proficiency, while still retaining the photographic distinction from other types of picture-making?
The answer to this question was found by Watkins in what I saw as in the form of an early type of ‘pure photography’. Pure photography or straight photography was defined as “possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other form” – (Adams, Cunningham and Weston, 1932). For Watkins, he escaped the issue of the picturesque defining what a photograph should look like and the need for a photograph to transcend other art forms by employing ‘a remarkable and heretofore unmatched technical virtuosity’ – (Snyder, 1994), combined with aesthetics related to the picturesque/sublime. The success of his landscape photographs was because of his ability to record a ‘sight’, which anyone viewing the scene would observe as well.
I would say this was accurate in so much as Watkins’s ability to effectively record a view was an achievement but more so, his compositional awareness in order to make these picturesque/sublime aesthetics apparent was more impressive. He aspired to make views he photographed appear pleasant and approachable places, even when, in the case of his mining photographs, ‘we would now see as the brutalization of the environment’ – (Snyder, 1994). He had a knack for making the less-than-picturesque appear more inviting than it actually was. Whether this ‘glorifying of the truth’, was purposeful or incidental is debatable but it was worth noting I felt, that he was ‘a champion of development’ – (Snyder, 1994) and this may have influenced how he chose to depict the landscape views. For example, ‘Malakoff Diggins’ Watkins (1871), would probably have been depicted, perhaps more truthfully for what it was by O’Sullivan; had O’Sullivan composed and taken a photograph in that location. This would have been in contrast to Watkins, who portrayed it as ‘the scene itself never could’ – (Snyder, 1994), through smooth transitions of tone and high resolution.
O’Sullivan was contracted by Clarence King in 1867, with the job to help ‘provide “generally descriptive” photographs of the places he visited’ – (Snyder, 1994), taken in the Great Basin areas of the United States. These photographs were only seen at the time by professionals, which is why Snyder dismissed Krauss’s argument that O’Sullivan took the photographs, with scientific tendencies in mind, for the purpose of contributing to their eventual place in pictorialism. The unscientific nature of O’Sullivan’s work was also recognised by King and O’Sullivan’s other chief (Wheeler), where they argued ‘photography was incapable of producing pictures useful for the purposes of measurement and quantification’; rather, they should ‘”give a sense of the area”’ – (Snyder, 1994).
I thought the reason Snyder went into so much depth about King’s background, was because he was the main reason O’Sullivan produced the photographs, which meant, unlike Watkins, this to a certain extent governed what the photographs looked like. King was keen that ‘the unexplored interior of the country [the United States] had to be mapped and inventoried scientifically and systematically’ – (Snyder, 1994). This was quite ironic though, because he was aware that ‘photography was incapable of producing pictures useful for the purposes of measurement and quantification’ – (Snyder, 1994) and yet he hired O’Sullivan. In any case, I felt by giving an insight into King’s mind, Snyder was somewhat giving an idea as to how O’Sullivan worked.
One of O’Sullivan’s most famous photographs, ‘Sand Dunes near Carson City, Nevada Territory’ (1867), shows his own darkroom from the outside as he worked in the desert. If you were to take Snyder’s analogy of the darkroom symbolising the photographer’s craft a bit further, it could be said the photograph itself symbolises a (landscape) photographer as they might want to be seen. (Snyder, 1994) remarks: ‘the footprints in the sand might even suggest the impressions left on the plate by the light exposing it’. This might show the passage of time some photographs manage to suggest as they are exposed and would be very pictorial in nature.
However, this photograph happened to be very misleading in the way it was composed. For me, it underlined how a photograph can be made to look how a photographer wants it to look.
In this respect, the photograph is truthful; it showed the viewer how deceiving a photograph can be, so this photograph was a kind of contradiction of itself.
O’Sullivan’s use of figures in his landscapes only served to add to the inhospitable tension many of his depictions of the Great Basin showed. Here, he used the figures ‘to underscore the unhappiness of the relationship between human beings and the vast, barren landscape’ – (Snyder, 1994). He did this by placing them so they were barely indistinguishable or in the distance, within the frame in order to ‘obliterate individuality’ – (Snyder, 1994). This only helped to alienate the viewer from the familiar, with the consequence that the photographs became even more sublime; the already ‘unrestful’ compositions being supplemented by the figures placed disturbingly and/or uncouthly in the frame. Meanwhile, Watkins refrained from using figures at all in his typical landscapes, presumably with the intention of making the landscapes even more picturesque. So the contrast between O’Sullivan and Watkins’s approach to photographing the West couldn’t have been much more different.
Composure remains the constant that ties together and separates O’Sullivan’s and Watkins’ work. O’Sullivan’s composure was ‘technically deficient’ according to Adams but nonetheless, this, seemingly irrationally, made O’Sullivan’s photographs more sublime. Watkins’s composition was considered and more widely (at the time) appreciated because it was so well-composed and was a more ‘accurate’ recording of the scene before him. This for me begs the question: wouldn’t Watkins’ ‘close-to-life’ style have been more appropriate in the field; in unchartered territory like the unexplored ‘interior’ of America? Simultaneously, although maybe to a lesser extent, wouldn’t O’Sullivan’s sublime, inaccurate interpretations of given landscapes have made for an interesting twist on what had already been ‘recorded’ by others in grand locations?
To a certain extent, Watkins’ style of the picturesque, as-accurate-as-possible recordings of natural settings could be compared to Constable’s style of painting. Similarly, O’Sullivan’s deliberate deviating from the truth and sublime depiction of unfamiliar places could be compared to Turner – Constable’s opposite, if you will. Therefore, Watkins and O’Sullivan were each other’s opposite in terms of how they chose to take photographs; like Constable and Turner respectively with their paintings. ‘Constable and Turner represent two very different approaches to painting, one of which emphasises calm and beauty in a picturesque manner and one that is generally more sublime’ – (Wells, 2011); a similar comparison could be drawn between Watkins and O’Sullivan with their photography. However, it should be noted that paintings and photographs also differed and so in fact, maybe O’Sullivan’s pictorial style of photography existed as Art, whereas Watkins’ work existed by itself as photographic vision. This was something I inferred from de Zayas’ essay: ‘Photography and Photography and Artistic Photography’ – (1913). Here, De Zayas is convinced that there existed two types of photographer – a ‘photographer’ or an ‘artist photographer’. I would suggest Watkins was a ‘photographer’, while O’Sullivan was an ‘artist photographer’. However, I would maintain Watkins still ‘chose’ his views through selective composition; thereby creating order and so evoking emotion, which in my opinion is what Art is all about.
A typical example for me of Carleton Watkins’s work in Yosemite would be: ‘El Capitan’ Yosemite Valley, east-central California, U.S. (c. 1866). Here, he once more employs a small aperture, ensuring everything in the photograph is sharp, from the foreground to the looming mountain in the distance. The mountain, while very grand, towering above everything else, does not appear foreboding but rather magnificent. I thought the way Watkins accomplished this was through composition, where the trees at the bottom of the frame gently lead the eye to the base of the mountain. There also existed a quite obvious relationship between the trees and mountains in terms of luminosity, where the trees were darker than the mountain. This added depth to the photo and added to the overall picturesque feeling of the photograph. It could be said the trees were naturally darker than the mountain but Watkins chose what he felt ‘“would give the best view”’ – (Watkins, (1858) In. Encyclopedia Britannica, (2013). This, was a very interesting quote for me to read and something I could perhaps apply to my landscape photography in the future.
In contrast, Timothy O’Sullivan’s ‘Summit of Wahsatch Range’, Utah (Lone Peak), (1869), shows a much bleaker, unwelcoming scene. While the scene in general, in my opinion, does indeed appear less appealing to the eye than the Watkins’s ‘El Capitan’ Yosemite Valley, east-central California, U.S. (c. 1866), the composition doesn’t lend to the picturesque either. There are stark rocks as the foreground, any trees appear in the middle ground – likewise for the human figures: apparent as tiny objects in the middle ground, overawed by the dark-in-luminosity, foreboding mountains in the distance. Also, everything in the frame seems to lead-in towards the mountains on the left; making them an unbalanced main subject. I was left with the impression that O’Sullivan was trying to depict the landscape as unfriendly; Watkins was trying to depict an (admittedly different kind of landscape) as hospitable. O’Sullivan, I gathered, photographed for his chiefs predominately, while Watkins mainly photographed with an audience in mind as well as being ‘devoted to the idea of progress’ – (Snyder, 1994).
Adams, A. et al. (1932). In. O’Hagan, S. (2010). Edward Weston: the greatest American photographer of his generation? [Online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/aug/18/edward-weston-photography [Accessed 29/3/2015].
de Zayas, M. (1913). Photography and Photography and Artistic-Photography, Camerawork: A Critical Anthology, Page 267.
Snyder, J. (1994). Territorial Photography. In. Mitchell, W.J.T. ed. Landscape and Power. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 175-201.