This is the final installment of a series in which David Vestal gives insight into historic photographs selected from Great Photographs from Daguerre to the Great Depression, published by the Dover Press and used with their permission.
117. Wright Brothers Postcard, by Unknown Photographer, 1915. This is a booster postcard promoting the wonders of Springfield, Minnesota. It is a good cut-and-paste job, a bucolic equivalent to the montages of avant-garde art photography. It’s well calculated to get our attention, but would not have fooled Sherlock Holmes.
“Observe, Watson, the direction of the sun, as shown by light and shadows on Main Street. The sun is directly to the left, is it not? Look now at the lower wing of the airplane. The shadow of the upper wing that is seen through the lower wing’s translucent tip shows that for Wright’s Flyer, the sun was above and behind. We do not have two suns that shine simultaneously from different positions in the sky. Ergo, the airplane was cut from another photograph and pasted onto the picture of the street. And what, pray, is an airplane, vintage circa 1909, doing just above the main drag of an alert community that boasts, ‘Wide awake and up to date/No better town in any state’ in the year 1915? We miss, do we not, the large, dramatic shadow of the airplane that would fall, were this scene wholly natural, upon the street and buildings at the right of the picture.”
“Once again, Holmes, you astound me.”
“Elementary, my dear Watson.” Nice postcard, though.
118. Bucks County Barn, by Charles Sheeler, 1916. When this photo was taken in rural Pennsylvania, Sheeler had lived for some time in an old stone house and had photographed and painted the whitewashed rooms and stairway of that house. He was well acquainted with old farm buildings in Bucks County. I don’t know of any painting by him based on this photograph, but would be surprised to find that he made none. Some of his best drawings and paintings are almost exact copies of his own photographs, cleaned up and, in some areas, made more visible by changing the tones. Except for a large and lucrative job photographing Ford’s River Rouge factory in the late 1920s, he made his living mostly from the sale of his paintings. He was a two-medium man. He would have liked to exhibit his photos together with his paintings, but his otherwise excellent art dealer talked him out of it. She wished he would quit photographing and stick to the painting that she understood. This photo certainly stands on its merit and makes me wonder about any paintings that he might, correction, may have made from it, cleaning it up, making things more visible, eliminating clutter.
In many cases, though not all, I prefer his photos to his paintings and drawings based on them.
Photography records the small accidental things that go a little wrong and lend conviction to a picture. Judging from his other work, the matching paintings, if he made any, would be more impressive, while the photograph is more true.
121. Armco Steel, Ohio, by Edward Weston, 1922. At the beginning of his photographing, Edward Weston was a kidnapper, as old-time photographers called those who went from door to door begging to photograph babies and small children. It was a selling job as much as a photographic one. But soon he graduated to the kind of artistic photography practiced by camera club kings. He did extremely well at that and won all kinds of medals and ribbons.
In an old photo annual I saw a photograph, copyright 1914 by Edward Henry Weston, that I could not forget. Titled Toxophilus, it is in part a beautiful soft-focus photograph of a eucalyptus tree in a mist; but at its foot is an unintentionally comical young man with a bow and arrow. It’s a very funny photo. Weston then met wise women who had a real grasp of art, and he learned and learned. By 1922 he was making good unsentimental photographs like this one.
When he went to New York in the 1920s he showed some Armco Steel pictures, among others, to Alfred Stieglitz, who was encouraging. Weston was not impressed by the interview. He said that Stieglitz had given the most praise to pictures that he, Weston, had outgrown—the ones that were “striving for effect.” He liked words like “strive;” still, that was a good self-critical observation. And this photo, which has no need to strive, is excellent.
125. Prostitute, by Eugène Atget, 1920s. Probably dry plate and gold-toned printing-out paper: Atget was old-fashioned. Title by Dover, fairly likely true. Berenice Abbott captioned this picture rue Mouffetard, but according to later scholarship, that was the wrong street. To me this is a marvelous picture, though I can’t tell why, so I’d better leave it at that. Imagine putting those boots on; and the almost vertical pavement at the left is amazing: good thing it’s fenced off. The place has an air of very rich decay. The woman seems at home and content.
131. Allie Mae Burroughs, wife of Floyd Burroughs, by Walker Evans, 1936. I don’t know what Fortune, a magazine of and for big business, was thinking of when they sent Walker Evans and James Agee to Alabama in 1936 to photograph and write about sharecroppers, but unless I am dreaming, it happened that way.
Evans took leave from the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to go on that trip with Agee. Fortune, of course, did not print their story, and Evans and Agee later combined their work in a book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, that was published with just 31 uncaptioned photos and a long, meandering text, to very few sales, in 1941. The Alabama photographs, of which this is one, are in the FSA files in Washington, D.C., and like all FSA photos, they’re in the public domain. Anyone can publish them, no permission needed.
The book worked out pretty well, though not at first. Later it was reprinted with more photos and sold better. I suppose the first edition must go for real money at auction, now that its authors are dead. Your price goes up when you die.
I can’t imagine what Allie Mae was feeling when Walker Evans took this picture. I’m sure she wasn’t comfortable. She has a tense look and faces the camera with anxiety and determination. Maybe the tight line of her mouth was meant to be a smile. At her age she should have been a pretty woman, but her life was too hard for that, or so it seems. She is both strong and fragile, and the picture is like that, too.
Printing it in inkjet was elusive rather than difficult. The least bit too light or dark, and the least bit too soft or contrasty, and it’s just wrong. I had to make quite a few changes, going back to the beginning and starting over, learning the picture, but not with any certainty, until it became acceptable. I won’t call this print good, but yes, when the light on it is right, it’s acceptable.
Great Photographs from Daguerre to the Great Depression presents “139 Royalty-Free Designs” in jpeg format in a “CD-ROM & Book” as part of its large series, “Dover Electronic Clip Art for Macintosh® and Windows®.” System requirements: Windows 95, 98, ME, NT, 2000, XP, Vista or Macintosh, all versions; CD-ROM drive. The price of the book and CD-ROM is $16.95. To use more than ten of these photos in one project requires special permission from Dover.