30. WHO DUNNIT AND WHAT IS IT?

Following some trains of thought in the last Newsletter, I’m thinking about some aspects of photographs that are not well known nor well understood: Who made the photograph, and what is the material prehistory of the photographic object?

In most cases the name of the photographer, if known, seems to answer the first question. Yet many creative eyes, hands and minds often enter into the production of a photograph.

Daguerreotypes by known makers might be produced in small studios or even by traveling artists who did all the work themselves. Larger studios would have a staff, so that tasks such as polishing the plates, preparing and working on the plates, and even composing the picture would be done by workers who are generally not known or credited. Daguerreian entrepreneurs such as Brady, Plumbe, Whitehurst had chains of studios in different cities so they were usually not even present when daguerreotypes that carry their name were made.

One wonders how they exercised aesthetic control over the images made in their studios. This is a question that should be thought about for each studio or chain of studios. Each situation is different.

Incidentally, why were most daguerreotypes that we find today not signed in any way? Often we can identify a maker only by the style of backdrop or some studio furniture, but this is only in special cases.

In the case of albumen prints from glass negatives there are related issues. In a few cases we know the name of the “operator” who was behind the camera, but usually not. Stereo views and CDV’s had space in the margins and on the verso for printed texts, titles, identifying labels, but these rarely identify the photographer. The imprinted name is often that of the publisher. The publisher may have hired a photographer, or even purchased material from other photographers or firms.

While print quality is a factor in the appreciation of these small format photographs, I don’t know of any instance where the printer is credited. It is only in larger format images that the creative act of printing becomes an important part of the appreciation of the photograph. Alexander Gardner’s “Sketchbook” is a rare and great example of a publisher giving separate credit to the maker of the negative and the “printer.” This is especially interesting in that we know that Gardner was one of the photographers who made the images for stereo views that were credited to Brady or later to Anthony, but he was not always credited.

Usually the quality of the print is attributed to the photographer, but this is not always the case. This is so throughout the film-based era. There is some knowledge about some photographers who printed their own works, but it is rarely mentioned. Even fastidious printers such as Ansel Adams or Edward Weston had others printing their photographs later in their careers. Sometimes the printer is credited, such as the Weston photographs printed by Cole. Some photographers almost always relied on others to print their work. The creative relationship between the photograph and the printer is a complex issue.

This issue ought to be more thoroughly explored, especially now while some of the photographers and printers are still alive.

The path from the negative to a particular print not only involves the possible creative contribution of others, it also may involve more steps in the laboratory than the single one of going directly from the negative to the contact printing frame or the enlarger.

In the case of stereo views and cartes de visite it is often necessary to make one or several copy negatives. With stereo views, some have the two images mounted as separate prints. Others are printed from a copy negative that already combines the two images in a format ready for copying.

Some of the importance of true vintage prints by 20th century photographers comes from the belief that they were printed from the original negative or something close to it, and cropped and printed by the photographer. This is not always the case. As we get further away from the actual session of making the first prints, this is often less and less the case.

The only way to have more than one unique daguerreotype is to copy it with another daguerreotype. One can sometimes suspect that a daguerreotype is a copy by a certain loss of tonality, but it is often only revealed by some artifact of the original daguerreotype appearing within the image of the copy. With later prints the fact that there is a slight loss of quality because a print is several generations away from the negative can only be revealed by close comparison of a later (perhaps signed exhibition print) with an earlier print made from the negative. In some cases even an early unsigned press print will have greater definition than a later, larger exhibition print.

This is just a preliminary sketch. I’ll explore some of these issues in greater depth in future Newsletters.

 

1 Response

  1. David March 18, 2015 / 3:14 PM

    This historical information about process is especially useful to an amateur like me. Thinking about these contradictions in relation to the market makes me wonder if the fetish reserved for the first generation printing is not overblown in relation to prices. Perhaps I am not sensitive enough but it seems to me that Cole Weston’s prints are very beautiful and yet a fraction of what the price is for pieces assumed to be printed by Edward (and signed). I guess this is as much an artifact of history as opposed to aesthetics or craftsmanship. It certainly is a reflection of the limited supply of the early pieces. In any case how the whole process is reflected in the market can be befuddling. As in the rest of the art world names can have outsized influence over quality. I also think of the Lewis Hine scandal and how that challenges our thoughts about the value of the authentic artifact as opposed to the quality of the image.

    Of course this is true across the art market from forged Rodin drawings to painstaking fakes of Fitz Hugh Lane paintings. It demands a constant reassessment and cultivation of what it means for a thing to be “real” and why it is that a thing is valuable.

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