What Is Photography?

Alan Trachtenberg’s Reading American Photographs steps us through the history of photography, in an interesting manner, while attempting to define the nature of photography. I find most interesting the parts of the book where profitability of the image determines the images that are produced, and they are created. He traces the evolution of “light writing” from the Daguerrotype to modern film photography, but does not evaluate modern “amateur” photography, completely avoiding the “instamatic” camera, the book was also published before the digital age, precluding a discussion of impact of the relatively new process of digital photography. Instead Trachenberg focuses on a select group of photographers that he believes are influential to the development of photography in America, however most of these have a base in New York City. He begins with anonymous photographers in the age of the Daguerreotype. His major point here is the beginning of the idea that the “camera never lies.” The technology required to finesses the camera image, either before or after exposure had not yet been developed. As technology improved, photography professionalized, and Trachtenberg quickly transitions into discussing the history of Mathew Brady, and his famous moniker “Brady of Broadway.” Photography had quickly moved from the purview of witchdoctors and alchemists, to the most popular society of that day. Trachtenberg also discusses here how photography played an early and integral part in the development of racial theory, by providing a “respectable” medium for study and dissemination of the ideas.

Trachtenberg stays with Brady’s imprint—although many of the photographs were no longer taken by Brady himself, as he transitions into the often jarring Civil War photographs. He argues that photography was one of the most important ways that memory was produced during the Civil War. He also shows how false this memory actually was. Photographs of the Civil War were routinely staged, and the conditions modified to make the best photograph, despite this, the photographs were still portrayed as fact The conditions that were displayed involved calculations about what would sell the most photographs. These photographs also focused on the before and after scenes of battle, because it was still impossible to take a photo of action, especially that of battle. These myriad of images were organized into series, and Trachtenberg argues that the photos are useless alone, and only have meaning when they are grouped together. Apparently “a picture is worth a thousand words, but a series of pictures is priceless.”

His next stop in history involves mostly Timothy H. O’Sullivan, for discussing the large vistas of the West as part of mid-nineteenth century surveying parties. Here Trachtenberg discusses that photographs were still sometimes staged, but instead of being staged for profit, they are staged to best display the “art’ of the photo. The popularity and profit gained from these photos was not their primary goal, unlike the Civil War photos, the artful documentation of physical features was the actual purpose and intent of the program.

After this short detour to the West, Trachtenberg returns us to the New York center of this book, by discussing the differing styles of Alfred Stieglitz and Lewis Hine, and exploring the question of photography as art, or social work. Stieglitz was primarily an art photographer, staging his vistas just right so that the aesthetic of the photograph is perfect art. Lewis Hine presents a different type of photography; using it as a form of social work. Like Jacob Riis, Hine went to the Lower East Side, and other areas of New York’s impoverishment. Trachtenberg argues that social work photography allowed the photographer to acknowledge their own presence. Hine would eventually change and soften his approach, documenting workers and encouraging them to think of their work as art, instead of drudgery. In this softer approach, Trachtenberg argues that he became more of an artist, and less willing to let himself in his work.

His final step is to discuss Walker Evans and his attempt at breaching the gap between “social work” photography and “art.” Trachtenberg also discusses how Evans hearkens back to an earlier era, literary influence again is part of the photographic tradition. His book is entitled American Photographs, but he stretches the idea of American, and even photograph. Critics called the book “quintessentially American”, each photograph has just enough local information to distinguish it, while remaining simply “American.”

I leave you with this question, what is photography. Is it art, if so, is it like a painting? Or is it raw factual data without interpretation? Or is it a teaching tool? A combination of all of these perhaps? More?