Thursday, June 22, 2023

Thoughts on the Power of Early Photography (From a Mathew Brady Bio)

The start of Chapter 3 in "Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation" mentions something that I've pondered a lot. And it shares 3 points that I have brought up in my photography classes for years: the inital importance of early photographs can't be comprehended today; photography was a subtle way to level out different classes of people; and because photography was considered to be more of a "truthful" science, it took a lot of work for it to be accepted as "art:"

Americans in the 1840s and '50s embraced the new and growing art of photography. The availability of images from the most distant places on earth made the world a more knowable place, a revolution in human knowledge comparable to the invention of moveable type or the Internet. But of more immediate personal value was the possibility of having images of yourself and the people you loved fixed forever in a form you could possess and pass on. Suddenly a kind of immortality previously available only to the rich, who could aford to have their portraits paint, or to those with the means to commission a miniature from an itinerant painter, was now within the reach of almost everyone. Even if you could afford a painted portrait, the result would be another person's impression or interpretation of what you looked like. This new medium, it was generally agreed, portrayed you as you really were. At a time when children often did not survive childhood and might be remembered only by a posthumous photo taken of them in burial clothes, or when a son who went out west in search of gold had little hope of communicating with the family he had left behind, or they with him, or a husband went to sea leaving a wife and family whose images he might gaze upon and who themselves could not know when or if he would return, the small daguerreotypes that people in the 1840s and '50s rushed to have made had a value that we can only guess at today.

Wilson also makes an interesting point 2 paragraphs later in the same chapter:

Photography was also among the first examples (along with the telegraph and the railway) of a phenomenon that has become almost commonplace in our time - an advance in technology that transforms rapidly from a state of inconceivable mystery or even magic to something that everyone would and must have access to. In his 1853 dictionary, Noah Webster ended a brief description of the daguerreotype process with "and then the images appear as by enchantment." Photography was at first as surprising as the possibility of wireless telephone communication seemed to us two decades ago, and then as urgent a necessary as the smartphone today.

This book was published nearly a decade ago, so you might change that last sentence to THREE decades ago as Wilson writes about "wireless telephones." But the point still stands.

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

A Memorial for a Photography Mentor

I posted last summer about the sudden loss of John Marshall, the head of the Photography Department at CVA when I was a student there. This past weekend, his wife hosted a memorial event for him at their home in Red Wing:

A young punk.

There was a short ceremony in the yard under a tent.

Ellen took over for John in CVA's final years, and we worked side-by-side!

Heidi, an undergrad photo friend.

Barb and Carol, the computer ladies at CVA.

CVA friend Graham.

His house was filled with his artwork, and Lisabeth told everyone to take a piece of his before we left:

John loved alternative processes - there were some large cyanotypes on clotheslines in the yard as well.

My senior thesis invite (from 2003!) was out on display! He'd kept a lot of student work.

The infamous "beefcake calendar."

I'm not showing any more beyond this. :)

You were one of a kind, John. We shared some laughs and goofy stories in your name this past weekend. Thanks for all you taught us.

More about John in this post from last summer.

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