Street Photography: . . . The Twentieth Century

March 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

The 20th Century was kaleidoscopic for photography  ~~ there were massive changes.  But I’m going to start just prior to the end of the 19th Century.  I begin here because a man by the name of Alfred Stieglitz influenced how photography was going to be perceived.

Stieglitz was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, into a well-to-do family who provided his education in the best private school in New York.  He went on to study photography in Berlin and lived in Europe for almost a decade until 1890, when he was forced to return to New York.

Sometime in 1892 Stieglitz bought his first hand-held camera, an Auto Graflex 4×5 plate film camera, which in no way is as light as the cameras we use today.  Prior to this, Stieglitz used a heavy 8×10 plate film camera, which always required a tripod and was difficult to carry around.  Invigorated by the freedom of the new Graflex, later that year he made two of his best-known images, “Winter, Fifth Avenue” and “The Terminal.”

Aside from being considered the father of modern American photography, Stieglitz was a visionary.

He established a gallery, “291,” where he broke down all boundaries between traditional art (paintings, sculptures and drawings) and photography.  From 1905 – 1917 Stieglitz deliberately interspersed exhibitions of controversial art along with more understandable art and with photographs.  European artists such as Cezanne, Picasso, and Brâncuşi were introduced to the American public.  This artistic dialogue enabled visitors to see, discuss and ponder the differences and similarities between artists of all ranks and types.

During this same period the National Arts Club mounted a “Special Exhibition of Contemporary Art” that included photographs by Stieglitz, Steichen, et al., along with paintings by Mary Cassatt, Whistler, and many others. This is thought to have been the first major show in the U.S. in which photographers were given equal ranking with painters.

At the end of 1924 the Boston Museum of Fine Arts acquired a collection of twenty-seven of Stieglitz’s photographs. This was the first time a major museum included photographs in its permanent collection.

1900 brought about a technological and social transformation in photography — the Brownie.  Introduced by Eastman Kodak, it was an easy-to-use and inexpensive camera.   Even more importantly, anyone could use it!  The marketing slogan was, “You push the button, we do the rest.”

Different versions of the Brownie were manufactured right up to 1962.  Millions of these cameras were sold in every part of the world.  Everything became a Kodak moment.

Then there was the Leica!  ~~ a small 35-mm camera created by Oskar Barnack  and introduced 1925.   It was revolutionary because it was extremely compact, lightweight and fitted with a very high quality lens that produced sharp negatives.  Photographers could easily work in ordinary outdoor settings with available light.   Life and action could be effortlessly caught from any angle and the photographer would not be highly visible.  Unlike earlier bellows and Graflex cameras the Leica did not get in the way.

Man Ray, André Kertész, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White, David Seymour, Robert Doisneau , Robert Capa, Helen Levitt, Helmut Newton, Diane Arbus, and Garry Winogrand all worked with a Leica.

Just a word about the photojournalistic magazines that came into being during the 1930s – 1940s:  Life (USA), Look (USA), Picture Post  (London),Paris Match (Paris), Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (Berlin).  The work of many fine photographers of the era appeared in the weekly issues.  Millions of people saw the world through the eyes of these men and women who covered wars, revolutions and the lives of everyday people. We all learned to see photographically.

There were numerous camera and film innovations during this time, but I am going to jump ahead to the Polaroid because it added a whole new dimension to photography –- instant gratification!

Scientist Edwin Land invented both the instant film and the camera.  It hit the market in 1948.   The earliest Polaroids used instant roll film, but after 1963 it was pack film and it was in color.  By this time, the camera was entirely automatic, all you had to do was push the button, pull the paper tabs (containing negative and positive papers) and out came the picture.  A quick count and you peeled off the top paper.  Bam, there was your photo.

Again, this was a camera for Mr. and Mrs. Everyday photographer.  But it was also the way professional photographers did test shots.  Then they shot with regular film.

Then along came the digital camera!

Kodak engineer Steve Sasson produced the first digital camera prototype in 1975.  By 1991, Kodak released the first professional digital camera system (DCS), aimed at photojournalists. It was a Nikon F-3 camera equipped by Kodak with a 1.3 megapixel sensor.   Shortly after the introduction of the DCS series, Nikon, Canon, Fuji, Olympus, Minolta and other manufacturers began mass production of their own models.

Apple QuickTake 100 cameras hit the market in 1994. They were the first digital cameras for the consumer-level market that worked with a home computer.  Market demand and competition between camera makers skyrocketed, prices decreased while image quality increased.  And the rest is history.

The 20th Century was an absolutely amazing time for photography.  It became an accepted art form, a way to see the world-at-large, a snapshot preserving family memories, and a digital imaging revolution.   And all of it leading up to the 21st century where anyone can communicate images globally within minutes!

What are your thoughts on where we are now?

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