It’s 1914 and Everyone’s a Photo Critic

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One hundred years ago this month, much of the world was at war.  But in the United States – which would eventually mobilize 4 million military personnel – public opinion in 1914 was still firmly on the side of neutrality.  This was very evident thumbing through this 100-year-old issue of “The Camera” magazine, published in Philadelphia.  Filled with photographs by Hamburg-based German photographer Rudolf Dührkoop, the only mention of the war is an editorial that claims the war was being used as an excuse to raise the price of photographic materials and chemicals.

Within a few years, images of war – many of them taken by American soldiers – would become much more common.  But in 1914, American photographers were more focused on portraits (Ansco was sponsoring a “50 loveliest women” photo contest – see the advertisement below) and on bright, sunny landscapes.  This was very evident from the content of one of “The Camera” magazine’s regular features, “From our Print Criticism Department.” In this feature, readers were encouraged to send in copies of their (photographic) work, to be criticized by the magazine’s editors.  It’s fascinating, not only because it gives an insight into the kinds of subjects photographers 100 years ago were interested in photographing (nothing at all to do with the ongoing war!), but also for the nature of the criticism that was offered.

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In 1914, photography was still young, and limited to people who could afford the materials, could understand basic chemistry, and had the free time to devote to this new art form.   Rather than snap hundreds of photos and sift out a handful, photographers would have to painstakingly set up a scene, snap a few shots, and wait until hours later (at best) to see if they had succeeded.  Despite the differences in equipment, much of what defined a “good” photograph was the same then as it is now.  So I thought for today’s blog post, I’d share a bunch of these verbatim (the copyrights are all expired).  And like the American photographers of 1914, we’ll just forget all about the war that was raging throughout much of the rest of the world.

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Verdi Burton – “Lifting Fog.”  A very unusual subject and one of much interest.  The effect you have caught is possessed of sentiment and feeling, and shows your appreciation of the poetry of Nature.  It is a theme for a painter, and we realize that the natural view must have been particularly beautiful.  You deserve much commendation for getting a real impression direct from Nature and not in the way too many do by faking negative and print.  Impressionism in photography is as legitimate as it is in painting, but the true artist gives us Nature, not a gutta percha world reflected in a brass doorknob.  Your subject is a true transcript from nature, and therefore delightful to artistic perception.

(Nowadays we might see similar criticism of photographers who overdo Lightroom or Photoshop adjustments.  And “gutta percha”?  This was a type of Malaysian latex used to coat cables.  No idea what this had to do with photographs, especially when reflected in a brass doorknob…)

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H.B. Long – “Allegheny Bridge.” A very good picture of the bridge, but we should prefer a view from it rather than of the structure itself, which can be of interest only to a civil engineer. The scenery around fairly pleads for its taking. The view must be beautiful. Let us have the scenery without the bridge. The technical quality of your work is most excellent, and the photograph is especially of value for local association.

(I suspect that a contemporary critic would have been more impressed, and called attention to the lines leading the eye to the upper right third…rather than suggesting maybe the photographer ought to have taken a picture of something completely different)

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F. E. Irving. – “A Hillside View.”  As a whole your picture is not a good piece of composition, but it has, like most of us, some redeeming qualities.  In the first place, it is [not?] a very good photograph, and then, on examination, we discover that, like the puzzle pictures, it has a picture concealed and indeed a pleasing picture.  There is a good deal of artistic merit on the right side of the photograph.  We would suggest cutting off all of the view by a vertical line to the left of the two slender trees, so as to just enclose them in the scene.  You will thus have a picture 2 x 3 1/2 inches which you could enlarge and thereby secure a really fine piece of composition.

(“Your picture pretty much sucks, but there is a tiny piece in the corner that isn’t too bad – if you could please crop out 80% of it you should be fine.”  Seriously, I would question this critique, as the composition they suggest seems like the most bland part of the picture)

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F. H. Legleitner – “An Interesting Letter.” Your negative is woefully undertimed, consequently the print is hard and lacking in detail. The pose is not natural, but constrained and the accessories very annoying to the eye, especially the pennant with the lettering in the half-introduced frame. Your model, judging even from your photograph with its imperfections, seems to us an excellent subject for portraiture, and under good conditions of illumination any good photographer would get charming results. In a word, you do not do justice to your good subject. Study proper illumination and do not be afraid to give 5 seconds exposure instead of a fraction, and do not illuminate with such strong light as you have done. Soften the light by means of tissue screens and do not crowd so much in your photograph when you are taking a portrait.

(Honestly, I didn’t think the picture was that bad.  The pennant was odd, I’ll admit)

 

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Gustav Nelson – “Camp Life.”  There are too many unpleasant vertical and horizontal lines in your photograph, which you might have diminished in number or have gotten rid of entirely by a little exercise of taste, especially as your topic does not demand their introduction.  You might have made quite a picture of the group of men and the boats if you had concentrated your attention upon them.

(I would have left out the part about the lines and asked, “this is a picture of….?”  Oh, and your horizon is crooked.)

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J. B. Gale – “Lilies.”  Your flower study is excellent and you have reproduced the texture of the lilies well.  The only fault is in the monotonous black background which detracts from the merits of the picture.  It is entirely too funereal and so unpleasantly suggests a use for which flowers of that variety are employed.  A graduated gray would have set the bunch off better and give it the atmosphere which, like all living things, it needs.

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H. M. Branin – “Among the Quaking Aspen.”  Your tree study is a charming piece of composition and also a most excellent photograph.  The rendering of the different textures – trees, rocks, foliage and water is well and adequately reproduced.  We can discover no fault whatever with your picture and shall congratulate you for your artistic feeling.  With the colors of Nature your view must have been delightful.

(I like how they basically say, “the color we imagine was there but can’t yet photograph makes this an awesome photo.”)

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Frank Zwinak – “Spring Sunshine.”  The composition has got some good features, but is rather too monotonous in the lighting.  It does not convey any spring sunshine or in fact sunshine at all.  Everything is in one uniform tone.

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2 Responses to It’s 1914 and Everyone’s a Photo Critic

  1. jdelliott says:

    I examined “gutta percha” and I believe it was then a synomym for something false or fake, what we today malign as “plastic”. Also, color photography was invented in the 1860s, albeit in a primitive and relatively inacessable medium.

  2. Tom (Admin) says:

    I was recently reading a book on the history of photography, and saw “gutta percha” mentioned as a material that was used to make plastic-like protective cases for ambrotypes and daguerrotypes. Maybe this material was regarded as cheap or fake…?

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