The Romantic Era was the parent of a new art form: photography. Although photographic methods were crude in the 1800s and the resulting images lacked sharp detail and color, I believe that photography back then was a form of art. In this blog, I plan to show you two photographs from the 1800s and discuss artistic elements present in them.
Our first photograph comes from Carleton Watkins. Watkins was one of the most notable Western photographers of his time. He mastered photography using what was available to him at the time. Our smartphone-toting society today tends to take photography for granted. What may not be obvious is that early photographs, such as Watkins’, represented a lot of work. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website sets one of Watkins’ other photographs in context: “Watkins produced this work wrangling a dozen or more mules carrying roughly two thousand pounds of equipment, including his oversize camera, large glass plates, and flammable chemicals” (“Carleton Watkins: Yosemite”). Clearly, photography in the rugged region of the western United States was complicated by the primitive state of equipment. Nonetheless, this did not deter photographers such as Watkins from taking on the challenge.
This photograph caught my eye. The exotic geological formation (the “slide”) draws a lot of interest to the scene. Various artistic qualities are evident in this photo. There is a variety of textures that add interest: speckled rock, scrubby trees, and sweeping smoke. The rock slide adds to an appealing element to the composition. As the viewer glances at the picture, his or her attention “slides” down to the train. The picture also observes the famous rule of thirds. The primary subject—the train—occupies one of the thirds of the picture (the bottom third). The rock slide starts the top-left intersection of the thirds divisions and ends at the bottom right intersection. Overall, the photo has a pleasing composition.
As a painter, William Henry Jackson had an artistic eye. It is evident in this photograph. The rugged cliff dominates the picture. Although I do not know who the men are in the picture, Jackson sometimes worked with the famous painter Thomas Moran, including him in photographs to add a sense of scale (Peale 8). In this photograph, the men definitely help convey the overwhelming enormity of the landscape. By placing the men in the notch in the mountain’s face, Jackson drew attention to them.
Though washed out, a canyon and mountain are visible in the background. It certainly must have been a majestic view, but the technology back then clearly had difficulty capturing the wide range of dynamics. The image shows artistic features, but the primitive equipment kept it from being as stunning as it could have been.
Jackson’s friend, Thomas Moran, is well-known for his beautiful Western paintings. His paintings, especially the one shown above, depict stunning landscapes. This particular painting contains so many things that the photography of that era lacked. It has vivid colors. The stunning lighting beautifully accentuates the landscape. There is no problem with important details being lost in the highlights or shadows. Everything is spectacularly balanced. Even though we have vastly improved photographic equipment today, we still have to wait for the weather to create these gorgeous panoramas. In the 1800s, challenges with both weather and primitive equipment impaired photography. As shown in this blog, however, several skilled photographers of the 1800s produced works that deserve credit as art. Photography was a developing art form, and these works (among others) showed the potential it held.
“Carleton Watkins: Yosemite.” The Met. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web. 09 Mar. 2016. <http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2014/carleton-watkins>.
Peale, Albert, and Marlene Merrill. Seeing Yellowstone in 1871: Earliest Descriptions & Images From the Field. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 2005. Google Books. Web. 9 Mar. 2016. <https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=SNWOihEsH8oC>.