Photography astounds us by its very ubiquity. If there exist, in the 21st century, lives still unrecorded by the camera, or corners of the world where photography’s reach has not yet penetrated, their purview is rapidly shrinking. At the same time, the rapid-fire onslaught of fleeting images in our digital universe produces a kind of visual amnesia, as if the ripening time necessary for a picture were in direct proportion to its staying power in our memory. Perhaps there are masterpieces of cell-phone photography currently in the making; more likely, the ability to point, click, and record a picture with a device more commonly used for casual communication signals the latest demotion of the image to the level of mere conversation.
Wondering how we got there? “Framing a Century,” a show ranging over 100 years of photography, may prove instructive. Drawn from the Met’s permanent holdings, which were deepened and broadened by the museum’s 2005 acquisition of the wonderfully eccentric and treasure-rich Gilman Paper Company Collection, the exhibition features 13 photographers, all acknowledged masters of the medium, showcasing about a dozen mostly stunning works from each. From the initial, ghostly impressions that English inventor William Henry Fox Talbot made by placing plant specimens directly upon light-sensitive paper, to the 19th-century cult of personality celebrated in ecstatic and mysterious portraits by Julia Margaret Cameron and Nadar (the pseudonym of Gaspard-Félix Tournachon), to the windswept, Romantic seascapes of Gustave Le Gray and the sublime expanses of the American West captured by Carleton Watkins (each negotiating man’s place in the divine pantheon of nature), to the surreal street photography of Eugène Atget or Henri Cartier-Bresson (the latter a nomadic eye wedded to his Leica)—the exhibition reveals photography as a litmus test for social transformation.
Many of these photographers used technological innovations—such as the shift from paper to glass negatives, which allowed for crystalline clarity of detail across vast distances—to mirror broader changes in society. Watkins’s pictures, for example, which were spurred by the railroad’s westward expansion, became both the aesthetic embodiment of, and props in the service of, the doctrine of manifest destiny. In Cartier-Bresson’s hands, the newly mobile 35mm camera developed, between the two world wars, into the expressive instrument of both a rootless cosmopolitanism and a freshly minted world of modernist disjunctions; that same camera, peeking out between the buttons of Walker Evans’s winter coat, recorded the urban anomie on the faces of New York City subway riders, lost in thought.
And, lest we fall prey to the illusion of progress, the exhibition shows photography circling back on itself repeatedly. Man Ray’s surreal and camera-less Rayographs of the 1920s, made by placing objects directly onto photographic paper and exposing it to light, harked back to Fox Talbot’s original invention some 80 years earlier. And Evans’s spare and resonant Negro Church, South Carolina (1936) has much in common with Édouard Baldus and Charles Marville’s lush 19th-century portraits of medieval French cathedrals, each using the modern technology of photography to document an architecture of spiritual longing, deeply rooted in the national identity.
Fans of contemporary photography will find in Watkins’s virginal landscapes a premonition of Robert Adams’s dirge-like evocations of the desecration of the American West. Nadar’s gallery of bohemians and cultural luminaries brings to mind Richard Avedon’s accomplishments nearly a century later. Cameron’s pictures (when they’re not odes to Victorian ideals of intellectual manhood) press her relatives, friends, and servants into tender allegories, reminiscent of Sally Mann’s luminous portraits of her children as both specific individuals and the embodiment of childhood’s fleeting promise. And in the shadows of the secret, nighttime Paris rendered by the Transylvanian-born Brassaï (the pseudonym of Gyula Halász) lurk hints of the later achievements of both Arbus and Weegee.
Many of the artists included in “Framing a Century” have been the subject of monographic exhibitions at the Met in recent years, including Le Gray, Baldus, Watkins, Nadar, and the pioneering British photographer Roger Fenton; retrospectives devoted to Atget, Cartier-Bresson, Cameron, and Evans have unfolded elsewhere. But seeing their works in a continuum offers a rare perspective on the transformations (and growing pains) of an infant medium through its first hundred years. Urged on by the British government, Fenton, for example, photographed the Crimean War as if it were one big still-life. Battle scenes lay beyond the recording capabilities of his camera, and images of the dead and wounded would have offended his Victorian clientele. But in his picture of the pell-mell disorder at the narrow harbor of Balaklava (used as a landing place for British forces) lies an inkling of the conflict’s grim chaos. Le Gray’s French cavalry officers, silhouetted against the morning mist while conducting exercises on the fields of Chalon, are transmuted into tiny tin soldiers, mute fragments in a broader existential drama. On the other hand, Cartier-Bresson’s picture inside a camp for displaced persons at the close of World War II, showing a French Gestapo informer being hauled before her accusers, is an unparalleled image of psychological violence, with its trio of figures representing Rage, Shame, and Justice.
While one might quibble with this exhibition as an essay in canon formation, its panoramic view also provides a sense of how the photographer’s role in society has shifted. Among the medium’s inventors, Fox Talbot was a learned gentleman, prone to lecture on botany, mathematics, chemistry—and ancient Assyria. Its early practitioners included many late starts (Cameron, Watkins, Atget) and radical risk takers: Le Gray, for example, at the age of 40, abandoned his wife and children, fled his creditors, and spent the last 20 years of his life tutoring the sons of the Ottoman ruler of Egypt. And how great a yawning distance separates a Watkins, a Baldus, or an Atget—who, however extreme their art, seem to have thought of themselves primarily as documentarians—from the louche bohemians, like Man Ray and Brassaï, who came later? Such is photography’s ambivalent legacy.