The Photograph as Record
Arthur Elliott, March of Empire, c. 1909, details unknown,
half-tone reproduction in Amateur Photographer & Photographic
News 50:1296 (3 August 1909), Front Cover.
Photographs can be used in many different ways.1 At the turn of the century the main functional division was between the photograph as picture, and as record. Serious photographers in the nineteenth century had mainly taken documentary record shots, especially of nature. Those who aspired to be artists in the early twentieth century thought such representations factual and uninspiring and believed that personal aesthetic expression, often associated with narrative, was more important.
The trouble was that 'making pictures' became bound up with a system. Low key and soft-focus joined to elaborate rules of composition had the effect of making much Pictorial work, especially among Australian workers with their fondness for romanticised bush scenes, indistinguishable one from another. Such images may not be factual, but they are often uninspiring.
Those who criticised factual photographs forgot the role that pictures play in conveying information.2 An interesting subject can compensate for many pictorial defects. Arthur Elliott's March of Empire, c. 1909, is an example of a photograph that engages the viewer's interest without artistic pretensions. Despite this Elliott, at the time this image was made, was regarded as the strong man of the South African Pictorial scene, something that reinforces my previous observation that Pictorialism cannot be understood as a single style.
Elliott was a professional photographer whose 10,000 negatives, which were acquired in 1938 by the Historical Monuments Commission and housed in Cape Town, had been part of a life-long project to record South Africa's past. From his perspective, an important component of this was the Imperial past, and in March of Empire we see the interior being developed by a steam engine escorted by troops and a character in a bowler hat. High key and sharp-focus enable the viewer to identify detail. Research into the exact context and historical circumstances provide an entry to reading and writing about the photograph.
A useful web site 'Arthur Elliott Online (1870-1938)' may be found at http://myweb.absa.co.za/pwiese/.
Tom H. Stoward, Labour, c. 1911, carbon photograph other
details unknown, photogravure reproduction in Harringtons'
Photographic Journal 20:231 (22 April 1911),
facing title page.
Another picture I like, this time from Australia, is Labour, c. 1911 by the Adelaide Pictorialist Tom H. Stoward. It shows a group of men erecting telegraph poles, demonstrating that some photographers of the period were interested to portray modern industry and contemporary technology. Apart from the subject, Labour has several other features of note.
Stoward habitually used an enlarger, and it seems here as if the whole negative has been made bigger, as opposed to the usual Pictorial practice of selecting and enlarging a section of interest. Notice the figure on the extreme left, which has been 'left in', despite the fact that the camera has bisected the image. In terms of composition, the centred major subject, the figure in the foreground, is also unexpected because the rule of thirds was usually applied in a Pictorial work. As well, there is a general untidiness about the picture. Another photographer might well have used cropping and enlarging to gain greater control by eliminating some of the distracting images on the print's edges.
These may be defects according to the rules of composition, but add interest. Stoward’s example of originality and versatility might have served as a model for those amateurs, criticised by Edwin Welch in Photograms of the Year 1907 as being, ‘possessed of many virtues, including some artistic ability, but more often devoid of purpose and sadly lacking in originality.’3
Despite the dust haze, the work is again high-keyed, with natural light falling on the men at work with the heat of the day recorded by their shadows. There is also an emphasis on the difficult working conditions, the haze in some places obscuring parts of the scene. It is hard to make out the half figure on the left. Perhaps a boy has stopped on the way home from school to oversee the work for a moment. The rest of the photograph though is quite 'realistic', which enhances the record characteristic to the point where it could easily have been used as a press photograph, or an illustration in a book..
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