Loss of Vision: How Early 20th century Photography Was Misjudged by Critics and How Archives Obscure the Image

Repost – Exposure, June 2018 (20 min read)

Double portrait of an unidentified woman, courtesy University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.

While both historical archives and museums collect photography, they approach it in different ways. Whereas museums collect a few pieces, a historical archive which has photographs in the millions may take the photographer’s entire body of work. I have been working with large collections of photography for 35 years now in my job as the Visual Materials Curator/archivist. Such collections which may range from 10,000 to 100,000 images allow you to see their work in a way that viewing just a few pieces of a photographer’s work can never match.

Having worked with many collections of early commercial photography, I become particularly interested in the misinterpretations of commercial photography by modern critics and art historians who judge it using incorrect standards, and I also became interested in how the photographic document can be obscured by both photographers themselves and by archival practice. First I am going to discuss how photography critics, can misjudge the work of commercial photographers due to their lack of understanding the social milieu and the working methodology of the commercial photographer. A great example of this is in Max Kozloff’s 2007 book Theater of the Face: Portrait Photography Since 1900. Kozloff is a historian and art critic and has written numerous books and articles on art and photography.

Photograph by E.J. Bellocq © Lee Friedlander, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

In Theater of the Face, Kozloff discusses a photograph by E.J. Bellocq, a turn of the century New Orleans photographer. Bellocq worked as a professional photographer recording landmarks, ships, and machinery for various clients in the New Orleans area. Little is known about him; after his death his work was destroyed. Eighty-nine negatives of prostitutes in the Storyville area of New Orleans made in about 1912 were found and later in 1966 were purchased by the art photographer, Lee Friedlander. Friedlander printed the 8×10 negatives on gold toned printing out paper (to emulate how he thought Bellocq might have printed) and a show of the work was hung at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1970. Several books of the photographs have been published based on the prints made by Lee Friedlander. There are no Bellocq prints of the Storyville prostitutes but recently, some examples of his regular work came to light. They are typical commercial work of the time. READ ENTIRE ARTICLE

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