The Amateur Tradition: Photography’s Second Self
Unlike painting, photography is a democratic medium. Anyone who takes pictures long enough, persistently enough, is entitled to their moment of grace. That one shot when everything comes together, when readiness and chance conspire with the camera to make a little marvel. Of course it does not always happen; but it happens often enough to give every amateur hope that his or her time will come.
In fact so often does this happen it leads one to suppose that the medium itself has a special arrangement with chance, and with the possibility of enticing what the Surrealists called ‘the marvelous’ into one’s life.
The perfect avocation for those with free time on their hands, photography allowed people who otherwise would have had no outlet for their visual gifts to create images. If painting required years of study to achieve a level of competence, photography could be mastered comparatively quickly. From the earliest days of the medium, gifted amateurs such as Julia Margaret Cameron and Lewis Carroll made their presence felt. Moreover, it could be taken up at various points in a life: in childhood by Jacques Lartigue, in middle-age by Cameron. And it could be practiced in tandem with another profession, such as sociology by Lewis Hine.
Again, unlike painting, photography’s vibrant amateur tradition has complemented the professional one, granting it the possibility of renewal from within. The anarchist in the family, the amateur staked a claim to things the professional ignored, disdained, or undervalued. Whether done deliberately or accidentally, it does not matter; what matters is that the amateur alternative contributed substantially to the regenerative capacity of the medium itself. It allowed photography to contain its own barbaric doppelganger—what the great Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky called “rebarbarization”, the process by which a played out art form is replaced by one previously considered vulgar, e.g. the epic poem by the novel, the novel by the film. Photography, both professional and amateur, became both the repository of older visual traditions, continuing Renaissance realist conventions, (thereby freeing the energies of painting’s avant garde to explore other ways of seeing) and, conversely, a safe place to be odd, experimental, and eccentric.
In 1864, Julia Margaret Cameron set professional standards on their head. With her large, unsharp close-ups of Victorian notables she bypassed commercial rules to capture what she considered “the souls” of her sitters, the men with their great lion heads, the women with their sensitive melancholia. According to historian Beaumont Newhall her “technique was deplored by professional photographers,” whereas her results were admired by “painters, scientists, and writers.” Like Cameron, many of the best 19th century photographers were amateurs of one kind or another and in the early days it was often the hobby of the rich. An elaborate salon tradition emerged alongside it which flourished throughout the century.
After Kodak introduced the dry plate process in 1880, Camera Clubs sprung up in New York, Boston, London, and elsewhere. Providing darkrooms, discussions, and exhibition opportunities, the clubs largely continued the romantic esthetic of the meditative landscape, painterly portrait, classical nude, and architectural study. Gifted amateurs such as Charles Gilbert Hine, whose interests were urban and architectural, shared the pre-modern sensibility of this era.
The great alternative to this Romantic and essentially idyllic esthetic came later, with the advent of societies like the Photo League in the 1930’s. Although a gritty urban photography had its origin well before the League and flourished in the brilliant work of amateurs like Lewis Hine, it was the League with its leftist leanings that formalized a defiant alternative to ‘capitalist’ commercial work. Here the Ashcan esthetic prevailed over the Romantic, its purpose to expose rather than to celebrate material conditions. Street photography as a calling came into being, and the crossover from amateur to artist more pronounced. These photographers felt themselves to be on a social mission, an attitude that persists in many photojournalists. On the other hand, the 19th century notion of the sublime in nature continued unhampered right through the 20th century, especially in the work of artist-photographers such as Ansel Adams and Minor White whose hosts of amateur followers are legion.
Over time the technically proficient 19th century amateur with his or her bulky equipment and salon esthetic gave pride of place to a new group of amateurs who knew next to nothing about technical matters and whose only concern was that the shot ‘came out’. With the advent of the small Kodak camera in 1888, the family chronicler using lightweight equipment was loosed on the world. A new element entered into the mix as the relationship between amateur and professional began to take on aspects of a class divide. If the earlier 19th century amateur had bulky equipment, free time, and, quite frequently, money, in general the new amateur had none of those things.
For better or worse, the 19th century salon photographer was often educated and therefore saturated in the high art of the past. Not so the working man or woman of the 20th. They were mostly driven by one thing: the desire to record emotionally significant moments. They had gotten their hands on the camera, and they were taking pictures of what mattered to them. For all its sometime clumsiness, the work of these amateurs always retained its connection to life, to the real feelings of ordinary people, and to the instinctual vitality of folk art. Ignoring the conventions of the salon world, never mind the professional ones, indeed often oblivious of them, the family chronicler set about making ‘mistakes’ of all kinds, mistakes that in the 1960’s became a seedbed of new ideas for ‘serious’ photographers.
Appalled by this proliferation of images, the well-off amateur, lead by Alfred Stieglitz and the Photo Secession, morphed into the art photographer. It is interesting to note that Stieglitz’s professed life work was to acquire for photography the status of art, a further wrinkle in the class divide. Now the amateur who made little or no profit from his or her photography was officially an Artist. Initially that meant imitating the painting of a previous generation. Eventually artist-photographers abandoned soft focus for the hard edges of the completely sharp print, until it, too, became a convention to be overturned.
As the cameras of professional photojournalists became smaller and smaller, they were accused of being snap shooters as well, particularly Cartier-Bresson at the start of his career. All sorts of reciprocal influences in style and composition occurred, starting with Degas’ appropriation of open form and fragmentation from photography and Cartier-Bresson’s re-absorption of Degas’ compositions into his photo reportage.
In the radical 1960’s the generational impulse to break the rules crossed over into photography. A tendency towards an increasingly casual, ‘amateurish’ approach surfaced. At the same time people were learning to value the inventiveness of snapshots themselves. Quirkiness, decapitated heads, over-exposure, accidental double exposures, upside-down compositions, and shaky camera work seemed to offer a different way of looking at the world. Just as scratched film and flares started to be seen as another kind of visual texture in cinema, “mistakes” became part of the orthodox vocabulary of stills. Something of the same impulse could be seen in the graphic design and typography of David Carsons whose design favored texture over legibility. The mistakes of the illiterate barbarian became the calling card of the cutting edge professional. Moreover, the ease with which advertising, especially television advertising, incorporated these elements is phenomenal.
Again and again, after a particular photographic trajectory has been played out, ‘serious’ photographers turn to their amateur counterparts, scouring effects, concerns, and esthetics for new ways to create images. The snapshot esthetic, first mentioned in relation to Cartier-Bresson, erupted into respectability with Frank, Winogrand, and their followers, whose work possessed an improvisatory quality their more stiff-necked predecessors found sloppy. Color, the distained costume jewelry of the amateur, was embraced next.
With conceptual photography the photo art world has made a turn towards Du Champ, whose rejection of ‘retinal pleasure’ in favor of cerebral pleasure is well known. Conceptual photography appeals to a relatively small, educated class, one interested-- like classical Chinese scholars-- in making endless allusions to the history of the medium, quoting and restating work that has come before, and largely depending for its meaning on outside referents. No longer grounded in the material surface of things, conceptual photography requires a love of intellectual play to puzzle out its meaning. Not only is sentiment verboten, but so is sensuality. Apprehension of the world via the bodily senses is moot. In losing the connection to the body, such photography has lost its populist roots and become legible to the few. At no time in photography’s history has the polarization between high and low been so great.
Ironically the rise of conceptual art photography has been contemporaneous with the rise of the internet and social media. This has given birth to the greatest explosion of amateur photography since the invention of the Kodak. With programs such as Instagram, amateurs disseminate their pictures to a greater number of people than hitherto fore considered possible. Moreover the entire photographic climate has changed. Since the 1970’s photography in general has been on the radar of every educated and semi-educated person. Big museum exhibitions are packed. Alongside the old time family shooter, a far more sophisticated amateur has taken up the camera. And the physical camera itself has evolved. Not only digital, it is now part of a computerized phone one takes everywhere. Because this equipment is so seductive and social media so engaging, professionals are increasingly horning in on the game. Inevitably, the divisions between professional and amateur work are beginning to blur.
Nevertheless, the worlds of high art and commercial photography have many of the qualities of medieval guilds, most especially a belief in exclusive entitlement. These jealous guardians of the means of production are deeply hostile to the amateur, horrified by his insouciance and presumption, terrified by his proliferation in the iPhone world and his frequent focus on the ephemera of daily life. “Too many photographs, too many cameras!” is the constantly heard lamentation of those who look upon this sea of amateur work with the same horror the right wing looks upon immigrants and refugees who threaten to “ruin our country, dilute our race, and degrade our culture”.
As the repository of rejected values, specifically sentiment and beauty, something the art world banned in the early part of the 20th century and art photography in the late, amateur photography frequently champions the more rudimentary, instinctive tastes of people. In the upwelling of amateur work flooding the web, one sees a craving for connectedness and beauty that is as instinctual as violence and sex. Continuing the tradition of Lewis Hine, lawyer Cindy Trinh documents the working conditions of poor Asians in America, while dancer Allegra David celebrates the beauty of Santa Cruz in imagery whose roots go back to Claude Lorrain and the Western landscape tradition. Both are on Instagram.
So compelling is this tidal wave of amateur imagery that professional photographers are defecting in droves and doing the same thing, discovering along the way that amateur photography is great fun. To do anything with freedom and passion without worrying much about meeting the standards of other people is a rare delight in our competitive world. Moreover, it sometimes seems the entire population has fallen in love with photography and its hallucinatory, mesmerizing, thoroughly enchanting power. Moholy-Nagy’s prediction has come to pass: In the future everyone will learn to photograph!
The vulgar masses with their uninformed tastes are gathering in force, photographing every aspect of their lives, reveling in the material, unintellectual, thingness of things. Though conceptual-academic photography may have turned its back on the world, the world cannot be shut out forever.
This new development is creating a vertical rather than horizontal divide in which professional and amateur work are superimposed in semi transparent layers. The differences are still there, only now they echo and reflect and occasionally merge with each other in the luminous world of the web. Professionals on Instagram, amateurs in TIME Magazine cross fertilize and influence one another in a medium that seems to be in a continual state of revolution. Once more photography is turning the tables on itself, shifting boundaries to admit the barbarians hammering at the gate.