Issue #135  10/31/2007
New Book By Keith Davis On Early American Photography Has a "Remarkable Narrative Drive"

By Matt Damsker



By Keith F. Davis with contributions by Jane L. Aspinwall. Published to accompany the exhibition "Developing Greatness" at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St., Kansas City, Missouri, through December 30, 2007. Hall Family Foundation/NAMA, distributed by Yale University Press, New Haven, Ct. 360 pages; 606 tritone and color illus.; ISBN No.: 978-0-300-12286-2. Information: http://www.yalebooks.com ; http://www.nelson-atkins.org .

"The world's first commercial daguerreotype studio was opened by Wolcott and Johnson in New York…and was functioning by the first week of February 1840, with Henry Fitz, Jr., as the camera operator," writes Keith F. Davis in this landmark exploration of the first generation of American photography, and that sentence tells you quite a bit about the thoroughness and authority Davis brings to this project. Though densely detailed, footnoted, and exhaustively researched, this is more than just another lacquered exhibition catalogue--indeed, for all its scholarly weight, it brings a remarkable narrative drive to what could be a dry dissertation.

That's because Davis, photography curator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum (abetted by assistant curator Jane Aspinwall), has an obviously passionate grasp of the global wonder and commercial vigor that attended the medium's invention in Europe--and its subsequent flowering in tandem with the American empire. For as much as photography had its roots in the rigorousness of the European academic and scientific traditions, once it crossed the ocean (and it did so relatively quickly, as Davis recounts successful American versions of Daguerre's complicated process within a few months of its official August 19, 1839, release in Paris), photography was quick to make the leap from technological novelty to commercial force.

Nothing could be more emblematic of this than the speed with which the aforementioned Alexander S. Wolcott and John Johnson, a dental supply manufacturer and a watchmaker, respectively, moved to advance the medium. According to Davis, Johnson showed Wolcott a summary of Daguerre's process one morning: "Within minutes, Wolcott conceived of a new camera design based on the principle of the reflecting (or Newtonian) telescope…[and] while other pioneers began by making the easiest views, Wolcott and Johnson's very first plate was a portrait: the Holy Grail of 1839 daguerreotypists."

Clearly, there's a great, juicy, All-American success story--many of them, in fact--at play here, and Davis is more than up to the task of charting photography's meteoric rise from curiosity to art form. By 1841, he notes, Southworth & Hawes would set up shop in Boston, propelling the medium to early heights of quality and innovation, well beyond their European contemporaries, with groundbreaking studio images that stretched the typical photographic plate, along with experiments outside of the studio, where they captured everything from cloud formations to medical procedures.

If anything, America--that vast continental canvas--was photography's competitive crucible, and Southworth & Hawes were hardly alone in bringing the medium to the masses. Davis offers a regional survey of the early leaders--from Boston through Philadelphia, New York (city and state), the South, West, California and the Pacific Coast--which directly reflected the nation's overall economic picture, as photography "radiated outward with the flow of population, commerce, and communication."

Along the way, countless photographers emerged, few of them destined to endure, but at least bringing critical mass, and in some cases potent energy and vision, to the medium. Davis notes, for example, how New York's Gabriel Harrison created ideal images inspired by motifs from art history and theater: "pioneering examples of a purely aesthetic approach--one that aimed to elevate the medium about its merely utilitarian applications. Such images represented a critical early salvo in what would be a long historical battle: the fight for photography's status as art."

Indeed, it was a specific long historical battle--the Civil War--that played the greatest role in advancing the cause of American photography. Davis charts the rise of paper photography as the key table-setter for what was to come. "In 1860, 3,154 Americans were working as photographers," he writes. "The daguerreotype had gone almost entirely out of fashion, replaced largely by the paper-print processes, including the inexpensive stereograph and carte-de-visite formats…A mass audience for photographs had begun to take shape on the eve of the Civil War."

Writing with expansiveness and factual command (note the well-placed preciseness of "3,154 Americans were working as photographers"), Davis brings a measured cadence to his subject that rivals the testamentary power of Ken Burns' great multimedia documentary, "The Civil War." Davis likewise deepens his narrative with verbatim reports from the era, evoking the texture and momentum of great events, as the war's great photographic names--Matthew Brady, George Barnard, Alexander Gardner, Timothy O'Sullivan--emerge as vital witnesses to a conflict that would mark the transition between ancient and modern warfare, thrusting photography to a new height of expressive power. Arguably, these Civil War images are the first visual element in the development of a tragic American realism that would fulfill itself a century later in the films of Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and others; and while Davis doesn't make that particular argument, his text invites such interpretive leaps.

And his chapters on nature and culture--as scenic, topographic and promotional views established the grandeur of the American West in new ways—disclose the power and particulars of such scenic pioneers as Carleton E. Watkins, while his appreciation of the new art of portraiture--epitomized by the celebrity images of Napoleon Sarony--connect with today's cultural fixations. Ironically, the visual evidence that is the raison d'etre for Davis's study, while copiously and beautifully delivered in this project, is largely and maybe even tiresomely familiar, while Davis's insights and storytelling instinct bring an unexpected freshness to a subject that is usually hashed over and rehashed.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

(Book publishers, authors and photography galleries/dealers may send review copies to us at: I Photo Central, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA 18914. We do not guarantee that we will review all books or catalogues that we receive. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)