Saturday, May 4, 2013

Importance of Art as Documentation in the Era of Early Photography

"All of your sources are lying!" was an often repeated phrase by one of my history professors and one that anyone who makes a serious attempt to recreate aspects of the past will find to be frustratingly true.  The emergence of photography allowed for crucial evidence to be left to us of a vast many realities of the period in which they were taken.  Photography played a large part in making the Victorian Era more completely documented than any period before it.  We can see details of clothing, physical characteristics of the subjects, and an infinite number of other aspects of material culture in "real life" detail seldom possible from a painting or print.  Photography had the ability to remove some of the elements of "artistic license" one might fear when using a painting for documentation.

But this license was not eliminated and photographs do lie.  To begin with, the vast majority of early photographs, even those that appear candid, were planned and posed, even when movement blurring the image was not an issue. An example of this is the well known images of dead soldiers on the battlefield at Gettysburg- while they were, in fact, of dead soldiers, many were "arranged;" you do not necessarily see them "as they fell."


There is also the issue of the rarity of someone having a photographic portrait done; if a subject only had the opportunity once every few years, or once in their life, the possibility exists that they were putting their "best foot forward"- wearing and looking as well as they could rather than how they did on an ordinary day.


Ca. 1852

Even when a subject sat for a portrait in the clothes and with the tools of their trade, they often looked conspicuously clean and orderly.


Blacksmith, ca. 1860

As the 19th Century wore on and photographic processes were refined, more depictions of harsh realities of real life emerged, such as in Jacob Riis's book, How the Other Half Lives, which contained real life photographic images of New York slums.


For the entirety of the Victorian Era, however, various forms of art from genre painting (representing the artist's impression of every day life) to Impressionism supplemented photography with windows into aspects of life that would have been impossible or impractical to capture in a photograph.  Henry Mosler's painting Just Moved depicts a scene that would have been unlikely to have been captured photographically:


Mosler gives us a sense of the relief but disarray and tasks to come by painting his impression of the moment when a young couple has gotten their worldly belongings into a new dwelling and finally sit for a moment and bask in the victory.  While artistic licence is most certainly a reality here, the artist was portraying what he perceived as relevant to the experience- right down to the husband/father's braces hanging loose from his trousers.

Which leads us to the importance of perception- uncovering physical realities are only half of unraveling the past- the other half is how they were perceived by the people experiencing them. Projecting 21st Century ideals onto the realities of the past leads only to misunderstanding. Art of the period can help us to avoid this. The artist presented what he/she considered pertinent and in the way they considered it to be pertinent. One of the most valuable aspects of Impressionist art is that it is presented like the details that stand out in a memory and therefore emphasize what someone at the time considered relevant in a memory- we are left less needing to assign importance ourselves (risking missing what the subject perceived) as with a photograph.


Sargeant, A Boating Party, 1889

The other obvious supplement that art can make to photography of the period is color.  Working in an historic home that is painted the vibrant colors fashionable in the first decade of the 19th Century, I am often confronted with the perception by many that history was as colorless as a black and white photograph.While this ca. 1880 photograph leaves much to the imagination in regards to color:


This painting from about the same helps us understand the gaps:


Art and photography must be used in tandem when attempting to understand the realities of life in the Victorian era in order to avoid being imprinted with inaccurate "slants" that each might present to us on their own.

Yours, &c.
The Victorian Man


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