Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 19, 2001
Robert Shlaer Sights Once Seen: Daguerrotyping Frémont’s Last Expedition Through the Rockies Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2000. 176 pp.; 126 color ills.; 33 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (0890133409)
Douglas Nickel Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999. 228 pp.; 20 color ills.; 85 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (0810941023)

Though it seems impossible to imagine today, there was a time, just thirty years ago, when major exhibitions of historical photographs were rare, and their sumptuously reproduced, oversize catalogues even rarer. With the exception of John Szarkowski’s small, seminal The Photographer and the American Landscape (1963), nineteenth-century American landscape photography—now a boom business and a gilt-edge genre—had little or no exposure. If you wanted to see the work of Timothy O’Sullivan or William Henry Jackson, you went to the halftone insert pages of history books like William Goetzmann’s enormously influential Exploration and Empire, first published in 1966. You couldn’t have seen much, though; publishers considered the photographs to be illustrations rather than texts, and treated them accordingly. Nobody in the art world seemed interested in a body of pictures that had, in its time, formed one of the most prolific and influential strands of image making in the nineteenth century.

Part of the difficulty lay with the complex cultural and historical environment within which these photographs had originally been imbedded. Only some of the photographers in question called themselves artists, and they meant the term differently than did their colleagues in painting. They weren’t afraid to call themselves camera operators and to work for mining companies, Yale University geologists, government agencies, and mass-market publishers, sometimes all at once. Their photographs contributed to an ideology of landscape the ecologist Ian McHarg excoriated as “dominate and destroy,” an ideology that translated into continental expansion, wholesale resettlement of native peoples, massive ecological transformation, and—many would argue—the decimation of a host of ecosystems in service to mineral extraction and agribusiness.

The other major impediment to their celebrity can be traced to the market in historical photographs. Photography books are expensive; they require institutional backing, grant subvention, and corporate sponsorship, all of which requires an established reputation for the genre: objects with clear provenance, certifiable rarity, and critical support. Before 1975, none of these applied to American landscape photography; it was a field, in fact, marked by commercial practitioners who made as many prints as they could, borrowed or stole each others’ negatives, lost their collections in bankruptcy filings, and sold out to mass-market publishing houses. The photographs themselves existed in the very sort of netherworld abhorred by a marketplace economy.

A blockbuster exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and its accompanying catalogue changed everything. Era of Exploration, organized by Weston Naef in 1975, defined a genre by describing its principal artists; establishing lineages, influence patterns, subgenres, and patronage systems; proposing a series of connoisseurship criteria; and wrapping the entire package in the sober language of the art historian. Naef and the Met primed the pump, and it has gushed forthwith. Today, we are glutted with high-priced, heavily subsidized catalogues to major exhibitions of historical photographs. The two catalogues examined here—Sights Once Seen: Daguerreotyping Frémont’s Last Expedition Through the Rockies and Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception—seem to be mere witnesses to this surfeit. The former celebrates a contemporary photographer who, with little precision or apparent irony, reproduces lost photographs of an early westward expedition. The latter celebrates a photographer whose work has been exhaustively presented in no less than four major exhibitions and catalogues in the last few years.

But there are good, even important, reasons for both endeavors. The uneasy conjunction of nineteenth-century American landscape photography with contemporary avant-garde practice and contemporary art-marketplace imperatives is disentangled, defended, dismissed, and then reinvented in forms far more appropriate to their original cultural meanings. These two books point out the sharpness of the debate and the intractability of the various positions and suggest that fruitful argument may reemerge around the sometimes comforting, sometimes disturbing, records of American expansionism at the end of the Romantic era and the heyday of Victorianism.

The narrower, more curious of the two books is Robert Shlaer’s Sights Once Seen. Shlaer is a retired biologist who has mastered the antiquated and arcane photographic process of the daguerreotype. He travels in a converted minivan making these one-of-a-kind images on polished silver plates, emulating the small number of itinerant daguerreotypists who moved into the hinterlands to prove and celebrate land claims large and small. His life’s work seems at best quixotic, considering that the daguerreotype was only briefly successful as an outdoor medium and was quickly superceded by more efficient processes. Nonetheless, daguerreotypes from the nineteenth century are often remarkable: delicate, fugitive, by turns formal (in the subject’s solemn embrace of the seriousness of the enterprise), and intimate (in their proper display-environment, the beholder’s hand). All the more disappointing, then, to view these modern daguerreotypes as they are reproduced in the book: they are mostly garish, often blotchy and indistinct, and essentially ugly.

But Shlaer’s book isn’t really about good pictures or interesting pictures or even about photography. It is about reconstituting a celebrated series of long-lost images of the American West made by the daguerreotypist Solomon N. Carvalho, who accompanied the American explorer John Charles Frémont in his disastrous attempt in 1854 to trace a middle passage across the continent to California. As such, the book fits within two eccentric genres: It is a work of Western history that, like many, focuses with obsessive attentiveness on the details of western exploration, expansion, and empire. It is also a work of “rephotography” in which the photographer places the camera where earlier photographs were taken in order to record changes in the locations and (at least sometimes) make striking pictures without the requirement of photographic intelligence, ambition, or creative talent.

We may dismiss this latter project first. If Shlaer’s pictures are accurate reconstructions, Carvalho was no O’Sullivan, Hillers, Jackson, Muybridge, or Watkins. Carvalho’s history confirms this. He was a small-time Philadelphia portraitist who had never made outdoor daguerreotypes before Frémont plucked him, whimsically, from his studio. Off they went, overloaded and underprepared, at midwinter—exactly the wrong time of year to launch an exploratory expedition through the Rocky Mountains. When the expedition straggled into Parowan, UT, its ranks were decimated and its heroes humbled. Carvalho’s equipment lay in snow far behind, but the daguerreotypes themselves survived. The pictures were evidence of the feasibility of Fremont’s route and the heroics of the explorers. Their survival reminds us that the true value of photography at that time more often lay with factual indisputableness than with visual power. The 300 daguerreotypes, however, quickly disappeared. They come to us today only in a much diminished, much mediated form—as steel and wood engravings found in Frémont’s Memoirs of My Life and, in a few cases, as Carvalho’s own paintings of the scenery, made after the fact.

Shlaer’s eccentric enterprise produces rich historical evidence but offers little that is visually seductive to contemporary viewers. Perhaps the editor, publisher, and printer are to blame. The decision to print the daguerreotypes as color images is deeply unfortunate. Properly made daguerreotypes are in fact monochromatic, with a slightly warm, purplish-brown cast. But silver plates reflect light in aberrant and unpredictable ways, and they are difficult to reproduce. All flaws are shown, magnified by Shlaer’s own tendency for high contrast and the color printer’s propensity to key the color as high as possible.

Then there is the matter of scale and number of the prints crammed on the pages. When held in the hand or seen on a museum wall, real daguerreotypes overcome their small size; they expand to fill the eye. This was the case in the exhibition, where Shlaer’s pictures rewarded and entranced the viewer. Perhaps a quarter of the images are very good pictures, but the book disappoints. Shlaer, unlike most enthusiasts of rephotography, did not seek to reproduce exactly the angle of view and the frame edges of the originals. (How could he? He was working from heavily modified engravings and from written comments, often fragmentary, from Carvalho’s own accounts.) At his best, Shlaer seems to have come upon a happy intuitive aesthetic of his own that combines the often-conflicting aesthetics of the picturesque and the sublime—the polar extremes anchoring the aesthetics of exploration in the era once occupied by Carvalho and Frémont. In this regard, then, Shlaer may turn out to be a better advocate for that period than might otherwise be predicted from the ugly, discouraging reproductions in this catalogue.

Shlaer recaptures the strangeness of a past aesthetic. In doing so, he operates at odds with the majority of labors of discovery and reconstitution that pervade the field of nineteenth-century photographic history, most of which conform not to the task of redescribing a lost aesthetic, but of excising, editing, interpreting, and recontextualizing the past so that it can find its way, comfortably domesticated, onto the walls of museums (and homes) and into the archival vaults of institutions, corporations, and collectors.

In this regard, the more respectable, extravagant, and beautiful reissue of Carleton E. Watkins: Photographer of the American West is a case in point. An immensely prolific photographer who worked, during a thirty-year span, in nearly every mode of landscape photography possible and for almost every conceivable type of client, Watkins can be reinvented in a host of guises. Once the stark, unadorned, and minimalist Watkins was the darling of Szarkowski and New York’s Museum of Modern Art, to the exclusion of a vast body of his work that ranged from utterly conventional to deeply iconoclastic. Weston Naef’s exhibition at the Met, Era of Exploration, was a brilliant salvo in the photography wars, with its studious research and calm dispensation of praise or blame. In the midst of the conflict, Watkins surfaced as a photographer of far greater range but—by the time Naef was done with him—was situated in a far more conventional nineteenth-century landscape aesthetic. Another exhibition catalogue, authored by David Featherstone and published by the Friends of Photography in 1979, reclaimed a single expedition by Watkins along the Columbia River and along the Oregon coastline. Featherstone understood the commercial side of Watkins’s career. (Primary materials such as diary-like writing and letters, held in the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, are ample proof of the photographer’s often star-crossed attempts to succeed.) The author was able thereby to widen the range of Watkins’s intentions: to advertise land sales, to settle mining claims, or to serve as legal evidence in court, for example.

By the time Peter Palmquist collaborated with the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, TX, in 1983, the bar was high, but Palmquist raised it further. He was a collector, an antiquarian, a historian, and an enthusiast; his essay for Carleton E. Watkins: Photographer of the American West was remarkable at first for its degree of detail and its comprehensiveness. On second and third readings, Palmquist’s greater contribution could be found in his reclamation of this nineteenth-century photographer’s understanding of what it meant to be an “artist” with a camera in a highly competitive commercial-photography world. The reproductions weren’t as beautiful as those in Featherstone’s book, but they include a wider range of images—suburban yards, factory machinery, pre-Columbian artifacts, and crashing waves.

The recent decision by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to mount a huge exhibition of Watkins’s work seems initially an act more of usurpation than elucidation. What is left to say, one wonders? The show was magnificent, and the reproductions in the catalogue, which include fold-outs for the large panoramas and whole pages for a single stereograph, are stunning. Such dignities are rarely granted to historical images. But the project looks suspicious, given the context of cultural imperialism that seems increasingly to dominate the battles regarding the meaning of nineteenth-century landscape photography.

The first essay substantiates these suspicions. Maria Morris Hambourg is Naef’s replacement as curator of photography at the Met. Her writing about Watkins seems primarily an exercise in wrestling him into the fold of conventional, elite, art-historical discourse. Under her pen, he becomes a tragic figure worthy of a hagiographic biopic. Hambourg nibbles at the edges of a more complex and expansive interpretation but persists in a romanticism that is alternately hyperbolic, patronizing, and sentimental. To her, Watkins was “a force of civilization, carving clarity and rational order out of the chaos of the world…this carpenter’s son relished a universe with mitered edges and snug dovetailed corners.” That we have so few portraits of Watkins, Hambourg tells us in the final sentence of her essay, signals “a natural artist’s tacit understanding that his true identity was everywhere imprinted on his greatest pictures” (16).

This is the rhetoric of The Agony and the Ecstacy or, more recently, Jackson Pollock: To celebrate a “natural artist,” with a “true identity” imbedded in “his greatest pictures.” Watkins is “unique”; he “created an art of modulation, the first in American photography” (15). Even the starving artist-with-integrity appears prominently in the space of sixteen short pages: “Watkins endured being ‘poor as poverty’ as the price for pursuing his calling as he wished, without constraints of a gallery, partner, publisher or association,” Hambourg reports in a controversial (to say the least) reinterpretation of Watkins’s commercial enterprise. The composite that emerges—of a misunderstood natural genius producing unsung masterpieces in a career with firm divisions into early, mature, and late, diminished periods—is very much at odds with the facts of Watkins’s life, but is consistent with the larger trend of legitimizing photography as a subset of the elite arts, comprehensible within the myths, traditions, and marketplace laws of its painterly parallels.

In this context, Hambourg’s essay seems inevitable. What’s so surprising, then, is the second essay, by the actual curator of the exhibition, Douglas R. Nickel. Nickel’s essay is, oddly, shorter than Hambourg’s. More’s the pity, for within its brevity can be found some genuinely original thinking about the photographer, the genre, and the culture. Within two paragraphs, Nickel raises the standard question: “How did this obscure individual, trained only as a store clerk and operating on the outermost edge of the country, come to devise such profoundly original and advanced images?” (20). It is a question Hambourg has answered with the usual myths of art-history-as-Hollywood-epic. Nickel turns the entire enterprise on its head. His answer begins by demolition: None of the usual explanations survive; they are, to use his judicious word, “inexpedient.” Instead, Nickel argues that Watkins was implicated in “a visual ideology shared with his sponsors and clientele,” native to the historical moment and the cultural web. To understand him “we must revise not only our view of Watkins but also of the modernism his work so prophetically, and so problematically, intersects” (21).

Nickel proceeds to rehearse, and then reject, “the story [read: myth] of modernism in the visual arts.” Nickel’s mentor in this task comes to center stage. It is Jonathan Crary, whose Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (1990) has been making a steady incursion into arguments concerning photography as cultural practice. Crary liberates Nickel, and Nickel liberates Watkins: “To even call Watkins an artist,” Nickel asserts, “requires some qualification,” and that qualification is far more interesting and significant than the clichés that append to the term in so many photography catalogues. Nickel notes the facts of Watkins’s life and the propensities of his thinking. Watkins’s pictures of trees—complex, enigmatic, and claimed by Szarkowski as radically modern and thereby disjunctive of their time—turn out in Nickel’s book to be simultaneously radical, modernist, and utterly of his time and place, pictures whose import was perfectly clear to railroad magnates and mining engineers, botanists, and painters. Nickel succeeds in doing what every historian should do—he simultaneously teases out the richest and most significant achievements of the work in question, while reminding us that these accomlishments were and must always remain woven into the fabric of time and place. Nickel honors the strangeness of our encounter with the past and its stuff. We may love those things for the wrong reasons, or we may be left unmoved by them, or we may find them trivial, even repellent by our own standards; nevertheless it is our responsibility and our reward as historians to unearth and stare with ambition to match the fastidiousness and the revelatory force of the very people and pictures we study.

After Nickel’s essay, it is a great relief to come to the pictures and find them so gorgeously reproduced and so respectfully presented. There are problems of organization in this section that counter Nickel’s assertions in the essay. There is a narrative to Watkins’s career (though it is not the one that Hambourg found); we deserve to see the later pictures together, complete with titular subjects and chronology. Watkins’s photographs of trees, to return to this important subject, change dramatically over time but are also dependent upon circumstance, client, or even the choice of camera and format. Some panoramas as they appear here may in fact have shown themselves in very different ways in their own time. But this is a limitation built into most visual books. Anyone familiar with these pictures from museums will bless the opportunity afforded by ownership of this book, because the reproductions are deep and rich enough to offer a visceral and visual experience close to that of the originals, without the interventions of glass, guards, or reflected floodlights to diminish the thrill of a steadily deepening body of detail and information—a visual experience belied by Hambourg’s writing, but honored by the work of Nickel.

Peter Bacon Hales
University of Illinois, Chicago