The significance of this exhibition is enhanced by the relatively recent yet ubiquitous migration to digital photography by professional and amateurs alike. What was the most widely used film format of the twentieth century now seems antiquated even archaic and has been placed on the shelf of our collective past along side the vinyl record and the typewriter.
To understand why 35mm became so popular we must consider what preceded it. From Joseph Niépce’s first photograph in 1826, View from the Window at Le Gras (Newhall 16) and for nearly a century after it was taken, making photographs was a slow and cumbersome process involving large cameras and multiple holders loaded with sensitized materials. Early photographs were either direct positives or negatives that would be contact printed so large photographs required a large camera. Though attempts were made to make cameras smaller and to simplify the photographic process little progress was made until the early 1900’s when Oskar Barnack, a designer at E. Leitz, (a German optical works famous for their microscopes), designed a radically new camera. “It was new because it tapped a great supply of fine and inexpensive negative material- 35mm motion picture film, universally available in a great variety of emulsions and because it functionally stored away an exposed picture as it placed a fresh negative in the film gate while it cocked the shutter for the next exposure. And for as small as it was it held the then unbelievable number of 36 pictures. (Morgan & Lester 5). The Leica could be hand held and viewing was done with the camera pressed to the eye making it an extension of ocular vision. Though the negatives the camera produced were small they could easily be enlarged thanks to the quality of the film stock and the camera’s exceptional optics. It was named the Leica, a contraction of Leitz and camera and was introduced to the public in 1925 as “the masterpiece of the miniature.” (Morgan & Lester 5) The miniature camera not only proved to be of great use to photojournalists, but it opened up new esthetic possibilities. The ease with which the camera could be handled freed the photographer to seek unusual viewpoints and to record segments of the flow of life. (Newhall 156).
The earliest photographs in the exhibit made in 1928 by Andre Kertesz, is a three photograph series of a vagrant on the streets of Paris. The series is notable as it illustrates the photographer’s newfound ability to shoot candidly. Kertesz was not only able to witness much of the beginnings of hand-held photography, but had a profound effect on it. With subtle and whimsical artistry, he took full advantage of a medium not yet sure of its own potential, and for that, contemporary photography remains in his debt. (PBS American Masters).
Armed with their diminutive cameras photographers began to exploit the photographic possibilities in the theater of the street and beyond. They have also stretched the parameters of the street itself so that it now includes the subway (and the interior of any other mode of public transportation), the park, the beach, the café-indeed any and every venue that can be though of as essentially “public.” (Coleman 160). Surprisingly, given it’s stature in photographic history, one of the smallest prints in the survey, measuring only 4 ½ x 7 inches, is one of Walker Evan’s 1938 Subway Portraits. When we think of Walker Evans we usually think of his Depression era photographs of the 1930’s shot with a view camera but for the subway series Evans hid a 35mm Contax under his coat firing the shutter with a cable that ran down the length of his sleeve and into his hand.
|New York 1972, Garry Winogrand|
On a lighter note Garry Winogrand’s New York, 1972, which appeared in Women Are Beautiful, is playful, naughty and just plain fun. Like Frank’s Elevator the horizontal wide-angle frame is canted and features a young woman in an enclosed space, only this woman is in a telephone booth. She is wearing a short skirt and has one leg propped up inside the booth innocently offering a peep show to anyone who would care to look and Winogrand is all about looking. Luck is in Winogrand’s favor as her vision of him and his camera are blocked by one of the horizontal slats that make up the booth. Two of the five pedestrians passing in the background are aware of the joke but only one, a woman wearing glasses, is in on it. Winogrand embraces disorder and vulgarity like long lost brothers, and often compounds the chaos of his pictures by taking them at radical angles. (Malcolm 36)
To ground the exhibit in Philadelphia, aside from the self referential images of Alexina Duchamp taken at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, there is Eric Avery’s “Hands Healing: A Photographic Essay,” shot at the Philadelphia University of College of Medicine, Lamani, Belize, by Michael M. Koehler, who grew up and worked in Philadelphia, Champa, a Transvestite Madam, in the Doorway of his Cage by Mary Ellen Mark, born in Philadelphia and educated at The University of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, and natives: William Brown, South Street Window, Laurence Salzman , At DayBreak, Al Amanecer, and Ray K. Metzger, Couplets: New York City.
Frank, Robert. Political Rally, Chicago. 1956. Art Blart. Archive for the Robert Frank Category. Web. April 27 2012. frank/>