Photography, History, Destiny

There is more than one photography-history-literary continuum buff out there for whom this link-post is intended. One is our erstwhile contributor of great photographic compositions and written reflections on his own photographs; as Milo heads west, he heads toward history. His family history, at minimum. His Inman predecessors first headed west centuries back when Kansas was the great frontier. But this guy is always looking forward while his brother puts some perspective on it all, taking a closer look through the rearview mirror.

Milo follows in the footsteps of several generations of painters, photographers and printmakers in his family who all headed west.  One of them, in San Francisco now, has even shown an affinity for Civil War era photography of the type reflected on in this article on the Atlantic‘s website, so we shout this one out to Milo, Seth and Paul in particular:

Let’s play a short, highly contrived game, called called “Smile or Grimace?”

Here’s Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman, an officer of the Federal Army, photographed during the war:

Library of Congress

Library of Congress

He looks pretty dour. Grimace.

Here’s another major general, Gordon Granger, also of the Federal Army, also photographed during the war:

Library of Congress

Library of Congress

Oh, Gordon. What a frown you have on. Grimace.

This isn’t going well. What happens if we looked after the war, and looked at civilians? Would that search yield some happier portraiture?

Mark Twain, for instance. He’s a funny man. How about him?

Library of Congress

Library of Congress

Mark, dude. You’re rocking some Spock-style eyebrows, but you don’t exactly look overjoyed.

All of these photos are by Matthew Brady, a pioneer in photojournalism, and — in terms of his sheer ubiquity — a sort of Platon for the late 19th century. His century wasn’t known for its smiling portrait subjects. I’d long thought that photographic technology had imposed that constraint: It’s harder to hold a smile than a grimace or smirk, and early film simply took longer to expose than people could hold an expression. Smile in a portrait and you’d wind up with a beautiful buccal blur.

But an article by Nicholas Jeeves, recently published in the Public Domain Review, suggests that, when folks frowned, they did so for reasons as economic, social and historical as they were technological.

Mark Twain thought as much. In one of his letters, collected by Jeeves, he wrote:

A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever.

Twain wasn’t the only believer in the idiocy of the style. Look back at painted portraiture — the tradition photography inherited — and you’ll rarely see a grinning subject. This is, in fact, Jeeves’s subject. “By the 17th century in Europe,“ he writes, “it was a well-established fact that the only people who smiled broadly, in life and in art, were the poor, the lewd, the drunk, the innocent, and the entertainment.”

Indeed, not only were smiles of the middling sortthey breached propriety. In 1703, one French writer lamented “people who raise their upper lip so high… that their teeth are almost entirely visible.” Not only was this discourteous, he asked: Why do it at all? After all, “nature gave us lips to conceal them.”

Portraits represented an ideal. It’s easy to mock them — they were the profile pictures of the aristocracy, in a sort of way — but they were crucial, tied to mortality, a method of preserving a person’s visage and affect. Jeeves puts it well: “The ambition [with portraiture] was not to capture a moment, but a moral certainty.” Subjects never looked exactly like their picture, yet their portraits were how they appeared. Portraits had permanenceYou did not want to commit a permanent faux pas.

So where Jeeves finds smiles in portraiture, they indicate transgression. When Carvaggio painted Eros as an adolescent boy, he depicted the ideal as destructive, dimpled and delighted.

Read the whole article here.

One thought on “Photography, History, Destiny

  1. Pingback: Musical And Photographic Patrimony | Raxa Collective

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