On the present state of photography
Red 5, special issue on
the Bauhaus (1930)
The transformation that is taking place before our eyes in photographic methods and their effects is critical. What does it consist of?
It is striking in the seeming unity and forcefulness of working methods and results. But really it does not exist. The illusion of similarity is based only on a rejection of traditional techniques and pictorial methods and on a turn away from the facile, and thus convincingly boring and accurate likeness of Mr. X. It is based too on a shared avoidance of manual procedures that, after the fact, deny photography’s technical principle — detailed, precise reduction of the image in the film — and in its place substitute mechanical coloring. We fail to recognize the magic of its precision and detailing, thus allowing what we already possessed to disappear — all in an attempt to make it the equal of the graphic arts, which rightly display other qualities arising from their different technical means. Hence we have not even noticed that photography is capable of giving us its own new vision of things and people, a vision of upsetting forcefulness, and that it gives this through its own characteristic selection from among the abundance of existing facts, a selection made possible by the decided individuality of its technique.
Consider a ball on a smooth plane. It presents us with various views according to the illumination and the play of shadows. It is a combination of individual properties that we join out of habit. The combination changes. It is always the ball on the given plane, though our eye does not experience the intense harmony to which it gives rise. This occurs, rather, through understanding, through the concept of the ball; in other words, the combination, for the eye, is fortuitous. With manual procedures it is possible to stress the rudiments of a picture and to allow what is not appropriate to disappear. Through exaggeration, deformation, suppression, and simplification manual procedures effect the selection, the transition from object to picture. This is the process of combination from memories, from fixated portions of various views. The transplantation of this method into photography is called chromolithography and bromoil print. But, whereas there the exploitation of the brush is the technique itself, in the pigment process it interrupts the work of the quantities of light that are active at every point and obliterates the activities appropriate to each of these two different technical methods.
We are capable, however, of renouncing the manual continuation of a process that is already completed by purely photographic means, if we simply form the object itself from the point of view of the photographic selection from among the individual facts. Through the establishment of the chiaroscuro, of the spatial order and of the distribution of the depth of field, an image appears, an image that a’ precise technique derives by scanning the object: the ball on the plane, touching it at only one point, forming itself in the same arc up to the opposite pole, in unstable equilibrium, in the atmosphere of the shadows, and built up in the delicacy and force of the silver gray tones. This is a picture of which it may be said, in turn, that the lights do not jump out with the abruptness of the halftones, which is what usually happens in the ordinary process where they either remain without detail, when we want to stress their purity, or else appear coated, when we want to stress their detail. A purely technical problem thus arises from the emphasis on pure lights and on the finest separation of the brightest middle tones as they lie ready in the negative, though they are not able to be copied. The solution of this problem would allow us, for example, to picture snow not only as a bright spot next to the dark spots of the shadows and the earth but in the material palpability of a heap of crystals. Here it is a question of concrete problems of photographic technique, not of Moholyian false problems of photography with distorting lenses or without perspective.
It is well known that platinotype and pigment printing are characterized by a relative abruptness or lack of differentiation. I need not point out here the difficulties that arise with the use of this procedure. It is sufficient to recall that their formal effect goes completely against what we are striving for, because it is not based on the silver particles embedded in the gelatine. Preliminarily, we arrive at the best results through fine-grained development, using amidol with excess sodium sulphate, of somewhat more delicate gradation than it should finally have. In this case the details of the lights are just hinted at and the darks are still differentiated. We produce a transformation in the silver chloride by bleaching the white parts of a head and setting it in the luminous blacks of hard developing paper, at the same time maintaining an exceptional balance in the proportions of size and structure. But this effect is not specific only to photography, and to strive for it means to renounce its greatest possible quality (which can appear fleetingly in, for example, the gray tones of the lips that part like a wilting poppy leaf), in other words, to renounce what it alone can show us. There are more than a few among the modern photographers who adopt these methods, making big and small posters, and produce graphic, not photographic, effects. They are still new to us, and they can still be useful as a blow against the threat of lifeless sterility. And the often great sureness of taste displayed is always welcome. But the black-and-white effect of the silver, which is completely dissolved in the lights and completely reduced in the darks, can also be obtained in the lithographic process, and if the gelatinization emphasizes the glossiness and purity of the tone, we are still left with only gelatinized lithographs, crudely photographed. Consider, by contrast, the small prints that Outerbridge shows us: the subtle treatment of the darks, the sharp detailing of the brightest light tones, the broad and firm middle tones — the whole thing a set of variations on the halftone theme, yielding a delicate proximity and definiteness of the material. Anyone who sees this will never forget the deeper, characteristic results obtained by the methodical development of technical properties specific to photography.
The situation is exactly the same with regard to the photogram, insofar as it is a question of studies of light and dark based on the harmonies that emerge from combinations of the silver gray tones. They school us for the transposition of the natural tones into the silver gray scale, in that they free us from the at first bewildering fullness of the halftones occurring in the natural object. Yet what do they become when they come forth with the claim to be an end in themselves, along with X rays of lilies, orchids, shellfish, and fish? How much more magical is the fact of their connection with the object outside of us, which is beautiful in itself.
Progress can come only from the further development of a technique that is still in its infancy and that has been completely neglected by us under the influence of manual procedures. And it must come from the further development of the positive techniques that are used with developing papers. It is the form of the characteristic curve of silver chloride and silver bromide papers, with the “sudden drop-off” at its lower end, which makes these objects stand before us in their brilliance and unity; here is a vital harmony of the objects among themselves and outside of us. This method of working differs in principle from that of the manual processes. Our free work with respect to the object precedes the technical process, is guided by an exact knowledge of its productivity and of its limits, and is entirely concluded with the introduction of the latter. Thus this process serves merely to verify our notions.
Now we can return to our opening remark about the seeming unity of the different working methods and results. Photographic technique is a process of the precise detailing of the halftones. To suppress this process means to rob the result of its specific photographic qualities. It is possible, nevertheless, to proceed differently, with great taste and artistry, employing, for example, a hot potassium bichromate bath and a second, final development to strengthen the brightest middle tones and saturate the darks, along with a complete looseness and lightness of the grain. What is threatening to emerge in modern photography, as in every movement as it grows, is nothing else than a new academicism, nourished by dilettantism, when we have scarcely freed ourselves from the old one. It is possible, however, to intensify the pictorial character of our photographs more and more, guided by a knowledge of the effects of the technical measures and doing so before their introduction. In other words, we can handle the technique flexibly, like a net that recovers treasure unharmed, allowing us to separate even within the modern trends, dilettantism and academicism from the steady work of the real enrichment of our heritage.