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American Photography by Miles Orvell, Oxford History of Art Series.

In his introduction, Miles Orvell sets out a challenge for himself: to tell the history of photography in America as “a narrative of successive paradigms, rather than a string of masterpieces.”

Presumably, by doing so, Orvell – Professor of English and American Studies at Temple University – hoped to add a new dimension to the history and criticism of photography in American Photography, which is the second of what were to be three volumes on photography in the Oxford History of Art. (The first was The Photograph by Graham Clarke and, sadly, it appears the third volume was never released,)

Aside from a few minor quibbles, such as when Orvell feels compelled to inject off-topic political commentary into the analysis, Orvell succeeds. I found this book enlightening, thoughtful and, on the whole, superior to Graham Clarke’s first volume in the same series: The Photograph.

Understand that I enjoyed and appreciated Clarke’s book and would recommend it as well. I just preferred Orvell. His volume is an easier read and a bit more down-to-earth, but more importantly, I think his observations are more enlightening and he does do a masterful job of placing photographers into the context of the times and genre in which they worked.

Orvell begins with the acknowledgement that every photograph is “a picture of what a photographer wants us to look at.” Photographs have always carried the aura of objectivity and it is that outward appearance and assumption that a photograph is objective, coupled with the reality that every photograph is a subjective comment, that makes photography so fascinating and challenging.

Many years ago, when I worked as a newspaper photographer, I was amused and intrigued by how editors, who insisted on stringent standards of objectivity (or at least on what passes for objectivity in most reporting) were so unquestioning when it came to photographs. Of course, some of that is unavoidable. A photograph is never objective and no editor, without being present in the photographer’s mind at the time the picture is taken,  can possibly know what subjective decisions have gone into the taking of a photograph. Instead, the best that can be done is to demand that the provable conditions under which the photograph was taken have not been compromised (no posing or re-creating a scene, no changing of the scene after the image has been taken, etc. )

As Orvell and others point out, even these standards have often been ignored, frequently by some of the best known photographers and in some of the best-known photographs.

With each chapter, Orvell explores a particular genre in some depth and detail. He skillfully places photographs and photographers in context, while at the same time shedding light on the past and future of the genre.  Having read the book once, I can easily imagine returning to it again to review individual chapters.

I particularly appreciated Orvell’s chapter on Photography and Society, probably because that is a genre I’ve always identified with. American photography has always identified strongly with the documentary tradition. It’s in the American nature to constantly reinvent ourselves, continually challenge ourselves and our government and to take pride in assessing our willingness to hold ourselves up against the high standards and expectations that our country was founded on.

The genre has been so extensively mined in America, that it would be easy to question whether or not there is anything left to say. And, it is certainly understandable why so many contemporary photographers have turned inward and either rejected the documentary tradition or rejected its supposed objectivity and opted instead to pervert the tradition through fictions, parodies and ham-handed photographic editorializing.

Orvell may be at his best in exploring and explaining these and other contemporary trends in art photography. I confess that I find a lot of this “new” photography a bit baffling.  I’m still not so sure I find Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons or David Levinthal all that inspiring (and I certainly doubt that they will be anything more than footnotes 50 years from now.)

But, Orvell manages to put them into context with a long history of “fiction photography” that has existed almost since the birth of photography. Orvell does a great service by restoring some of this tradition as he discusses the contribution of William Mortensen and others and notes how Mortensen “was written out of the history of photography, as constructed by (Beaumont) Newhall, where Adams, Weston and the f.64 group triumphed.”

Given the near deification of Newhall, Adams and Weston over the past 70 years, it’s enlightening to place them in the context of their times. Although to be precise, Newhall did not completely write Mortensen out. He gave him a sentence. (weak, sentimental style…)

Even as Orvell restores some balance by recognizing the history and contributions of fiction photography, he keeps his head squarely on his shoulders, acknowledging that “the problem with all of this work…is that it risks falling into sentimentality and a kind of bogus mysticism.”

By the end of the book, one begins to wonder if photography really has any future outside the commercial and personal realm.

Orvell draws no such conclusion, but he certainly gives the reader a lot to contemplate by the time the book culminates in a chapter titled “Post-Photography.” What is the meaning of a craft that, when it originated 170 years ago could be called the Pencil of Nature, because images were drawn, magically and exclusively by the action of light, when today anyone with a computer and photo editing program can create fictional images that are indistinguishable from nature?

For most of the past century and a half, photographs were assumed to be an accurate representation of what the photographer saw. That assumption no longer exists. And, while Orvell concludes, “It may be premature to say that we are living now in a ‘post-photographic age'” he encourages the reader to contemplate “…our awareness of photography’s  intricate interweaving with our sense of reality – and unreality…”

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