Instantaneous Photography

For the past few weeks I have been stressing the fuck over having to write a 20 page art history thesis paper and then give a 15 minute presentation on it in my most intimidating class, Methodology. As a result I have put the blog on the back burner and have felt terribly guilty about it but simply am clearly not able to balance coming up with interesting topics for the blog and give the focus I need to give to doing research for this paper. I finally gave my presentation earlier this week and killed it turning a 15 minute presentation into a 25 minute one (you might say I was overcompensating for having waited until the week before to actually put in the work). My point is to apologize to any readers that have felt my lack of presence here lately and to lead into the topic of today and also the topic of my research paper and title of this post since that is all I can really think about until I turn in the official thesis after Thanksgiving. 

Henri Cartier-Bresson

What is instantaneous photography?

There are no manifestos or journals devoted to it, just an unorganized group of people who had no unifying political or social agenda, were not featured in exhibitions as a group or even had a catchy name. The instantaneous photography movement was founded and orchestrated by a loosely affiliated community of like-minded people. It might be described as a vernacular movement – a grassroots upheaval, organized around a singular wish: to freeze motion in time.

With many people writing and pondering on what exactly represented instantaneous photography the precise meaning of the term remained ambiguous throughout the 19th century. Did it mean merely spontaneity and freshness in appearance, a naturalism that conveyed a genuine impression of subjects captured in real time? Or did it mean pushing the very boundaries of human vision, recording information the eye could not see without assistance and as a result changing the way that we saw the world?

Henri Cartier-Bresson

In modern eyes instantaneous photos from the 19th century look modest and this is due to the enormous improvements in technology since then. In the 21st century photographs of action are common and expectations about what can be successfully depicted have changed accordingly. In the 19th century instantaneity was not always identified with activities that are obvious or occur very quickly. Instead it was used to mean that the nuances of a scene had been captured without looking blurry or stilted. It wasn't until the launch of the Kodak camera in 1888 that the term implied spontaneous execution, capturing things as they actually looked at a particular moment in time.

In the book Burning with Desire, the photo-historian Geoffrey Batchen notes that the act of making a photograph is inherently temporal in nature. Though painting and sketching can attempt to capture the temporary photography offers an experience unlike any other media. In a painting the surface itself, composed of an elaborate structure of marks and brush strokes, reminds the viewer of the time needed to make it. In other words, the painting is an artifact of an artist’s efforts to convey meaning. By contrast Batchen argues photographs direct attention to the temporal qualities of the subject. They represent a set of objects in fixed spatial relations at a given moment in real time. Accordingly, a photograph may be thought of as an artifact not of the act of creating a picture, but of time passing in the scene depicted. From painting to photography there is a shift in meaning and suggests that ephemerality, transience, and flux were among the subjects of photography’. In this belief Eadweard Muybridge (below) becomes a very important figure as his successful photographs of actions that could not be seen with the naked eye mark a climactic parting of the ways between photography and the traditional arts.

Eadweard Muybridge's sequential action photograph's

After Muybridge published his sequential photographs in the 1870s eventually the new standard of photographic evidence was accepted as correct. A new visual language formed based not on what was customary and agreed upon, but on what photography showed to be true.

In William de Wiselevile’s book Instantaneous Photography he asserted that the peculiarities of this photography could form the basis for a new type of beauty. “It must not be considered for a moment that an instan photograph gives of necessity the idea of motion. As a matter of fact, it is often grotesque, and conveys the idea that figures are posed in attitudes in which they are never seen, and it is their very grotesqueness that often makes them the most interesting….” Henri de la Blanchere takes this argument further pointing out “Photographs taken instantaneously…posses certain advantages peculiarly to themselves. By such picture the crowded streets and other busy haunts of men are brought home to our minds with a force which enables us to realize the original in a way we could not otherwise do.”

 One must remember that there wasn't yet in photography a trend corresponding to the dynamic iconography that would eventually develop around the dry-plate process. Engraved illustrations reproduced in journals, plays, or novels had for a long time presented a repertoire of people who ran or dove, speeding trains or horses at a gallop…all at a time when the universe described by photography still appeared as a calm and meaningless world.  According to Gunthert, it was Muybridges images of movement, paraded before the public as scientific documents, that started the revolution. 

Jacques Henri Lartigue

Jacques Henri Lartigue began photographing when he was 6 years old but he would complain that he could not take action pictures of the games he played with his brothers and friend. The next Christmas he got a Block-Notes camera and he quickly began to photograph the activities and antics of his family and friends. In 1908 when airplanes began to appear in an array of designs Lartigue would go to the airfield and photograph the first aircraft with the most vivid and accurate record in existence of the birth of flight. Photography to him was entirely personal, done simply for his own satisfaction and delight and it wasn’t until 1963 that his photos were exhibited and published and hailed as prophetic of the vision of a Brassai or a Cartier-Bresson.

The effect of speed in the photograph above by Lartigue, Grand Prix of the Automobile Club of France in 1912, is heightened by the imaging of the wheel as eliptical, rather than circular, and the apparent leaning of the specators as if blown off balance by the air surge of the rushing automotible. The wheel is eliptical because Lartigue’s camera was fitted with a focal plane shutter. This resembled a spring-operated roller window shade. Lartigue panned the camera as the car passed by to keep it in focus and everything else blurred. The subject matter of this photo: speed, motion, dynamism, sports and spectators are things that were gradually becoming modern iconography of the 19th century.

Serious amateurs like Lartigue, supplied with dry plates by the 1890s, nurtured the seeds of an iconographic revolution through the widespread production of instantaneous photographs; by opening up photography to a broad range of animated subjects, they created a new visual code. And as modernity, speed, and technology became increasingly recognized as flash points for a distinct aesthetic iconography, the impulse to discover modernity through the accidental was consciously pursued. Gunthert concludes: ‘Much more than a representation of movement—a task strictly impossible for the still image—the instantaneous photograph established a repertoire of surprise and accident, which lasted through to the debut of the twentieth century, and on into photojournalism and New Vision photography as well.”

Jacques Henri Lartigue
Martin Munkacsi

The image above taken in 1929 and published in 1931 in the magazine Photographies Martin Munkacsi summed up his philosophy in the following words “To see in a thousandth of a second what indifferent people come close to without noticing—that is the principle of photographic reportage. And in the thousandth of a second that follows, to take the photo of what one has seen—that is the practical side of reportage.”The image has a sense of composition in the interplay between the figures, the masses of sand, the lines formed by the foam, and the movement, youth, energy and speed of the boys. It was life.

This image inspired Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the most famous photographers of all time, more than any other image and lead him into a career in photography. He expressed his debt to this image as such “I suddenly understood that photography can fix eternity in a moment. It is the only photo that influenced me. There is such intensity in this image, such spontaneity, such joie de vivre, such miraculousness, that even today it still bowls me over. The perfection of form, the sense of life, a thrill you can’t match…I said to myself: Good Lord, one can do that with a  camera…I felt it like a kick up the backside: go on have a go!”

He was a true representative of modernism. Movement and diagonals—the vibrant rhythm of modern big-city life, the hectic hustle and bustles of a technology obsessed machine age, impart themselves directly to his photographs and sparking enthusiasm in the viewer. The diagonal was his tried-and-tested means of creating that quasi-flimic impression that can only be evoked in the imagination of the viewer because it gives the static image access to the moment of passing time. But it is also an expression of fracture and change. Munkacsi’s photos are overflowing with tension and vitality.

Martin Munkacsi for Harper's Bazaar on the left, Diana Vreeland on the right

I have already done a post dedicated to Martin Munkacsi and the image above on the left before that you can read here, but if you didn't catch it here is a brief over-view: In this image by Munkasci taken for Harper’s Bazaar captured the essence of the sporty, open-minded American girl whom a generation of young women, influenced by the strong minded movie stars like Katharine Hepburn and Jean Harlow, felt connected to. This image conveyed an electrifying surge of impulsiveness and informality uncommon in fashion photography at the time. It's as though at any moment the girl might run out of the picture and into the reality of our own lives. Until this photo was published fashion had been a staged affair, using mannequin-like models in a musty studio. Here, on the models face, her chin stretched resolutely forward, was a genuine, breathless grin, matched in ebullience by the triumphant billowing of the cape behind her. 

What was so radically new was the remarkable impression of a movement in progress, the electrifying flow of spontaneity and informality created by the casually running model, underscoring the dynamic elements. You can still see the effect this photo had on fashion photography today. People want to see models out in real locations, in action, living their lives to the fullest and designers want to see the people wearing their clothes living their life. It is a win-win situation. It's no wonder bloggers have become such major game players in the industry recently dedicating their entire aesthetic to living life in beautiful clothing. Below is a collage I made from a collection of brand campaigns and editorials that show the still continuing effects of instantaneous photography and the modern iconography it created: motion, dynamism, speed and spontaneity. Sorry if this has been a bit over-winded but now you all know where my mind is at these days.