A Democratic Medium?

A lively, handsome new book about the evolution of photographic styles and practices.

December 19, 2020

    AROUND 1870, WALT WHITMAN sat for a portrait by the prominent photography studio of Mathew Brady. It’s not a particularly noble likeness. The poet hovers on a high seat, hands plunged in pants pockets as folds of suit fabric crumple around his 50-year-old midsection. Salvaging the awkwardness are several features that better define the man: a wiry white beard and eyes possessed of a calm but piercing intelligence.

    Whitman was famously enthusiastic about photography. “No man has been photographed more than I have,” he said late in life, with little exaggeration; with over 130 known portraits, he was one of the most photographed people of the 19th century. Photographs proved a shrewd way for Whitman to market himself, projecting an image of his rise from the working class to literary prophet. But more than that, the Leaves of Grass author saw the medium as a quintessentially American art form. To him, photography was an “honest” record of the world that allowed “nature to have its way,” a method of indiscriminate transcription that Whitman espoused in his own verses. As a technology the masses could enjoy as both makers and viewers, photography also appeared to him an inherently democratic medium. By what other means could one so quickly and clearly visualize a politics of direct representation?

    Whitman’s image is thus a fitting inclusion in Good Pictures: A History of Popular Photography, a lively, handsome new book by visual culture scholar Kim Beil. The poet incarnates the popular enthusiasm that has propelled photography since its invention. Beil’s text traces this public history through two filters: 50 of the medium’s most significant styles, and the “how to” photographic manuals that instructed each generation in how to achieve them. (In this sense, her project is more complex and expansive than MoMA’s similarly titled 2012 exhibition “How to Make Good Pictures”: Manuals and the Popularization of Amateur Photography.) By studying the predilections and prejudices of photography manuals over time, Beil reveals a fresh and fascinating history of the medium that bridges high and low art, professional and amateur practitioners.

    Good Pictures is organized chronologically in six sections, each covering several decades of photographic history from its invention in 1839 to 2019. Subject entries clock in between three and six amply illustrated pages, packing a range of contextual history, evocative citations, and many “good pictures” into tight rhetorical packages. Collectors of fine photo books from the likes of Steidl and Mack will likely not marvel at the resolution here, but Stanford University Press has filled the volume with nearly 200 reproductions that are vivid in color and contrast. Beil’s text tends not to dissect specific images, but the photographs have been keenly chosen to bring her sources and analyses to life.

    This concise, episodic structure aptly echoes the argument: new photographic styles emerge, only to be quickly overshadowed by others. To reinforce a core premise of the volume — that certain trends recur and remix throughout the history of photography — the entries include parenthetical cross-references. For example, the chapter on soft focus directs readers to a number of other themes in the book: Portrait Props and Poses, Boke, The Kodak, Crayons and Vignettes, and Squares. These connections help to weave the tapestry of influence that defines “good pictures” in different eras, thus encouraging the reader to break from a linear path and to explore the ebb and flow of styles through disparate periods. Professional and amateur photographers alike will enjoy flipping the book open to random pages and following citations to an extensive bibliography of related reading. If you put it down, you’ll pick it up again soon.

    Later chapters place recent phenomena in valuable historical context. An entry on Ruin Porn (a highly aestheticized strain of images that depict post-industrial urban decay) links Andrew Moore’s elegiac shots of dilapidated buildings in Detroit to Romantic-era trends, such as William Henry Fox Talbot’s images of crumbling English abbeys. The point is not that history is always repeating itself under new masks; rather, transhistorical pairings of this kind suggest that certain styles — say, documentary and archival projects — may mirror perennial social impulses. The book is chock full of tantalizing reverberations, even if the form doesn’t permit any to be pursued at length.

    Nonetheless, these perhaps familiar parallels are also complicated by astute accountings of technological change. For example, Beil links 2010s vintage Ruin Porn to the rise of HDR (high-dynamic-range) software filters, which amplify middle contrasts for dramatic, moody atmospheres. In effect, HDR pictures in camera phones combine multiple exposures in a single shot, recalling 19th-century practices of combining negatives of a cloudy sky with a scenic landscape. Gustave Le Gray may be spinning with envy in his grave. Entries like this showcase the strength of the book’s short-and-sweet structure: in just a few pages, you see how each era responds to some of the medium’s inherent limits.

    The study also makes meaningful contributions to photographic history. Practically, it presents a critical bibliography of these underexplored “how to” books, promising new avenues of scholarship. Its main line of argument is more orthodox — definitions of good pictures are contingent rather than absolute — but still a critical lesson for contemporary photography students and non-historians alike. As Beil stresses in her introduction, “Through their makers’ aesthetic choices, photographs indicate not only that they are ‘good pictures’ but that they are good pictures according to the rules of a specific time and place.” This thesis echoes canonical social histories of art, such as art historian Michael Baxandall’s emphasis on the cultural constructedness of vision, anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s analysis of art as a cultural system, and Robin Kelsey’s more recent tour de force, Photography and the Art of Chance (2015).

    Yet reaffirming the cultural contingency of aesthetic judgment raises other consequential topics, tapping provocative undercurrents not only in Good Pictures but also in modern photographic studies more broadly. One is the thorny issue of agency. How much control, intentional or not, do photographers have over their “style”? Can individuals credibly effect changes to popular taste, or are they products of larger cultural forces or some deterministic Zeitgeist? Some contend that styles operate less as signatures than as stultifying conventions. Take a 1915 critique Beil cites of amateur Pictorialist photographs in “soft focus”: “The lens does not supply brains. […] Softness of definition per se is not art, and if the photographer is not an artist, and has no ideas, no individuality, to put into his pictures, the lens will not supply them.”

    On the other side, tastemakers of high modernism like Helmut Gernsheim and John Szarkowski appear in Good Pictures to argue for the deterministic view. As MoMA’s director of photography from 1961 to 1991, for instance, Szarkowski believed that photography contained innate qualities that could empower anyone to make good pictures. For him, works by Eugène Atget and anonymous amateurs shine side by side on museum walls. Indeed, the resilience of the “art/not art dialectic” today proves how durable this framework has been for museums and markets to decide which pictures are “good” enough. (Of course, the reality of agency may lie somewhere in between. Responding to the question of whether he has a photographic style of his own, accomplished contemporary photographer Alec Soth, who himself blurbed Good Pictures, replied, “If I do, it isn’t intentional. […] I’ve always thought of style as inevitable.”)

    Good Pictures looks askance at the democratic veneer of those modernist, totalizing narratives. Beil has a knack for concluding each entry with winks and nods to others, but the book’s lack of summary conclusion signals a final embrace of messier, heteroglossic histories over neat teleology. Like Catherine Zuromskis’s Snapshot Photography (2013) and other recent popular histories, Beil rejects views of “vernacular” photographs from on high, instead exploring the social function of intimate pictures from many sources. Good Pictures’s strongest rhetorical turn, used effectively throughout, is to read between the lines of guidebooks directed toward white men in order to find the unspoken experience of historically marginalized groups. A chapter on “Golden Hour” lighting, for instance, addresses one of photography’s pernicious and enduring biases: the way Kodak’s early color film was designed for white skin, an inequity perpetuated in digital editing. Although “[amateur] readers might have recognized themselves as part of the large public of photographers to whom a book was directed,” Beil contends, “they may have bristled at the gender, race, and class assumptions of the text, as I certainly did when reading them during my own photographic education.” While claiming to teach everyone how to make “good pictures,” instructional manuals by and large reinforced the aesthetic, social, and racial divisions of their day rather than denaturalizing them.

    Which brings us to a second significant subcurrent of this and other photographic studies today: the degree to which technology affects the democratic promise of photographic self-representation, for good or for ill. If Beil’s remediations grant picture-makers and arbiters of taste a fleeting influence over styles and public opinion about them, technology clearly exercises more control. As new chemistries, formats, and publication platforms emerge, torrents of photographs rush in to fill whatever shapes their contours will allow. But technological change, of course, does not spring to life organically. Engineers, product managers, and executive boards are all there, pulling levers behind the curtain. The net result may be a wizening of aesthetic judgment. Cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer inveighed against this saturation of photographs in the 1920s, arguing that the ruling class deployed continuous imagery to dull, not hone, understanding. “But the flood of photos sweeps away the dams of memory,” he wrote. “Never before has a period known so little about itself.” In 2020, some estimate that humanity will take nearly 1.4 trillion pictures.

    By citing the theories of Raymond Williams in her introduction, Beil identifies the give and take of popular and commercial interests within the evolution of photography. And her book makes a compelling case for Eastman Kodak as the éminence grise of 20th-century photographic style. So, where does that leave us? Granted this clearer view of Kodak’s influence, we arrive in the book’s final chapters at the platform that largely defines photographic culture today: Instagram. This app and others like it have certainly opened the world to a diverse visual commons in which historically marginalized photographers can find their people, shape the politics of representation, and create new styles. As political debates about truth, access, and free expression rage on these social networks, photography should be ever more aware of its relation to democracy.

    Current and future studies of style therefore might more boldly tackle astounding developments in computer vision. Companies like Clearview AI, which pioneers facial recognition, represent a maw of dystopian possibilities for our pictures, but what of other, seemingly more benign enterprises, such as EyeEm, which aims to streamline the “curation” (a word that at base means the care of souls) of the internet’s best pictures through machine learning. Beil’s early definition of a good photograph is “one that provokes recognition and inspires imitation.” Will styles ever be more inevitable than when algorithms identify and recreate them for us?

    One wonders what Whitman would say about this endless churn of new pictures. His praise of photography rustles with misgivings. He wondered, for example, whether photographs are “evolutional or episodical”: “Taking them in their periods is there a visible bridge from one to the other or is there a break?” Perhaps our current inquiries should channel his idealism. Are photographs a means for citizens of the country and the world to commune, to see and learn from others’ experience and recognize shared values? Or are they merely a democratic guise, window dressing for technocratic elites to monetize the information of citizens by categorizing them through their aesthetic preferences? Is making good pictures enough, or can they do some good, too?


    George Philip LeBourdais is a scholar of American art and photography. A Mainer by birth, he holds a PhD in art history from Stanford and lives in San Francisco.


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