Complete texts

Professional Structure for the Makers

Nineteenth-century photography was a slow, labour-intensive, expensive activity. With each and every image, it presumed a far greater awareness on the part of its producers than is required today. The images were for a small, elite audience, with both the photographers and their public allied to commercial, political and cultural powers. They practised a new profession, were by nature progressive. One often finds them in the common ground shared by art, culture and commerce: that of the publishers, the printmakers, printers and art dealers. They were not merely implementers, dependent subcontractors, but participants in the intellectual and political life of their day. Their profession may well have been practised locally, but they often changed location, within their own countries, but also in other countries, in search of better positions. There is therefore every reason to presume that they knew the cities they worked in very well indeed, from a well-placed social position. At the same time, they also knew the working terrain beyond their cities and outside their countries. One can assume that these photographers had indeed truly seen what they photographed and were in general well aware of what was out there to be photographed and printed. This entire framework changed only towards the end of the century, when photography came to be practised by amateurs (frequently in the very best sense of the word) who were free of commercial ambitions, and when it became possible to produce the printed card and its photographs so that anyone could purchase it.

In today's archives, we find the ultimately touristic image for private only produced after World War I. This was photography about a visit, not about the city visited. It is a photography as close as possible to a form of parade, showing off, not to be seen as a commission, but as a guiding reflex. As a result, in the 1920s, an entirely new kind of city appeared: seen from the pavement, via familiar routes, from the tour boats. In all these images, there is a typical delight, but without the insight of old-fashioned 'tourism'. One travelled to look, but did not know what he was looking at. In place of that background knowledge came entirely new qualities: the charm of the companion, the coincidence of the moment, the joy of the visit.

The nineteenth century itself predominantly experienced the photographer as the producer and manufacturer of the work. They invested in equipment with an eye to a return on that investment. The images concurred with those of the extant engraving industry. That in turn revolved around the well-heeled and informed traveller. Knowing the monuments of foreign cities was a question of proper education and upbringing. These photographers wrote an official version of the city, embracing a certain noblesse oblige and fundamental respect.

These same small businesses also received official commissions - from national governments, from the cities, and later from architects and magazines. Here, there was not only mastery of the printing craft (as in the images for the travellers' market), but the presentation of true masterpieces. The commission structure moreover implicitly determined the basic relationship: the photographer had to provide an ode to that pictured in the photograph. It was no longer the education of the traveller that mattered, but a tribute to the purpose of the assignment. Where photographic prints for travellers appeared in copious quantities, commissioned photographs were only produced in small numbers. These images did not aspire to a wide audience, but they did aspire to an intense focus on the motif and the way it was read.

Photographers who worked for the elite traveller united technical craft with strong visual consciousness. They joined high social esteem with professional competence. The one could not be separated from the other, did not preclude the other, but embraced it. Photography therefore fit into the array of applied arts (rather than the autonomous arts, as they are called today), of the techniques in which artistic skill created added value. It established a precarious alliance with the elite as well as with the wider market, with prestige as well as popularity. It took advantage of the modes of the day and undoubtedly also cast an eye beyond national borders. In the way that they applied a young and rapidly evolving technique, people took advantage of every opportunity to win honour as well as earning a living. Each photograph was a fragile balance between contradictory powers. In every image, the momentum of these forces was so far not a stable practice of predictable tasks. On the contrary, each image was a characteristically bourgeois sign of an uncertain self-confidence. These prestigious images are in a position comparable neither to the stability of the printed card industry nor the self-assurance of the experiment of post-war modernism.

Several of these businesses grew into international enterprises. They hired photographers who remained anonymous and were sent out to other countries to take pictures that would in turn be sold internationally. The Florentine firm of Alinari was one of the crucial players in the field of art reproduction, urban photography and documentary assignments. Firms such as these functioned somewhat the way television stations do today. They often had a more or less recognizable company style and worked within a stable visual standard. The same logic applied to Neurdein, G.H (Gustave Hermans) and Fotografia dell' Emilia. Their work was evidence of a refined sensitivity to urban complexities, as might interest the tourist of their day. Their visual 'databanks' strove to achieve reliable respectability, seriousness and uniformity within the vocabulary of the popular dictionnaires.

Finally, the end of the century saw that new form of photography: the work of private, amateur photographers who possessed technical command of their medium and pursued their ambitious images and series' not from the perspective of the temporary, transient traveller, but as residents showing off a city they loved. This was someone who did not take photographs with a mind to educate, but to articulate experience. It was now not the city as such, but our relationship to the city that mattered. Considerable technical agility and flexibility were required to give shape to that very impressionistic sensibility. The audience for such projects as these was a confidential one: the family, the photography club, a select group of friends. But the result, as in the anonymous Bruges - Promenades d'un Amateur-Photographe, is unspectacular yet magical poetry.

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