Future Histories | Steffen Siegel | Wednesday, 06.05.2020

Beyond Newhall?

We don’t have to beat around the bush: the photo historian, curator, and university teacher Beaumont Newhall has not enjoyed an excellent reputation for quite a while now. 1982 seemed to mark a watershed for him. During that year, two texts appeared: a book and an essay. The book is the fifth edition of Newhall’s The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present, 1Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography. From 1839 to the Present, 5. ed. (New York: Museum of Modern Art: 1982). republished for the last time after almost fifty years of ongoing revisions. The essay is “The Judgment Seat of Photography” by Christopher Phillips, 2Christopher Phillips, “The Judgment Seat of Photography”, in: October, no. 22 (fall 1982), 27–63. reprinted and translated several times in the years and decades to come – a harsh (and brilliant) discussion of the canonizing power of the Museum of Modern Art that has become a canonical text in its own right. 1982 is, of course, nothing other than a calendrical coincidence. However, in retrospect, the simultaneous publication of two very different, yet related, texts gains a symbolic value. Around 1980, postmodern criticism had seized the cultural field with a remarkable drive. There was no reason to stop at photography and its historiography.

I should put it more firmly. Precisely because photography had achieved a leading role in those years – as an art form, a means of cultural expression, and a form of social interaction in general – the narratives that had been valid for such a long time had to be reassessed, or, as Abigail Solomon-Godeau has put it in her field-changing book, ‘tied at the dock.’ 3Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Photography At the Dock. Essays on Photographic History, Institutions, and Practices (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991). Furthermore, around this time the history of photography became a common subject for academic teaching. At least this was true in the United States: Princeton University established the first endowed chair in 1972. Peter Bunnell taught there as the first professor for photo history. 4Douglas R. Nickel, “The History of Photography: The State of Research”, in: The Art Bulletin 83 (2001), 548–558. Nevertheless, Beaumont Newhall’s publication, the roots of which go back to the mid-1930s, still seemed to be valid as an authoritative source for providing students first orientation. When Newhall, working as a librarian and reproduction photographer at the Museum of Modern Art, was commissioned to curate the first photo exhibition ever to be hosted in that institution, 5However, in 1932 the MoMA already presented the exhibition Murals by American Painters and Photographers. he programmatically took a holistic approach. Neither did he choose a historical period or specific subject, nor did he opt for an individual photographer. He aimed to provide a bigger picture – an overview of the medium’s development as a whole. 6Beaumont Newhall, Focus. Memoirs of a Life in Photography (Boston: Little, Brown, 1993), 39–54.

Almost half a century later, Phillips could and had to give his criticism such a biting tone because Newhall’s approach had proven to be so successful and influential. However, this says little about the value of his ideas when they were new. Certainly, Newhall did not have to invent the narrative gesture of a grand récit. In contrast to his numerous predecessors, however – among them are Francis Wey, Louis Figuier, Georges Potonniée, William Shepperley, Erich Stenger, and, of course, Josef Maria Eder – he filled it with new content. By now, we have successfully repressed how strange (I avoid to say: boring) photo history was told: as a heroic tale of ingenious male inventors, as a parade of technologies and apparatuses, sometimes just in the form of anecdotes. On the other hand, pictures only played a role when they served as illustrations for this or that process, to demonstrate specific aesthetic characteristics. In fact, during the first one hundred years and before Newhall, photographs tended to be the blind spot of the historiography of photography. 7Steffen Siegel, Fotogeschichte aus dem Geist des Fotobuchs (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2019).

With this in mind, Newhall’s determination remains all the more remarkable. His exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art focused almost exclusively on photographic (and cinematic!) images. With Newhall, a new form of visual instruction evolved. The success of his exhibition catalog seems to have proven him right: after just one year, it was reprinted – and revised for the first time – as a separate publication. In 1949, it was published in a new version and then another four times until 1982. However, Newhall’s art historical method is also remarkably determined. For even where he is consistently open when choosing his topics, he does so with a disciplinary reserve. No matter whether it is scientific photography or advertising, film stills, or pictures for the illustrated press, they all had to pass the test of art historical appreciation. In 1937, it might have still been important to demonstrate and emphasize photography’s aesthetic values. Over the years, however, this approach had to turn into a bloodless and somewhat meaningless aestheticism.

It is evident that we should leave Newhall’s restrictive historiographic methods behind us. But have we yet? Since 1982, almost four decades have passed. In the meantime, a multitude of new books have appeared. They all want to tell their own version of a “History of Photography.” Sometimes, already the title announces the claim that the book aims to go ‘beyond Newhall’: Words like ‘alternative,’ 8Ian Jeffrey, ReVisions. An Alternative History of Photography (Bradford, England: National Museum of Photography, Film & Television; National Museum of Science & Industry, 1999). ‘autre,’ 9Julie Guiyot-Corteville, Éric Karsenty, Rémi Calzada (eds.), Une autre histoire de la photographie. Les collections du Musée de la photographie (Paris: Editions Flammarion, 2015). or ‘nouvelle’ 10Michel Frizot (ed.), Nouvelle histoire de la photographie (Paris: Adam Biro/Bordas, 1994). speak a plain language. There are good reasons that the project led by Michel Frizot still receives the most attention. His book avoids installing a single master narrator. Instead, an international team of no fewer than 33 authors took over. The result is worth reading – yet, as a whole, it is still a compromise. Even though the narrative avoids falling into the trap of teleology – Erich Stenger had praised the “triumphal march of photography” only some decades earlier 11Erich Stenger, Siegeszug der Photographie in Kultur, Wissenschaft und Technik (Seebruck am Chiemsee: Herring-Verlag 1950). – the traditional ordering criteria of technologies, genre, epochs, authorship, mastery and masterpiece, styles, etc., were not called into question by Frizot and his colleagues. Without talking about art (in fact, this happens rather in passing), this compendium still adheres to the categories borrowed from academic art history. Last but not least, it is also true that this book knows surprisingly little about a world outside Europe and North America, thus beyond the Western gaze. Even more surprising is the fact that this last remark applies to a similarly extensive compendium which bears the programmatic title A World History of Photography 12Naomi Rosenblum, A World History of Photography (New York: Abbeville Press, 1984). (reprinted and translated several times since 1984). Despite all claims: in such compendia, at best, the content is refined and specified, but hardly ever fundamentally revised.

What I have discussed here by using the abbreviatory formula “according to Newhall” seems to remain an influential role model. Even the necessary claims by postmodernist critiques could not successfully devaluate narratives, categories, and interpretations that art history had to offer – and, perhaps, still has? Is there a way to escape from such an aestheticizing encyclopedism? Maybe by breaking up the order of the encyclopedia itself? That is, by abandoning any temporal logic to translate it into a sheer alphabetical one? There is no doubt that the five volumes edited by John Hannavy and Lynne Warren are a rich trove for any photo historical research. 13John Hannavy (ed.), Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, 2 vols. (New York: Routledge, 2007); Lynne Warren (ed.), Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Photography, 3 vols. (New York: Routledge, 2005). However, we cannot be surprised that there is one thing we will miss: a narration that would unfold any historical coherence.