Photographing the Seventies: Breaking the Rules

PHOTOGRAPHY and MANIPULATION

The decades of the 1960s and 1970s are notable for a return of manipulated photography, that is, photography that is not “straight” but changed or manipulated by the artist for expressive reasons. One of the debates surrounding photography when it was invented in 1839 was whether or not it was an “art” or a mere “record.” and many of the early photographers worked hard to manipulate their images to make them look like watercolors or graphic drawings. This softened focus which was equated with art, not a machine, became a movement, called “Pictorialism.” For years darkroom manipulation played a significant role in allowing photography to be accepted as “art,” until “straight photography” of the early twentieth century redefined the “art” qualities of photography.

For over fifty years, straight photography was the prevailing approach and there was a unwritten but powerful rule that the only “serious” photography was “straight” and black and white. Then in what began as an underground gesture in the sixties, photographers began breaking these rules, using colored film and manipulating in the darkroom. There are a variety of ways to manipulate a photograph, from colored filters, used by Carrie Mae Weams, interference with the development process, seen with Lucas Samaras, and photomontage,which dates back to the nineteenth century.

Called “composite photography” by its most famous proponent, Oscar Rejlander, the final work was composed of many photographs combined into one. While Rejlander created complex photographic works of art, such as Two Ways of Life (1857), an homage to Thomas Couture’s painting, Romans During the Decadence (1847), cutting and pasting pieces of photographs was a common practice. During the nineteenth century, the photograph album played a very important role in late Victorian society. The images of family and friends were important components to bourgeois identity and the record of this social life was carefully recorded and the album was faithfully attended, usually by women. Many of these albums have survived and show that collaging family photographs were an important part of what we today would call “Scrapbooking.”

This collaging technique (then unnamed) was so common that the German government routinely adjusted the “news” with altered photographs. This practice caught the attention of the Dada artists and John Heartfield and Hannah Höch turned a way to tell a lie into a way to reveal the truth through what they called “photomontage.” But for several decades, photomontage was linked to a particular movement. Among the earliest late twentieth century artists to collage photographs together in a photomontage was Robert Heinecken and Jerry Uelsmann. Heinecken was a subversive political activist, opening using pornography (soft core) and mass media works which he simply appropriated and collaged (in the darkroom) with radically altered results. Uelsmann, in contrast, was closer to Magritte, using disparate images juxtaposed to create surreal visions.

These pioneers were indicative of new trends that were noted by influential photographic curators in The Persistence of Vision (1967), at the George Eastman House was organized by Nathan Lyons and included Jerry Uelsmann, Ray Metzker and Robert Heinecken, who was also included in Photography into Sculpture (1970) MoMA, organized by Peter Bunnell. Other exhibitions included, Collage and the Photo-Image, at MoMA, organized by Berenice Rose. These shows exhibited the works of Jerry Uelsmann, a silver printmaker (silver, referring to his method of development) of photomontages, combined superimposed images, while Southern photographer, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, produced Southern Gothic subject by the use of masks to dehumanize humans and to mystify ordinary reality with his naïve return to Surrealism.

This sudden departure from straight photography was certainly a response to the limitations of the single untouched image. These artists worked with their version of a cinematic storyboard, telling stories. Impacted by the Viet Nam War, Robert Heinecken waged guerrilla warfare against the purist aesthetic and assaulted the traditional form of photography. Many of his works are anti-war images; others are pornographic, referring to forbidden sources and to forbidden subjects in period when most artists are politically silent. Although he was supposedly a vernacular photographer, Danny Lyon was another outspoken photographer of the 1960s with his series of images of the Civil Rights era and of Southern Blacks, in chain gangs, in a Georgia prison.

Heinecken and Lyon were very engaged as artists, not with people, like the street photographers of the previous decades, but with events. Rare for artists of their era, these photographers responded to the intense and divisive politics of the Civil Rights Movement and of the Viet Nam War. Lyon shifted subtly from journalism to commentary when he became the photographer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee as what we today would call an “embed.” A (Jewish) photographer from New York, Lyon devoted his career to outlaws (motorcycle gangs) and prisoners and the discarded peoples of America and became famous for his moving and jolting images of the struggles for equality. His partisan and partial stance broke the rules of “objectivity” laid down by the documentary photographers of the thirties and forties.

Heinecken’s most famous works was an intervention: he took a horrific photograph of an American soldier carrying the severed head of a soldier from North Viet Nam. This war crime, which was a metaphor for the questionable legality of the war itself, was hidden under the constant barrage of propaganda of “progress” coming from the American military at the time. Heinecken, in his turn, beheaded the American soldier and gave him a new head, the smiling face of a fashion model. This composite photograph was then superimposed onto the pages of selected fashion magazines, which were then replaced on the shelves of the store. We know nothing of the reception of the fashionistas who, in search of the latest trends, would have come across this bizarre image.

These photographers led the way into the future and the result of their manipulations and their commentary on contemporary life can be seen in digital photography in the twenty-first century. Duane MIchals, like Robert Heinecken, was an isolated loner, breaking the rules. He was one of the first photographer to “stage” photography, operating in what was later called “the directorial mode.” Michals worked with actors, whom he directed in small and enigmatic mini-dramas, often narrated over several images in sequence augmented with accompanying texts. In addition, Michals manipulated many of his images, allowing him to recreate psychological and spiritual states in his reanimating of Surrealism.

Photography in the seventies was transitional, going away from one long held set of positions and moving toward another approach: that of examining the nature of photography and its supposed relation to “truth.” The result of the rule breaking and rejection of photography-as-truth in this decade was a schism between past and future. A line in the sand had been crossed and that line was the distance between Modernism and Postmodernism. Just as it was impossible to paint with conviction, it became impossible to believe that photography was anything but a subjective art form. In this post, the rule-breakers were discussed, in the next post, conceptual photography in the postmodern mode will be examined.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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