19th Century Visual Culture: Beyond Fine Art

I've included a range of images from popular culture to help flesh out the visual culture of the modern world. Photography was critical to this in the 19th century much like film and television , advertising and the internet are to us today.

Mid-19th century photographers were still carting a lot of equipment around and they were very influenced by what painters were doing with the same subject. Look at this photograph...it's small, sepia toned, wonderfully manipulated and developed to create a strong focal point with the beech tree in the foreground which contrasts with the hazy background. Notice the way that Le Gray has caught the light on the lower trunk and the on the leaves. That kind of conscious choice of subject, angle, and manipulation of the development process means that the kind of artistic choices went into this as into a painter making a landscape.
This is mid-19th century example of a post card, the kind of memorabilia that a tourist would purchase. Niagara Falls was, still is, considered a natural wonder and it was a tourist site already in the 19th century, complete with hotels, guided tours of the Falls, an artist colony so you could buy a painting to go...if that was too costly, then a photograph beautifully mounted would suffice. This is valuable today because it is old and not a lot of them survive, but in the mid-19th century, this was a keepsake, something to remember your vacation by, something to show your friends and neighbors.
Photographers who were interested in fine art generally adopted the poses and conventions of academic history painting to achieve that goal in the 19th century. Durieu's portrait of an unnamed female was intended to communicate a sense of pathos and contemplation, perhaps even despair. That accounts for the pose which was associated with thinking as well as the downcast eyes. The partial nudity is mediated by the pose as well; it references the Venus Pudica. The background, and she is clearly alone, surrounded by cloth bags and straggly vegetation, help reinforce her situation. Notice how the photography has highighted her skin and who the pose creates triangles that lead the eye back to her face. Undoubtedly, what made it so compelling for modern audiences was the realism that photography created without color and without texture.
Alexander Gardner was one of a small group of photographers attached to the Union Army during the American Civil War. Their work represents the first serious attempt to document a war through photography and to market the images to the public. This photograph documents the execution of Abraham Lincoln's assassins. Today we have different positions on photography public executions because of changed ideas about execution as an appropriate punishment. This is an example of how photography was used to document and record events.
This is spectacular photograph of the sculpture hall at the Crystal Palace in 1851. You get a sense of the size and scale of the structure because of the vantage point that the photographer has taken.
Famous today but virtually unknown in the 19th century because they were not sold, Atget's photographs of Paris are a treasure trove of what the city looked like and how it was changing. He walked around with his camera and documented so much; the famous and the mundane. This is Montmarte, an area that was home to many artists. You can see the wrought iron decorative grilling on the windows, painted and peeling shutters, and sense the cold white sky of a Paris day. This part of the Staircase which was one way to move above the street is empty of any form of human life. It is much like a portrait of particular part of the city.
Atget captured a typical scene of Parisian leisure in the Luxembourg Gardens...These were not posed photographs and it wonderful to note the sense of authenticity that he achieved by his choice of vantage point...mothers or nannies sitting very erect; children playing in the dirt although beautifully dressed---notice the lace collars on the boy's outfit--and a haze of trees in the background.
Although not European, I'm including it because Yosemite was one of the lure in the United States and Half Dome was one of the attractions. Most often painted by Thomas Moran, Yosemite was also photographed. These kinds of images which were reproducible and sold helped advertise the area's beauty and convince Congress to make it a national park in 1864. The United States government was very aggressive in employing photographers to document the west .
Again, not European, but an example of how Americans documented the Chinese in San Francisco. Chinatown was a thriving enclave because of the many men who came from China to work on railroad construction. Arnold Genthe photographed life in China Town which made public the presence of a Chinese population to many people in California as well as the rest of the United States.
Credits: All media
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