Democratic Vista, New England, 1870s. Albumen Print
By Rodger Kingston
When I first taught photo history in the mid-1970s, Beaumont Newhall’s The History of Photography was the final authority on the subject. Whatever he discussed was accepted as a part of photographic history, and whatever he left out was simply not considered. That entire categories of photography were overlooked—snapshots and family photographs as well as most commercial, advertising, scientific, medical, and forensic photography, for example—was not deemed remarkable. This was no accident; Newhall’s vision was to make photography acceptable to the art world, to present photographs as art to an audience—and primarily a museum audience—that was not inclined to think of it that way. That his history emphasizes those photographic genres that support the argument for photography as art, and plays down or ignores those that don’t, should therefore surprise no one.
And Newhall succeeded far beyond anyone’s expectations. There were other photo histories—most notably Helmut Gernsheim’s—but it was primarily Newhall who dictated the shape and content of photographic history over the next fifty years and more. By progressing through the technical evolution of the medium by means of photography’s Grand Masters, he presented a self-contained universe that answered most of the questions that it raised.
Chinese Women in a Cangue, c. 1880. Albumen Print
I began collecting photographs in the mid 1970s to show to my students, as well as for my own pleasure; I couldn’t afford prints by most of the "name" photographers (even though they were inexpensive by today’s standards). So, having little money, I had to learn to rely on my instincts, by developing a discerning eye, by searching out remarkable images that no one else wanted or even saw as worth having. That was the greatest challenge, and increasingly the greatest pleasure. It was very exciting: slightly subversive, but extremely liberating. I looked for striking images by unknown photographers as alternatives to prints by the masters...
From the very beginning these photographs answered far fewer questions than they raised. Without the associations and validation that accompanied prints by well-known photographers, I ventured into new territory every time I bought an anonymous photograph. Anyone with money could buy a Cameron or a Weston; but acquiring a great unknown (and thereby unvalidated) image was much riskier (but ultimately far more satisfying). I have built my collection—which I came to call Forgotten Photographs—out of the conviction that the strength and diversity of the medium come less from its pantheon of recognized masters than from its anonymous vernacular evolution, and out of a growing urge to validate a populist point of view.
Portrait of a Man, Quarter Plate Daguerreotype, c. 1840s
Father and Son, c 1938. Kodachrome Transparency
Forgotten Photographs consists of over four thousand original images encompassing the entire history of photography, from the jewel-like Daguerreotypes of the 1840s, through the wet- and dry-plate variations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to the modern snapshot, generated by the millions today. Unlike the master images in the history books, these photographs bring little with them in the way of context; they exist primarily as isolated photographic statements. Devoid of the associations and provenance provided by famous names, they are open to fresh new meanings and relationships within the overall context of the collection itself, thus raising the act of collecting to the level of creation, and not incidentally, demonstrating that a collection may profitably be seen as an artistic act of assemblage.
Viewers of the collection have the disconcerting experience of encountering image after image they’ve never seen before, and, without the reassuring context of recognizable names, are forced to fall back on their own aesthetic resources. Looking through this collection, one begins to suspect that photographic history is a good deal larger and more involved than one had previously imagined. Furthermore, Forgotten Photographs demonstrates that categories like "amateur," "professional," "commercial" and "artistic" may ultimately be groundless, and that in the hands of almost anyone, photography can be an authentic and universal means of self-expression. As I looked at these images in their hundreds and thousands, a serious discrepancy began to appear between what I found in the neat little universe of the photographic history books and what I was seeing out in the actual world. These photos suggested that from the beginning there were vastly more highly skilled and artistically sophisticated photographers than the books and museum exhibitions led one to believe. Photography’s great masters, I learned, were only the tip of the iceberg. Clearly there had to be other ways of looking at and other criteria for judging photographs.
Martin Luther King, March On Washington, 1963.
Original Polaroid Photograph which was Dropped and Marched Upon
I discovered many examples of innovative technical or artistic accomplishments made anonymously years before the masters made them, illustrating how, from the beginning, the democratic impulse and the emerging technologies advanced hand in hand. I found whole categories of images and image-making, usually of a vernacular or utilitarian nature, not mentioned (or given short shrift) in standard photographic history, examples such as images documenting the pride of small town merchants in their storefronts in town after town; family albums imaginatively put together, usually by a single individual (often as not a woman) to preserve her family’s history; advertising photographs in all their variety and ubiquity—unless they are by an Edward Steichen or a Richard Avedon. I learned different ways of looking at photographs than by comparing them to examples by the masters, and different criteria for examining them, difficult though it is to totally abandon the fine art criteria (technical, aesthetic, and social) that I had grown up with.
'Viewers of the collection have the disconcerting experience of encountering image after image they’ve never seen before, and, without the reassuring context of recognizable names, are forced to fall back on their own aesthetic resources.'
As the Forgotten Photographs collection grew, it became increasingly clear that standard photographic history was less a complete world than merely the first settlements on the shore of a vast continent for which there was overwhelming evidence, but which, as yet, was essentially unexplored. I came to see this metaphorical new continent as democracy. Clearly photography was widely received from its birth as a democratic medium; ordinary people by the millions—most of them with little or no artistic background—successfully became photographers. To an extent possible with no other art form, the aesthetic efficacy of photography was available to practitioners regardless of whether they conceived of themselves as artists or not. It emerged as a true vernacular art medium, fully formed and remarkably mature from its very beginning.
Beaumont Newhall had an agenda which we can all respect, and from which everyone has benefited: his success in the art world conflict he helped to foment is what has made photohistory what it is today, and what empowers us to move ahead. Today we too have an agenda, which I here suggest is to radically expand Newhall’s model of photographic history in ways that take into account the immense breadth and variety of the medium and its profoundly democratic appeal.
At the same time I have been evolving these ideas, others have been moving in similar directions, historians such as Michel Frizot in his A New History Of Photography, with essays by nearly thirty international contributors. As these historians and others began to look beyond Newhall in their writings, so did I in my collecting. I hope that Forgotten Photographs delights the eye as well as stimulates the mind, and that it produces many more questions than answers.
This post republishes with permission a lecture delivered at "The Vernacular Reframed," a two-day academic conference that took place at Boston University in November, 2004. This is the first time the lecture has been published.
Rodger is beginning to build a gallery of some of the pictures from the collection.
Animal Rescue League, c. 1930s. Gelatin Silver Print
An Early Photo Booth, c. 1915. Gelatin Silver Print
All photographs from the Kingston Collection.
The recent book featuring the Kingston Collection is In the Vernacular: Photography of the Everyday by Stacey McCarroll Cutshaw and Ross Barrett.
Vesuvius Erupting, 1872. Albumen Print