Strictly Commercial

Street Types of Chicago—Rushing the Growler and Oh Golly But I’se Happy— by Sigmund Krausz, 1891

Strictly Commercial: The Medium and the Media

The relationship between advertising, public relations, and photography is so deep that in order to adequately cover it I think I need to go back to the beginning. What follows is a tentative sketch of the connections. It’s rough and it’s big. About 1800 words for those who are interested, covering from 1839-1866.

Time to rush the growler. Oh golly but I’se happy.

News of a method for fixing images traveled around the world quickly. On February 23, 1839 the Boston Daily Advertiser reported the secretive nature of the discovery:

M. Daguerre has labored many years, and has finally attained a result so simple, that any one could imitate it, and a patent, therefore, would be no protection to him. On this account he keeps his discovery secret. (Daguerreian Society [DS])

It wasn’t long before negotiations with the French government were completed, and an image-making fever was unleashed upon the world, ostensibly for the greater glory of the French people. Samuel F. B. Morse, American inventor of the telegraph, was in Paris that spring, and met with Daguerre. He was back in the United States when instructions for making Daguerreotypes were released to the public on August 21, 1839. While it is disputed who was the first to make a Daguerreotype in the US, the subject was likely a building (DS).

From a window at New York University, Morse claims to have photographed the tower of the Church of the Messiah on Broadway. Another claims preeminence for Joseph Saxton of Philadelphia, citing a Daguerreotype of the US Mint in possession of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (DS). This sets a tone for recording historical places through photography, one important emergent genre. However, the initial boom in image making was fueled by the portrait.

By late 1840, due to innovations in reduced exposure times, the first commercial portrait studios opened. By 1846, there were sixteen studios in New York City, growing by 1850 to 59. The number of places offering photographic portraits in New York City topped 100 by 1853. The public, and entrepreneurs were enthralled by the commercial potential (Starrl 43). Coincidently, Volney B. Palmer opened the first American advertising agency in Philadelphia in 1841. Advertising was growing at an equally explosive rate. The number of ads in the New York Tribune doubled between October of 1849 and October 1850 (EAA).

The Daguerreotype wasn’t the only process available for image makers, as a “History of the Invention” published in the New-York Weekly Tribune in 1853 recalls:

But previous to the grant by the French Government, which also purchased the secret of Daguerre’s process, in their own words, “for the glory of endowing the world of science and of art with one of the most surprising discoveries that honor their native land,” Mr. Fox Talbot, of London, published “Some Account of the Art of Photogenic Drawing,” and still holds a contested claim, together with Mr. Wattles, of the United States, to a priority of the Invention over Daguerre. (DS)

The advantage of Fox Talbot’s approach was reproducibility. Perhaps to demonstrate this advantage, Talbot produced the first photographic “books” by binding together salted-paper prints to form The Pencil of Nature in a serially published edition, each containing six to seven photographs, from June 29, 1844 to April 23 1846. The complaint regarding his method was that it was far more expensive than conventional lithography. Photographs were accompanied by long tracts explaining the conception of the photographs in minute detail, so as to avoid misinterpretation. But most important was Talbot’s attempt to show the potential for diversity in his process in order to compete with the success of the daguerreotype.

Talbot’s portfolios contained a multitude of subjects, noting that his calotypes represented “A multitude of minute details which add to the truth and reality of representation, but which no artist would take the trouble to copy faithfully from nature” (Frizot 62). The potential for diversity in photography was noted from the start, and it’s potential to add authority to any production. In an 1840 address, Morse noted:

Its influence on the artist must be great. By a simple and easily portable apparatus, he can now furnish his studio with fac-simile sketches of nature, landscapes, buildings, groups of figures, &c., scenes selected in accordance with his own peculiarities of taste; but not, as heretofore, subjected to his imperfect, sketchy translations into crayon or Indian ink drawings, and occupying days, and even weeks, in their execution; but painted by Nature’s self with a minuteness of detail, which the pencil of light in her hands alone can trace, and with a rapidity, too, which will enable him to enrich his collection with a superabundance of materials and not copies;— they cannot be called copies of nature, but portions of nature herself. (DS)

Photography is renowned for its ability to collect, and its ability to modify artistic production. Morse also notes the ability of photography to educate, and the ability to influence the public taste:

Must not such a collection modify, of necessity, the artist’s productions? Think how perspective, and, as a consequence, proportion also, are illustrated by these results. How the problems of optics are, for the first time, confirmed and sealed by nature’s own stamp! See, also, what lessons of light and shade are brought under the closest scrutiny of the artist!

To the architect it offers the means of collecting the finest remains of ancient, as well as the finest productions of modem architecture, with their proportions and details of ornament, executed in a space of time, and with an exactness, which it is impossible to compress in the ordinary modes of an architect’s study.

I have but a moment to speak of the effect of the daguerreotype on the public taste. Can these lessons of nature’s art (if I may be allowed the seeming paradox), read every day by thousands charmed with their beauty, fail of producing a juster estimate of the artist’s studies and labors, with a better and sounder criticism of his works? Will not the artist, who has been educated in Nature’s school of truth, now stand forth pre-eminent, while he, who has sought his models of style among fleeting fashions and corrupted tastes, will be left to merited neglect?(DS)

Within the first decade of its existence, photography was acclaimed for faithfulness, its potential for public influence, and its potential for preservation. It became a rising force, in both the commercial and artistic arenas. Tendencies developed early on disappear and reappear throughout the history of photography, as it begins to forge its own rhetoric of representation. Talbot felt he must explain his photographs to avoid misunderstanding. Later photographers exploited the potential for misunderstanding in order to improve the rhetorical impact of their photographs. The battle over manipulation was about to begin. The tensions between the new media of public relations and advertising, the artistic impulse towards embellishment, and the perception of photography as an inherently naturalistic medium had just begun.

Documentation of historical events began shortly afterwards, with great difficulty. The first photographs of war were taken by American daguerreotypist Charles J Betts, who advertised in 1847 that he would visit homes to “take pictures of the dead and wounded” during the Mexican-American war of 1846-48, in a decidedly entrepreneurial gesture. The profit in war photographs wasn’t only noticed by Americans; in April 1854 Romanian photographer Carol Szathmari photographed the Cossacks under the Russian Prince Gorchakov. In 1855 he tried to sell a portfolio of his photographs commercially without success.

In 1854, public relations entered into war photography through the British War office, who sent photographer Richard Nicklin to photograph the Crimean War. His boat sank with all his equipment and plates on the return voyage. Two other photographers, Brandon and Dawson, inadequately fixed their photos and they were lost. However, Roger Fenton’s photographs of the Crimean War published as engravings in The Illustrated London News satisfied the increasing public demand for visual news. For the first time, visual information was deemed more important than verbal narratives. Fenton tried to move from merely representing the horrors of war, to expressing it (Amnelunxen 135-6).

In photography’s second decade, the seeds of social conscience may have begun to stir. Scottish photographers David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson photographed the fishermen of Newhaven to raise money for relief efforts in 1853. However, the limitations of the medium resulted in the necessary “staging” of photographic images. People were most often documented as “types” rather than individuals, and the practice of allegorical arrangement was perhaps dictated by the technology. In the third decade, a deeply related genre was begun. In 1868, the Glasgow City Improvement Trust commissioned photographer Thomas Annan to photograph the slums before they were demolished. The photographs capture some of the inhabitants, but due to long exposure times most of the scenes appear deserted. A similar movement to document American cities and landscapes might have developed near this time, except for the intrusion of the American Civil war.

American entrepreneur Mathew Brady negotiated with the War Department in 1861 for the right to send photographers to the front. By 1862, trained more than ten photographers to document the war. Unlike Fenton’s photographs of the Crimean War, Brady’s photographers showed the bodies. Brady’s support came from the newspapers, who considered his photographs more reliable than reporters. Simultaneously, photographs were also drafted into service to identify convicts and efforts towards ethnographies grew through the following decades. The photograph had come of age as evidence.

Alexander Gardner, a Scotsman and former editor of an Edinburgh newspaper, entered the US in 1860 to run Brady’s studio. Echoing Talbot’s Pencil of Nature, he produced Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War in an edition of perhaps 125 copies in 1866. It was a two volume album of handmade albumen prints. However, as with previous efforts of war photographers, the motivation for these documents was perhaps more commercial than social. By the 1870s, many of the obstacles to recording images were beginning to fall. The practitioners of image making developed new power as the veracity of the image to contain “factual” representations was accepted. Tensions caused by the now unnecessary use of staged images remained. Many civil war photographs were manipulated by dragging bodies around, and rhetorical effect seems to be crucial to the arrangement of photographs from the beginning. The publication of photographs at this time was for two audiences: elite publications of folios for a subscription audience engravings based on photographs used in the popular press.

Two important revolutions occurred in the 1880s— the development of the halftone and the rise of Kodak. Both of these revolutions are tied deeply to the revolution in public rhetoric about to occur, bound deeply to the rise of industry and the increasing sophistication of advertising. It is simplistic to attach this to the “rise of the middle class” alone. To do that ignores the multivalent threads regarding the proper use of this new tool of photography. It is crucial to account for the dialectic interface between the medium of photography, and the rise of print media.