Tags for: Who Makes the Photograph — The Photographer or the Camera?
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Who Makes the Photograph — The Photographer or the Camera?

Barbara Tannenbaum, Chair of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, and Curator of Photography
February 14, 2020
Self-Portrait with Mirrors, 1931 (printed 1980s). Ilse Bing (American, 1899–1998). 2019.177
Visitors in PROOF: Photography in the Era of the Contact Sheet. Image courtesy of Scott Shaw Photography for the Cleveland Museum of Art.

How much does technology shape photographic art? Three major exhibitions on view this winter and spring, all organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art, provide audiences with a rare opportunity to explore the impact of three technological innovations on photography as fine art — the advent of roll film, which led to the contact sheet; the development of a small, handheld 35mm camera; and the transition from analog to digital editing and printing.

Two of the shows are on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art: PROOF: Photography in the Era of the Contact Sheet (open now through April 12) and Ilse Bing: Queen of the Leica (March 7 to June 28). Both examine how roll film and the contact sheet changed the way photographers took and edited their pictures.

Ilse Bing (American, b. Germany, 1899–1998) was the first professional to wholeheartedly adopt the small, lightweight, single-lens camera known as the Leica, which first appeared on the market in 1925. Bing brought such inventiveness and originality to this new technology that a critic dubbed her the “Queen of the Leica.” She photographed the nightlife, amusements, and unique character of Paris, her adopted city, in an avant-garde style that verged on abstraction but remained grounded in reality, sometimes with Surrealist overtones. The resulting images quickly brought her magazine, fashion, and portrait commissions, all of which she executed with her Leica.

Self-Portrait with Leica, 1931, printed 1980s. Ilse Bing (American, 1899–1998). Gelatin silver print; 26.7 x 30.5 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, The A. W. Ellenberger Sr. Endowment Fund, 2019.177. © Estate of Ilse Bing

Previously, most cameras had used sheet film and had to be reloaded after every shot. The Leica used 36-exposure rolls, allowing photographers to snap away in (relatively) rapid succession. The 35mm roll film had been borrowed from the motion picture industry. It had a 2:3 aspect ratio, ran horizontally rather than vertically through the camera, and offered enhanced light sensitivity. Coupled with the Leica’s wide aperture lens, the film permitted such short exposures that indoor pictures could be taken without a flash.

Because the viewfinder was located directly above the lens, the camera was held up to the photographer’s eye to frame and shoot. Its light weight and “miniature” size were freeing, making it easy to hold the apparatus at unusual angles. “I felt this small camera became a continuation of my eye which moved around with me,” said Bing. The Leica’s revolutionary characteristics encouraged spontaneity, experimentation, and boldness. Soon, the 35mm single-lens camera became a standard photographic instrument, especially beloved of photojournalists.

Champ de Mars from the Eiffel Tower, 1931, printed 1950s. Ilse Bing (American, 1899–1998). Gelatin silver print, ferrotyped; 20.3 x 27.9 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, The A. W. Ellenberger Sr. Endowment Fund, 2019.179. © Estate of Ilse Bing

Its negatives, however, were small, which made it especially difficult (with the tonalities reversed) to determine which shots were worthy of enlargement and printing. That led to the practice of producing contact sheets (also called proof sheets) — pieces of photographic paper that contain positive prints of some or all of the negatives on a roll of film. The contact sheet is a 20th-century phenomenon: necessitated by the introduction of 35mm roll film, it was rendered obsolete with the advent of digital photography.

Having access to a photographer’s contact sheets is akin to viewing a painter’s preparatory studies: both reveal the artists’ thoughts and working processes and illustrate integral steps in the creation of their finished artworks. There are two contact sheets in Ilse Bing but more than 180 contact sheets and enlargements in PROOF, which focuses on examples from the second half of the 20th century. These pages of images, sometimes annotated with image selections and cropping and printing instructions, were considered personal working documents. Photographer Elliott Erwitt commented that “contact sheets should be as private as a toothbrush and ought to be guarded as jealously as a mistress.”

Benefit, The Museum of Modern Art, New York City, June 1977. Larry Fink (American, b. 1941). Gelatin silver print with hand-applied grease pencil in green, red, and yellow; 25.2 x 20.3 cm. © Larry Fink. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art

Thus it is remarkable that the late Cleveland collector Mark Schwartz, a pioneer in recognizing contact sheets’ historical importance and aesthetic appeal, was able to amass such comprehensive holdings. The exhibition contains works by numerous American masters, including Diane Arbus, Harry Benson, Harry Callahan, Robert Frank, Irving Penn, and Albert Watson, as well as by Schwartz’s friends Arnold Newman, Larry Fink, and Emmet Gowin.

Marilyn Monroe, 1952. Philippe Halsman (American, b. Russia [now Latvia], 1906–1979). Gelatin silver print, ferrotyped; 25.4 x 19.8 cm. © Halsman Archive. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art

Contact sheets can provide insight into the relationship between model and artist. A special delight is a section of the PROOF exhibition devoted to Marilyn Monroe. We get to be a fly on the wall of photo sessions from 1950 and 1962 with seven different photographers, including Milton Greene, Bert Stern, and Philippe Halsman, whose cover image of Monroe for Life magazine helped catapult her to stardom. Another privileged moment in the exhibition is reflected in Richard Avendon’s five proof sheets, each bearing 12 shots from Groucho Marx’s 1972 portrait sitting. Over the course of the 60 images, Groucho slowly stops “performing” and transforms from a character into a man.

It is marvelous to have these permanent analog records that capture the path to a great photograph. In digital photography, alternative possibilities are usually quickly deleted. The steps involved in digital editing and processing remain hidden within software that will likely be out of date, and thus unreadable, within a decade.

The digital revolution in processing and printing does offer new and dramatic possibilities for image control, manipulation, and meaning. This is beautifully demonstrated by the third photography show on offer this winter, Signal Noise: Aaron Rothman (CMA at Transformer Station, February 15 to May 17). Rothman combines analog and digital technology to transmute unpretentious fragments of nature into sensuous, sublimely beautiful images that hover between two- and three-dimensional space and vacillate between representation and abstraction.

The exhibition’s title, Signal Noise, refers to a trait of digital photography. Digitally processed images contain both signal (the content intended for viewers) and noise (visually distracting artifacts caused by the technology). Rothman’s landscapes embrace this duality: content and process, the natural and the artificial. He typically uses a 4 x 5 inch analog (film) view camera and scans the processed negatives to create digital files. Each artwork starts as a straightforward photograph, but, says Rothman, “a lot happens in the studio after I take the initial photo.”

Wildflowers (PVGM1), 2015. Aaron Rothman (American, b. 1974). Inkjet print; 50.8 x 63.5 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Rick Wester Fine Art, New York

For instance, in close-ups of plants in the Wildflower series, Rothman uses Photoshop to digitally replace the naturally shadowed areas with bright, decorative colors seemingly unconnected to the subjects of the photographs. “When I first came to Arizona, I was immediately taken by the quality of light,” says Rothman. “In the prime of summer, it is more of an obliterating than an illuminating force. . . . To express this sensation, I began digitally removing the shadows from my photographs. Pushing this method a little, I started filling in the removed shadow areas with vivid color — an artificial brightness to counter the brightness of the sun.” This bold use of artifice points to the gap between the physical world and our always subjective experience of it.

Pass 1, 2013. Aaron Rothman (American, b. 1974). Inkjet print; 64.8 x 81.3 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Rick Wester Fine Art, New York

The Pass works combine multiple views of a vista at Monitor Pass in the eastern Sierra Nevada, taken years apart, to evoke a dissonance of time and space. As Rothman digitally layers the images, he “can change how the visual data interact to create reversals or simplifications or areas where the images cancel each other out. . . . The pictures are partially about the distancing of memory.” Erasures of parts of the landscape anticipate its possible loss, although no cause of such a disaster is suggested.

Photography once was equated with truth in the popular imagination. We are far more skeptical nowadays thanks to Photoshop, digital technology, and cell phone apps that allow us all to create the perfect selfie. We no longer believe that the camera’s mechanical nature necessarily results in objective recordings of the natural world. Rothman’s work reflects that contemporary understanding of the medium. “I want the pictures to undermine the idea that there’s some perfect view or a singular vantage point in the world,” says Rothman. “All the work occupies these indeterminate, in-between spaces — the blurry boundary between the real and the visual, that gap between the world and how we perceive it, also the increasingly hard-to-make distinction between the natural and the artificial.”


PROOF: Photography in the Era of the Contact Sheet is open now, free, at the CMA.

Signal Noise: Aaron Rothman opens this weekend, free, at the Transformer Station.

Ilse Bing: Queen of the Leica opens this March, free, at the CMA.

Visitors in PROOF: Photography in the Era of the Contact Sheet. Image courtesy of Scott Shaw Photography for the Cleveland Museum of Art.