“Art is like a joke, either you get it or you don’t.” So it was explained to me in the late 1970s by photographer Randy Eriksen, whose cheeky observation about the importance of context to one’s appreciation of either comedy or art could have been a parenthetical second subtitle for author and educator Kim Beil’s “Good Pictures: A History of Popular Photography” (Stanford University Press, 2020).
Beil’s episodic and highly readable book identifies 50 photographic trends—illustrated by hundreds of vintage and contemporary photographs—that have guided the aesthetics of photography since 1851, when a group of American daguerreotypes made a splash at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London. Back in 1851, context mostly equaled 1851, as the latest photo technology of the day played a major role in how Victorians decided that one picture was good and another was not.
“For Beil, failure comes in at least two flavors.”
The tech in question at that time, Beil writes in “Good Pictures,” was “the American process,” a procedure in which bromine, iodine, chlorine, and silver, when applied to a polished copper plate, produced daguerreotypes of greater clarity and tonal range than those of British or even French photographers, which was saying a lot since the dominant photographic form of the mid-19th century took its name from its French inventor.
The debut of the American process at the Crystal Palace showed how a single advance in photography technology at a particular moment in history could instantly define what people considered a good picture. In 1851, if you had become used to looking at daguerreotypes that were dark and blurry, you immediately “got” that the ones imported from the former colonies were better. You now had taste.
Beil’s own context began in Albany, New York, where she grew up. “My mom was into photography,” Beil tells me over the phone. “She was the one who took the pictures in my family. When my parents got me my first camera, a Nikon FE, they made me attend a class offered by the camera store. I remember it was held in this dark ballroom at an Albany hotel. It was me and a bunch of middle-aged men. That’s where I learned about 35mm cameras, f-stops, and shutter speeds.”
Beil also learned from various “How to Make Good Pictures” manuals published by Kodak, which also hailed from upstate New York. “I’m pretty sure I internalized the advice I read in ‘How to Make Good Pictures,’” Beil says of her early aesthetic indoctrination, “things like avoiding centering your subject in the frame, the rule of thirds, shooting during ‘golden hour,’ all that conventional wisdom.”
These days, as her own “Good Pictures” so capably shows, Beil is the teacher, although she’s only interested in explaining “how” inasmuch as it sheds light on “why”—to put it in the language of Eriksen’s axiom—we either get it or we don’t. To that end, Beil uses the techniques and trends embraced by photographers and photography fans to help us understand how “good” has evolved. Revealing her inner heretic, Beil measures good by its popularity, which, in Beil’s telling, deepens rather than cheapens our understanding of photographic practices of the past century and a half. “I had mostly been looking at photographs according to their processes,” Beil admits, “but the pictures began to look different to me when I started doing the research for the book. Suddenly, I was focusing on the poses, the lighting, and all those elements implied.”As we learn in “Good Pictures,” the posed portraits common to daguerreotypes and early collodion-process photographs were actually products of the primitive technology of those emerging photographic media. “Awkward poses and strained expressions betrayed the challenge of sitting still for several seconds, as was common through the 1860s,” Beil writes. Indeed, so many photographers found it necessary to steady their subjects that it became common practice to provide the sitter with a small round table upon which to rest an elbow. In 1868, one enterprising photographer, a New Yorker named Napoleon Sarony, even filed a patent for a “photographic rest,” which could be adjusted into a number of appealing poses.
Today, many of us look at photographs from this era and are immediately prompted by the uniform placement of their subject’s arms to date them from the mid-19th century. The context is clear, we get it, and we’re maybe even a little bit grateful for the visual cue.
Back in the day, however, such uniformity was met with derision, at least in some quarters. In “Good Pictures,” Beil quotes British photographer Henry Peach Robinson: “A person unacquainted with photography… on looking over the specimens of many portrait photographers, would suppose there was only one position in which a sitter could be placed,” Robinson huffed. Some modern viewers are equally judgmental, interpreting the rigid poses of the sitters in these photographs as evidence of unyielding Victorian rectitude. In their daily lives and personal habits, many Victorians were no doubt stiff as boards, but their poses in early photographs, Beil shows, are more properly read as a factor of technology rather than an indication of character.
A small table to steady an elbow was a simple corrective. Most other failings of the nascent technology of photography, and there were many, required more ingenuity. In fact, the story of early photography is riddled with failure, which is why failure is a repeated theme in “Good Pictures.”
For Beil, failure comes in at least two flavors. The first concerns failures that led to advances like the American process, which was devised to correct the predominance of dark and blurry images in early photography. But bromine, iodine, chlorine, and silver could not fix an even greater failing of early photographs, their impermanence. Whether dark and blurry or sharply Americanized, early photographs tended to fade, virtually before one’s eyes.
The solution to that failure turned out to be carbon, which had been used by photographers for this purpose since 1856 but was only popularized in 1867, when a Boston photographer named Frank Rowell figured out how to make carbon tissue paper in order to print photographs that, in Rowell’s words, “will hereafter be as permanent as the engravings which adorn the walls of our dwellings.” As Beil points out, it was not until photographic permanence arrived that the medium’s impermanence was decried.
From the context of 1867, carbon was a scientific solution to a technical problem, but almost immediately it also became an aesthetic choice for photographers, who combined carbon with pigments to, for example, replicate the reddish hues of Old Masters drawings. All of a sudden, here were photographs that truly deserved a place next to the engraving on the wall of one’s dwelling, an obvious improvement over far more common tintypes, cabinet cards, and cartes-de-visites, the snapshots of their day. By the 20th century, decades-old carbon techniques were embraced all over again by a new generation of art photographers, who valued the element—number 6 in the periodic table—for the smoky softness it gave their subjects.
A second type of failure concerns effects that largely began as mistakes produced by legions of amateur photographers shooting pictures with their new, boxy, Kodak cameras, which made their debut in 1888. Foremost among these failures were motion blur and lens flare. Once upon a time, both were frowned upon by the authors of the “How to Make Good Pictures” books. Thus, a blurry background while trying to capture a moving object, or a blurry object moving across an in-focus background, were considered mistakes that a few simple techniques could help you correct.
Shooting into a light source and thus drenching precious photographic real estate in overexposed rays of light was also considered a no-no. But just as sports photographers would eventually have a ball with motion blur, fashion and advertising photographers would eventually go crazy for lens flare. Intention created context.
“Intention is central to the way I think about art, and maybe even how we define it,” Beil agrees. “Take lens flare: I think the power of lens flare comes from its initial unintentional use by people who were just taking casual pictures without any premeditation, without much intention.” In these sorts of photographs, Beil says, lens flare was an amateur mistake that conferred “a kind of authenticity to an image.” That’s why advertisers find lens flare so appealing. “Because we still associate it with authenticity,” Beil says, “it makes an advertising photo seem more real, maybe even spontaneous.”
Today, lens flare is so widely used, so intentional, that billions of smartphone cameras offer multiple variations of this former failing in the form of filters, which can be activated with a click or a swipe. “Everything can be achieved and there are no more accidents,” Beil says of photography in the 2020s, “so photographers look to things that happened before to reinsert some kind of authenticity into their pictures.” Thanks to technology, photographers can now pretend to take pictures as if they lacked the tools to make their pictures, well, good.
The problem, of course, is that technology is intrusive, inserting itself into aesthetics and even cultural paradigms without being invited to do so. “We have a situation today,” Beil says, “in which our smartphone cameras are producing pictures according to the criteria of software designers, who have made a lot of egregious assumptions about the tonality of skin color.” According the Beil, because the sample sets used by software designers have historically included more pictures of light skin tones than dark skin tones, the colors captured by our smartphone cameras do a better job of reproducing the lighter skin tones. “People with darker skin aren’t represented in the way that they want to be,” she says, “or even in the way that’s accurate. Google has promised that the Pixel 6 camera coming out in October 2021 is going to deal with that problem,” she adds, but Beil doesn’t sound like she’s expecting much more than an incremental improvement.
Not surprisingly, getting skin tones right is not a new problem, as Beil explains in her brief discussion of “Shirley” cards, named for the first white woman whose smiling face graced these small pieces of paper in the 1950s. Produced and distributed by Kodak, the cards were intended to help film labs calibrate the colors of their prints to the capabilities of Kodak film. Sounds straightforward enough, but as Beil quotes communications scholar Lorna Roth in “Good Pictures,” “Kodak color film stocks long privileged the light end of the spectrum, sacrificing detail in dark image areas to achieve the accurate rendering of lighter areas, especially white skin.”
In their privileging of white skin tones over darker ones, the Shirley cards exposed Kodak’s “unconscious bias” when it came to race. Unconscious or not, though, the bias appears to have run deep. How else to explain the fact that the company did not prioritize the manufacturing of film stocks that did a better job of capturing darker complexions until after it had received complaints from, among other commercial customers, wood-products manufacturers, who fretted that their darker-grained products were not showing up properly when shot with Kodak film—in print advertisements, the faces of white models would be clear and sharp, but the wooden sofas upon which these models reclined would be dark, indistinct, and muddy. Kodak eventually developed new film stocks to solve this problem, agreeing, it would seem, to place a premium on skin-tone accuracy only when its financial interests were at stake.
Other responses to photography failures have been less fraught. Because early photographs lacked color, photo studios hired artists to hand tint them. Because early cameras did a poor job of capturing landscapes and clouds at the same time, photographers would sometimes use two negatives for a final print, one for the earth and another for the sky. To combat deep shadows creasing a sitter’s face, photographers would introduce shadows they could control, creating what was called the Rembrandt effect. And by the end of the 20th century, as amateur photographers finally mastered the blinding effects of built-in on-camera flash units, fashion photographers embraced the amateur look of overexposed faces set against deep shadows to give their photographs the same sense of authenticity that was conferred by other “errors” such as lens flare.
By the end of “Good Pictures” and its 50 photographic trends, many readers may find themselves wondering about trend number 51. I know I did. My vote would be for what I call the Sunset Pointing Photograph, which I learned about when I was an editor at Sunset magazine from 1992 to 1998. By the time I arrived to take my desk in a corner of the company’s famous Menlo Park headquarters, there was an unofficial but nonetheless well-articulated “ban” in place forbidding the publication of photographs featuring people standing in scenic settings and pointing. Apparently, pointing photos had been a thing at Sunset in the 1960s, ’70s, and even into the ’80s, when untold numbers of travel articles were accompanied by untold numbers of photographs depicting lots and lots of people pointing.
Memories of former colleagues are fuzzy on the finer details of the ban, as are my own. For example, it may or may not have been essential that the person in the photo was pointing at something that readers could see in the photo—standing, say, in the left third of the photo and pointing to something in the right third. One admittedly tortured explanation for the ubiquity of these photos was the high value Sunset placed on realistically representing the reader’s experience; previous editors may have felt that depicting a reader pointing was perfectly acceptable since that is what the magazine’s readers were most likely to do when released into the wild. At some point, though, the pointing photograph was deemed enough of a cliche that Sunset itself, which was generally quite comfortable with its often ham-fisted sense of style, put a stop to the practice, lest “The Magazine of Western Living” be accused of self-parody.
Beil is of two minds about her number 51. “I expect we’re going to see a lot of intentional pixelation and degraded images,” she says, “all of that stuff that was bad about early smartphone cameras around 2010. That’s probably going to be popular in five or 10 years,” she sighs.
Her other vote would be for a new genre she calls the “Plandid,” a portmanteau for “planned candid.” “It’s like when you’re looking away from the camera, but you’re very much aware that someone is taking your photo,” she explains. “These are really popular on social media right now. Women will have hair all over their face. They’ll be pulling down their sunglasses and looking at the ground, clearly posing for the camera but not looking directly at it. Plandid would probably be my chapter 51.”
These days Beil still takes photographs, although she no longer carries around her childhood Nikon FE. “I still love looking through camera lenses and taking pictures,” she says, “but I wouldn’t say my pictures are very interesting. My Instagram is dominated by photos of my how-to book collection, so I’m mostly taking pictures of other people’s pictures.” Turns out, according to “Good Pictures,” there’s precedent for that, too. Beil has a whole chapter on a 1950s trend in which people took pictures of the programs on their television sets, and then pasted those pictures into scrapbooks. Instagram, scrapbooks, get it?