Shoppe Talk ~ Inspiration ~ Wedding Photography, 100 Years Ago Part Three
Wedding Photography 100 Years Ago
PART THREE: The Modern Moment
Hello, all, and thanks for joining us in this final installment of our look back at wedding photography around the turn of the century. Thus far, we have seen both the presence of stereographic technology and the Pictorialist discipline in the world of wedding photography. Today we will be seeing how the spirit of Modernism went hand-in-hand with photography, and how it influenced the wedding photographer.
By the turn of the century, the Industrial Revolution had completely changed modern life, with machines and factory processes making the work of farming, travel, and even photography, toils of the past. Photographers began to join in the throng of the Modernist spirit, letting old orders stay in the past, and seeing life in new ways. Moreover, they fully embraced the mechanical aspect of photography, and wanted to use the camera to its fullest capability. Modern photographers had no interest in using the control of the camera to produce soft, ethereal images, nor did they want to reference painting or allegory in any way. It’s not that they didn’t appreciate creative mediation, but in this crossing of mechanics, aesthetics, and Modernity, the Modernist photographer felt that the creative mediation should be done only with the eyes and in the mind. This approach left the control of framing as the turning point in Modernist aesthetics. The old models of pastoral landscapes and wide portraits were squeezed out of the frame in favor of a closer proximity to the subject, isolating pure form.
While Modernist photography would later adopt a more extreme style of abstraction, the first blushes of this photographic philosophy were seen in the work of Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand. Stieglitz’ famous photograph “The Steerage” might not seem impressive at first, but it was his first work in which he framed the image while shooting—not cropping it in the darkroom. He was able to see, then and there, in the moment, a fascinating composition of shapes and lines abstracted from this docked ship. This image was pioneering in the Modernist photographic movement.
“The Steerage,” 1907, Alfred Stieglitz. Referenced from Wikimedia Commons.
Paul Strand was another prominent photographer of the Modernist aesthetic. His photograph “Wall Street” is well known for its simple geometric form. It was made well after “The Steerage,” and gives us a better perspective on how far the Modernist photographers ran with Stieglitz’ first inspiration. With the image “Wall Street,” I am always taken by the drama in the scale between the architecture and the figures. In this, you can see the old order of the heroic human figure now being absorbed into the composition as an element:
“Wall Street,” 1915, Paul Strand. Referenced from Masters-of-Photography.com
You can see a similar play between form and the human figure in this earlier photograph by George G. Bain, depicting the arrival of Alice Gordon at her wedding. This is such an interesting perspective of the moment, seeing the figure between the large shapes of the car and the striped awning of the entryway. The bright shape the bride takes on in this composition balances out the hot bit of sky in the upper right corner. Bain made such a mysterious moment out of this arrival scene.
“Weddings—Gordon-Grayson Wedding,” c.1910, George G. Bain. Referenced from the Library of Congress
In this image of four altar boys before a wedding, Bain relies mostly on tonal value to create a composition of form. We can see how the act of close and mindful framing created a pattern of tone and shape out of the boys’ white vestments against the dark figures in the background.
“Weddings-Oelrich Wedding,” c.1908, George G. Bain. Referenced from the Library of Congress.
Here is another photograph by George G. Bain, from the wedding of Gladys Vanderbilt-Szechenyi. The composition created by the scale of the doorframe and of the lines of the stairs and pillars is tremendous!
“Vanderbilt-Szechenyi Wedding,” 1908, George G. Bain. Referenced from the Library of Congress
Thank you for coming along with me on this journey through history, as we shared a glimpse of what wedding photography looked like around the turn of the century. I hope it was enjoyable, and that it got you thinking about your own approach to photography. Perhaps you can now pick up a thread that goes back to the first movements in the medium that led to the kind of images you make today. Happy shooting!
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