Everyone is a photographer nowadays. Commuters sending photos from
their mobiles showed the world the carnage of the bombings in the
London tube. But there are photographers and photographers. Some,
nearly all of them, frame a scene, press a button and record the facts.
Others create works of art that are spine-tingling in their intensity.
And with the internet these works of genius are available in virtual
galleries. Paintings do not transmit well on a computer screen, because
it simplifies subtle colours and omits the texture of the paint. But
photographs, especially black and white photographs, are projected very
well on a high-definition screen.
Many sites carry a smattering of works of the great photographers. But
now two of the best collections, the George Eastman House in Rochester,
and the International Center of Photography in Manhattan, are now
collaborating on one of the largest collections of freely available
databases of great photos on the internet. This new site will be
completed towards the end of next year and will have nearly 200,000
photos. At the moment, the site, Photomuse.org, has only a limited
collection — but many of them are heart-stoppingly brilliant.
When the site is fully operational, viewers will be able to search not
only by the name of the photographer, but also by subject-matter,
technique, exhibition, and so on. There are a number of fine
collections on the web already. But many, like the collection in the
Library of Congress, have an historical focus, and art is only
incidental. Others, like the colossal Bettman Archive, have been sold
and are not freely available.
Even though Photomuse is far from complete, it promises to be truly stunning. Here are a few highlights.
Start with Robert Capa (1913-54), a Hungarian who probably the most
famous war photographer of the 20th century. (He died when accompanying
French soldiers in Indochina.) His brilliant images of the Spanish
Civil War are in every textbook. His famous photo of a soldier shot in
the chest in mid-stride, his rifle flying into the air, is not here,
but even this grainy print evokes the bitter intensity of an attack on
the Curdoba front in 1936.
Try Gordon Parks (1912- ), the black American who recorded what it
meant to be poor and black with troubling vividness. His portraits of
soapbox oratory and flophouse misery are unforgettable.
The photographer who convinced the art world that his craft could be
true art, as much as painting and sculpture was Alfred Stieglitz
(1864-1946). This portrait of a woman is simple, but memorable, and
evokes the paintings of Modigliani. There is clearly a lot of overlap
between modernist painting and early photography.
One photographer unknown to me was Roman Vishniac (1897-1990), who
chronicled life in Jewish ghettoes before and during World War II. This
is spell-binding imagery which takes viewers into a vanished world. Its
peaceful scenes of schooling, social life and work are almost too
painful to see in view of the destruction awaiting these Jews in the
Another unfamiliar name is Lewis Hine (1874-140), who chronicled the
entry of migrants into the New World and the hard and dangerous toil of
work in the early 20th century. His brilliant 1920 photo of a power
house mechanic reflects social reform movements and the socialist art
of painters like the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. His portraits of
workers on the construction of the Empire State Building show the
dignity of work as well as its terrible danger.
There is only one photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt (1898-1995), a German who
migrated to the US in 1935 and became a photographer for Life magazine.
His most famous photo depicts a exhilarated sailor kissing a girl in
Times Square on V-J Day. But for my money, the lone picture which
features in the Photomuse collection must be one of the best ever
taken. It shows children watching the story of Saint George and the
Dragon at a puppet theatre in the Paris in 1963. Those astonished,
excited, fearful faces can hardly be surpassed. And somehow to an adult
that frozen moment in time conveys a melancholy sense that the
innocence and exuberance of childhood exist only for a moment before
slipping away forever.
These images, mostly drawn from the first half of the last century,
have a special quality which is missing from much contemporary
photography — humanism, a conviction of the dignity of the human
being, the adventure of life, a sense that all of us are special.
Perhaps it is easier to convey this in black and white. It is more
subtle and meditative than colour, starker and more focused.
In any case, the increasing availability of great photography on the
internet is a positive sign. The web has many shadows — self-indulgent
blogs, soft and hard pornography, rubbish bins of indiscriminate
information. It is wonderful to see that there are bright lights as
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.