Photography Through Time and Lens

The ground floor meeting room at the Mattapoisett Public Library was packed to nearly overflowing on October 28 when local artist and photographer Liz Waring stepped up to the podium to give her presentation “Focus On Photos.”

Waring, who holds a degree in fine arts, is no stranger to public speaking and clearly was in full command of the subject she was to speak on – photography’s impact on the human experience, and the importance and evolution of the art form.

Waring started by going way back to when photography was more like a scientific experiment with harsh chemicals and liquefied metallic compounds etching vague images into glass. But that was just the beginning as she took her audience on a journey that explored art, history, and how we are compelled to document our experiences.

That first photograph taken in 1826 byJosephNicéphoreNiépceis generally accepted as the very first photograph. Waring explained that, not long after that first image, rapid interest in the further development of photography in both camera equipment and printing processes gained momentum.

But, for Waring, it is the photographer whose eye and artistic sensibilities are so significant to our human experience.

Waring shared J.J. Hawes’ 1843 photograph of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who had yet to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe believed women to be the backbone of society, and once commented, “Women are the real architects of society.” In the photo she is seated as if deep in thought, innocent of the firestorm she would create in years to come.

Of the 19thcentury, one where the use of camera equipment could be found in nearly every city and town, Waring shared works depicting the first use of anesthesia in Boston circa 1846, Mathew Brady’s photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln standing in her full resplendence, and Tim Sullivan’s Civil War images documenting the horror of war.

Photography was also being used to understand a variety of questions, including the physical propulsion of the horse. In England, a stable owner wanted to grasp more fully how his racing stock moved in order to improve their performance. Enter one Edward Muybridge who took a series of exposures with a horse running with a mounted jockey. These images proved that a horse during the mid-phase of running actually had all four hooves off the ground tucked towards its chest, when before it was believed that a more stiff-legged, one-foot-on-the-ground motion was at play.

But men were not the only people utilizing the camera for more then portraiture. In 1863, Julia Margaret Cameron, whose career was a brief 11 years, used photography to tenderly render mothers with their children by using “dreamy soft focus,” Waring said, a more artistic approach to the medium.

For one woman who was not a photographer but instead the subject, Sojourner Truth, real name Isabella Baumfree, photography provided a way of supporting herself. She sold photographs bearing her image to adoring supporters.

By the late 1800s, women were fully in the photography game.

There was Gertrude Kasebier who promoted photography as a career for women and whose images of females, children, and Native Americans influenced the art form.

Dorothea Lange’s “The Migrant Mother was as famous as the Mona Lisa,” Waring said, and as the image came to the screen, the audience’s collective gasp expressed its enduring influence. Waring shared that Lange worked for seven years touring the devastated American countryside documenting the plight of migrants for the US Farm Security Administration. Some 170,000 photographs are stored in the Library of Congress, she said.

Waring talked about Margaret Burke White who worked for Life Magazine, and who took the last professional photograph of Gandhi sitting at a spinning wheel mere hours before he was assassinated.

Lee Miller, a former professional model turned photographer, became a WWII correspondent. Her gut-wrenching pictures of the liberation of Auschwitz still shock the senses as they illustrate the extent of man’s cruelty towards humanity.

Rounding out the list of female artists, Waring discussed Annie Leibovitz whose photography of modern day personalities and the rich and famous are universally acknowledged for their perfection.

Photography has become so engrained in our everyday experience that we might be tempted to take it for granted. But Waring’s message throughout her presentation was also one of a cautionary note, given that printed photographs and negatives have fast become old-fashioned replaced by digital technology: “Don’t forget to back-up your files.”

“It’s a whole new world now with digital photography, but what a heritage we have.”

By Marilou Newell


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