In the early 1970s I found, in a small antique shop near the North Shore of Boston, MA, a wallpaper sampler book filled with of photographs pasted onto the backs of the wallpaper pages. I could afford to acquire the sample book as they weren’t considered valuable by the shop-owner, as the only thing known about the photographer was that he was a commercial photographer working in Boston at the turn of the 20th century and that he had been much better known for his photographs of boats and ships of the period; and the shop-owner valued those images –several of which he had on display in frames– more highly than he did the work prints pasted into the wallpaper book.
Nathaniel L. Stebbins is the best-known commercial photographer from Boston of that era who specialized in views of boats — and these photographs might well be from his studio. But even if they are not by Stebbins they are both charming photographs and a representative example the working practice of a commercial photographer of that era. And as they are still together as a group, they provide a rare opportunity for some insights into the still little-known practices of that era.
For the first forty years of its existence the practice of photography had been hampered by the limitations of the known photographic processes. These processes, from the daguerreotype through the wet-collodian on glass plates, had all been, to some degree, complex and awkward to work with; and these complexities had in great measure defined the nature and practices of the working professional photographer. Professional photographers were, most often, either limited to providing portraits in a portrait studio or functioning as a creator of more-or-less static scenic views which were sold most frequently to tourists at established centers of tourism (Egyptian pyramids, Niagara Falls, etc.) or in the form of stereographic views. The posed portrait or the scenic view dominated the first fifty years of photographic production, nevertheless there were always adventuresome photographers who expanded the range of photography’s uses. From the mid 1850s on a few individuals began to make what we would call today commercial or advertising photographs. A portrait of an actor to be used for publicity, views of some rural property kept in a real estate office in the local city, a still life of some machinery or equipment sent by mail to potential customers, an album of photos of these machines carried by the travelling salesmen representing the company, an album of views of local businesses kept in the lobbies of the hotels serving the railroads, or a railroad commissioning a photographer to capture scenic views along its right-of-way, are all examples of expanding the range of uses of the medium and gradually developing a type of photography no longer tied directly to an individual consumer.
This group of photographs by this unknown Boston photographer has examples of the categories or types of image that had been developed by the commercial photographer over the preceding fifty years – portraits of individuals and of groups, views of the fine horses and homes of clients, or of both the exteriors and interiors of public institutions, private dwellings, or of industrial spaces. But mixed with these by now traditional subjects are images indicative of the new 20th century.
The Vorenberg & Co. Department store, the Boylston Café, and the S. A. Woods Machine Co. were all healthy business concerns based in Boston during the first decade of the 20th century. They may have hired the photographer to provide visual documents for their own records, or to provide photographs to be used in advertising campaigns in the local newspapers or journals.
Years of experimentation with faster films and lenses finally led to an larger range of possible subjects that the photographer could capture with his camera; and this happened at the same time as the development of reliable photoengraving processes and half-tone screen printing processes radically enlarged both the number and range of possible ways to distribute the photographic image itself. So during the 1880s through the 1900s many more illustrated magazines, each using more photographs as well as a larger variety of photographic images within each issue, became a source of income for professional photographers. Thus the role of the professional photographer also began to expand and diversify as specialists began to evolve from the generalized professional base. Photographic journals began to publish articles about “photojournalists” and “documentary” and “industrial” and “theatrical” photographers (whose works were being published in the body of the magazines) and “fashion” and “advertising” and “commercial” photographers, (whose works were being published in the advertising sections of these same magazines.) Other new professional roles began to evolve out of this matrix as well. Commercial designers began to incorporate photographs into their designs. Handsome or colorful individuals, many probably recruited from the acting trade, could make a living as professional models.
I believe that the turn of the 20th century is an interesting time for photohistorians; because the roles and practices of these photographers was in flux and their products (i.e. their photographs) were full of discovery and still very fresh to the eye — at least to my eye. Many issues and ideas that have since found a place in the work of contemporary creative photographers –narrative staging, sequencing, composite photography- were part of the daily practice of this unknown Boston photographer as well as other commercial photographers of this era. It would take several decades, the rise of Russian Constructivism and the Bauhaus before “artistic” photographers would begin to investigate many of the ideas and activities which had become commonplace practice within the work of these much maligned “commercial” photographers at the turn of the 20th century.
More than once this unknown Boston photographer staged and photographed a small event consisting of a series of linked photographs that provided a sequence of actions depicting a small, contained narrative — usually something as simple and everyday as shining shoes or reading the newspaper. To me this has always been a curious and interesting use of the medium by this photographer. By drawing upon a set of established social or cultural norms or even cliches an artist can impose additional levels of emotional layering or cultural meaning into the image that may trigger additional responses beyond its direct subject content or its visual elegance and which can thus hopefully enhance the value of that image to a viewer. The notion of linking still photographs in a linear fashion to create a story was not unprecidented — there was an established tradition of creating comic or dramatic narrative views with a series of stereo cards. (The Sailor’s Return, The Housewife’s revenge, etc. ) And by 1910 the cinema had been developed and already marketed and was established as an important part of the contemporary entertainment mediascape; and several visually literate individuals were responding to that medium’s qualities. In fact, some minor experimenting with forms of narrative were being carried on by several High Pictorialist photographers such as Alvin Langdon Coburn, Rudolph Eickemeyer or Gertrude Kasebier — although these were mostly just a collection of single illustrations used to link together a book of poems or a short story in a literary journal. And there was another interesting photographer named Alexander Black, now mostly forgotten, who published several “visual books” of linked photostories at about this time. But to do this in an advertising venue, where, almost exclusively, only one image would be published on the page of a magazine or newspaper or poster, seems unusual. Perhaps some advertising campaign in a magazine or a newspaper using groups of narrative images will turn up some day.
Perhaps, if the photographer was using trained actors as models, the photographer set up the props and simply asked them to play out a little scene, and, by doing so, he hoped to get a more spontaneous look to the images.