Straight photography emphasizes and engages with the camera's own technical capability to produce images sharp in focus and rich in detail. The term generally refers to photographs that are not manipulated, either in the taking of the image or by darkroom or digital processes, but sharply depict the scene or subject as the camera sees it. Paul Strand and Alfred Stieglitz pioneered Straight photography in New York while the Hungarian-born László Moholy Nagy exploited pure photography to maximize the graphic structure of the camera-image. These straight or pure approaches to photography continue to define contemporary photographs, while being the foundation for many related movements, such as Documentary, Street photography, Photojournalism, and even later Abstract photography.
From the time of the camera's invention in 1839, it was used as a tool to document everyday objects, daily scenes, nature, and cultural artifacts. The basis for photography as it is practiced today stems from Henry Fox Talbot's invention of the calotype: a paper negative produced by exposing a sheet of paper coated with silver chloride to light. Talbot, a British scientist, mathematician, author, and inventor of photography, shortened exposure times and allowed multiple prints to be made from a single negative. He would have us believe that the photograph was created by the action of light, by nature herself, on sensitive paper, and depicted by optical and chemical means alone. His French counterpart Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre, a painter, printmaker, and inventor of the Daguerreotype, shared Talbot's belief that photography "gives nature the ability to reproduce itself .. not with their colors but instead with a very fine gradation of tones."
Talbot and Daguerre agreed on the importance of camera's truthful imaging, yet they had seemingly divergent interpretations of the role of photography. Talbot understood the photograph's literal description in terms of the language of the fine arts and their aesthetics of beauty, whereas Daguerre's singular photographs went hand-in-hand with sociological categories used to collect and classify objects. These two definitions of photography actually comprise the photograph's complex character, which Straight photography takes full advantage of as it transformed the photograph's literal description of reality into a "feeling" or vision of modern life.
By the later half of the 1800s, photography influenced various painting styles such as Naturalism and The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, just as photographers resorted to imitating painting to elevate photography to a fine art. In 1869 Henry Peach Robinson's book, Pictorial Effect in Photography: Being Hints On Composition And Chiaroscuro For Photographers championed the use of composed images and using darkroom techniques to create the photographic equivalent of chiaroscuro in painting. Thus, these ideas contributed to the Pictorialist photography movement, the first major movement in photography, which persisted in claiming the medium as fine art.
Yet, in the late 1880s, Henry Frederick Evans first advocated for a pure photography, known later as Straight photography, as a viable alternative to Pictorialism by creating Symbolist images that evoked the meaning suggested by architectural forms. Subsequently, the British photographer Peter Henry Emerson argued in his book Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art (1890) that photographs should be sharply focused in order to depict a scene as it appeared in nature - how nature appears to the human eye. His camera was part of his probing of human existence as he saw it referenced in daily tasks and everyday objects. Emerson sought to visualize the feeling of life in a scene. His approach found resonance in the American tradition of Straight photography as practiced by Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, and Edward Weston.
With the advent of the snap and shoot approach of the amateur handheld Kodak camera in 1888, American Pictorialists, in particular Alfred Stieglitz, continued to stake out photography's claim as a fine art. However, he shifted his position as early as 1907 to advocate for photography's own unique visual language. Marius De Zayas, writing in Stieglitz's journal Camera Work in 1913, claimed that the photograph was an ideal form based on its own potential as a means of image-making. The modern definition of a Straight photography appeared in 1916 in the critic Sadakichi Hartmann's essay, "A Plea for Straight Photography," which advocated for the pure photographic approach to depict modern reality. This argument is first visualized in Paul Strand's abstract studies published in the last, 1917 issue of Camera Work (which was edited by Alfred Stieglitz). Strand's abstract studies drew on lessons of Cubism where flattened pictorial space and tight cropping defamiliarized the subject to create an intense seeing of pure form. So, Straight photography developed in the work of Strand within the artistic milieu of Stieglitz's 291 Gallery in New York, a place attentive to the avant-garde movement of Cubism.
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By the end of World War I, Straight photography became standard practice in the fields of advertising, design, and journalism in the United States. In particular, Paul Outerbridge's advertising photography introduced graphic clarity into advertising, as in his 1922 ad for the Ide Shirt collars. A commercialized Straight photography went hand-in-hand with the advent of the illustrated magazines that maximized photography for popular influence.
Meanwhile, in Europe, a New Objectivity emerged in the arts and photography. Albert Renger-Patzsch's photo book The World is Beautiful (1929) exemplifies a modern, yet objective (Straight) way of looking at the world, as it developed in Germany. His collection of one hundred photographs reveal patterns of beauty and order in the natural and man-made world. By comparison, August Sander documented the people of his native Westerwald, near Cologne, Germany from all walks of life. He organized his typographical catalog by professions and trades, which he titled The Face of Our Time (1929).
Renger-Patzsch's clear and rigorous depictions have an affinity with the work of the French photographer Eugène Atget, one of the most influential early modern photographers. He documented Old Paris, as it was transforming into a modern city from 1889 to 1924. His lifelong project, informed by the nineteenth-century ambition to record events and classify objects, became well known in the 1920s primarily due to the photographers Man Ray and Berenice Abbott. Their interpretation of Atget's work as artistic documents set up a new modern model for the relationship between visual documents and knowledge.
Because Atget produced photographs for all kinds of purposes, his documents revealed how one photograph had multiple interpretations. The way images could open themselves up to multiple meanings with the help of the imagination sparked the interest and fascination of the Surrealists such as Man Ray, Brassaï, and Marcel Duchamp, as well as modern photographers such as André Kertesz, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, László Moholy-Nagy, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and later, Irving Penn.
The new emphasis on the photograph's function in the 1920s rather than its pure visual form owed much to the development of aviation and aerial photography during the first World War. Because the camera image reproduced from a high vantage point the interweaving geometric forms on the ground for military intelligence, it changed the very basis of photographic vision. This "view from above," which became a cliché in the 1920s, re-ignited the debate on visualization, an issue actively debated in the scientific field, beginning in the 1850s, about photography's ability to show the results of an experiment: for example, the shock wave produced by a bullet passing through a pane of glass. Modern photographers, in particular Moholy-Nagy, relished the way this new vision dismantled space and identified new relationships between objects. Visualization, however, would take on a different meaning in American Straight photography with its emphasis on form, texture, and light.
Group f/64: Modern Objects and National Parks
Straight photography became dominant during the thirties in the United States. The West Coast photographers, known as Group f/64, advocated what they called "pure" photography. As Edward Weston described, they believed in the "innate honesty" of the camera, which, "should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself." Weston became central to the development of modern photography in California due to his stylistic boldness that treated the object or the body in terms of form, texture, and light. He founded together with Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Willard Van Dyke, Sonya Noskowiak, Dorothea Lange, an informal group, who took the name Group f/64 in reference to an extremely small aperture setting which would produce sharp focus and great depth of field. The most influential of these photographers was Ansel Adams.
Adam's photographs from the late 1920s and 1930s suggest the sculptural work to come in the 1940s. For instance, Factory, San Francisco (1932) employs a Cubist arrangement of walls and roofs that never yields to total abstraction, but instead shows the power lines and the texture of corrugated steel under strong sunlight. Adams achieved the crisp perfection associated with Strand and Weston and, like Weston, he made a pilgrimage to see Alfred Stieglitz, the major force in avant-garde American photography. Adams journeyed to New York City in 1933 in the hope that Stieglitz's blessing would enhance his career and which Stieglitz promptly did by organizing an exhibition of Adam's work in 1936.
By the 1930s, Strand, like Adams, documented the world rather than pure form. His interest in using art to create awareness about social issues compelled him to become involved in progressive causes. In 1936, he joined the volunteer organization of the Photo League, whose primary aim was to educate photographers and to document the everyday life of workers. Photographers were at the core of the group and the founding members included Sid Grossman, Aaron Siskind, Walter Rosenblum, and Max Yavno. Strand had a profound influence in the League through his lectures and course on documentary photography.
Documentary Photography finds its Voice in the Great Depression
Even though Straight photography became irrelevant during the Great Depression, its legacy proved resilient. Photographers now knew they could use the medium to make documentary images of reality that were expressive through formal means, as in the work of Walker Evans. Evan's documentary style, like Emerson's, used the camera as part of his investigation of rural life, its particular atmosphere, daily rhythms, and vernacular forms.
Evans was among a group of documentary photographers who went to work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) from 1935 to 1944. These FSA photographers were tasked with photographically documenting "all aspects of the American way of life," particularly the effects of the Great Depression on the Dust Bowl (which is namely the Great Plains that extend over southeastern Colorado, southwestern Kansas, the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, and northeastern New Mexico). Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White, Russell Lee, Dorothea Lange, and Gordon Parks were noted photographers of this social documentary movement. They photographed in the fields or among the urban poor, while striving to depict the unvarnished truth of their subjects. Social documentary photography aimed to inform people about the state of the nation, using an emotional language to move them to empathize with its subject.
Evans, also stayed true to his own agenda as he photographed rural America's small-town life, shopfronts, vernacular architecture, and basic American artifacts and materials of old - as though in search for a definitive American image. Graveyard, Houses, and Steel Mill, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (1935) captures a series of Americas that coincide, yet lack coherence and continuity. Evans' "fractured vision of America," to borrow photo-historian Paul Graham's phrase, influenced the work of Robert Frank, Harry Callahan, and William Eggleston.
The Changing City and Street Photography
Street photography responded to the urban experience of the modern city. Photographers explored the city by day and by night to expose its true condition: the loss of the old urban spaces, modern changes and confusion, human activity on the street, or the city's darker, bizarre, even surreal elements. Street photographers used an expressive style to describe Paris and New York from the 1930s to the 1980s.
With the advent of the 35mm camera, street photography became a notable style in 1930s France. Cartier-Bresson's use of this small camera and his full-framing of a scene visualized at the time of exposure, defined the modernist, camera aesthetic of the 1930s. The 35mm camera allowed him to blend into situations and act like an alert detective, waiting for the moment when an essential meaning of the scene revealed itself, as in Paris, Gare St. Lazare (1932). A photographer on the go, Cartier-Bresson made it acceptable to use professional labs to process and print the images. The days of the unique print, developed by the artist-photographer, were becoming a thing of the past.
For Brassaï, the city became a surreal event he viewed at night to capture the city's darkest and deepest needs and desires in bars, hotels, brothels, and clubs. For example, No. 27 (1933) describes a dark city street lined by a series of hotels whose illuminated signage punctuated the street.
Berenice Abbott, also inspired by Atget, made New York City's entire urban space her subject. She captured the city's dynamic transformation in her project Changing New York (1939) by using a variety of approaches in her photography. This allowed her to describe the city's fractured character, as in Columbus Circle (1929), full of adverts, signs, boards, and directions, as well as its "views from above" the city's skyscrapers.
Helen Levitt's lifelong project presents another view of the city through the activity of children at play in New York neighborhoods. The Viennese-born, American photographer Lisette Model, a teacher and lecturer of photography (taught Diane Arbus), drew attention to average people in the city in a direct, honest manner. Yet, her photographs impacted the street photography of Levitt and Lee Friedlander in their direct, candid approach to children or average people on the street.
Photojournalism Reports World Events
Over the next three decades, the documentary style became instrumental in covering major world conflicts. In Europe, it became associated with the news agency Magnum, founded in 1947 with offices in New York and Paris. This international news agency embraced individual approaches to documentary photography. The agency's founding members were: Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David (Chim) Seymour, George Rodger, and William Vandivert. Each photographer had a readily identifiable individual style. Robert Capa, Hungarian-born photojournalist, exemplified the Magnum photographer: the globetrotting heroic photojournalist, who moves between cultures documenting everything happening in the world. For Capa, it started with his coverage of the Spanish Civil War and on through the second World War. Photojournalists like Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson depicted the allies entry into WWII as well as the horrors of the French refugee camps at the end of the war, as reflected in Capa's D-Day (1944) and Cartier-Bresson's Accused Gestapo Informer, Dessau, Germany (1945). Evidently Magnum, influenced by Cartier-Bresson, emphasized the chance encounters and random incidents, which define the photograph's meaning.
In the United States, photojournalism was closely associated with the work of Margaret Bourke-White, who documented the nation's industrial achievements as in the creation of Fort Peck dam in her New Deal, Montana: Fort Peck Dam (1936) for Life magazine. Photojournalism in both the United States and Europe continued to sustain Straight photography's artistic sensibility as it shaped the world's news stories in arresting images in the pages of the highly-popular illustrated magazines: Life, Fortune, Time, Paris Match, Epoca, among others.
Concepts and Styles
Straight photography, identified with a pure approach to the medium, was used across all fields of photography and different styles: from avant-garde photographs, documentary and street photography, to abstract photography. Each photographic style adapted the approach to emphasize its own treatment of form, sensory experience, or the changes in the social and cultural environment.
Social Documentary Photography and Street Photography
Social documentary photographers draw attention to the social conditions that need social reform or to convey the underlying power structures causing social problems. For instance, Walker Evan's famous image, Allie Mae Burroughs, wife of cotton sharecropper, Hale County, Alabama (1936) highlighted the plight of poor sharecroppers and the need for social reform during the Great Depression. Evans emphasized the photograph as "fact," yet aimed to create images that had a lyrical quality. As he said, with the images he wanted to "make an attack on the establishment... wanting to disturb them." Consequently, the documentary photograph needs to be seen in relation to the world, from where it was taken and the histories associated with it.
Street photography adopted a casual, yet candid view of human activity in public spaces and in the city. Evan's series Subway Portraits simply captured people at moments on the subway, lost in thought, in mid conversation, reading a newspaper; these images describe a reality often overlooked in the anonymous space of the underground. These photographs impacted the work of street photographers such as Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank, and Helen Levitt. Street photography created ambivalent images alert to the city's modernity and its human inhabitants. New responses, however, continuously emerge to register the ever-changing metropolises as diverse as Mexico City, Bombay, Shanghai, Tokyo.
With the rise of the Nazi Era, and the outbreak of World War II, photojournalism earned the reputation for providing truthful and objective images of world events in the illustrated press. Magnum Photos, the first international photographic cooperative, exemplified the highest standard in the field of photojournalism. Their ethical and socially conscious approach to documenting events lent credibility to the news stories based on their photographs.
In the years following World War II, Photojournalism with its straight approach became profoundly connected to ethical questions of authenticity, objectivity, and accuracy in reporting. As the photo-historian Fred Ritchen contends, the language of photojournalism was forged in adversity - "a tragic history related through photography." With the Vietnam war, a crisis of loyalty occurred and the politically committed photographer protested against and "denounced the hypocrisy of the cause of the conflict and its gratuitous violence." After this war, it would become more difficult for American photojournalists to gain access to areas of conflict and to have such a freehand at reporting.
Due to the advent of Photoshop the manipulation of the image has become more easily achieved and disguised. Still news photographs are expected to provide accurate information as well as in their captions to avoid casting aspersion upon the photograph and the photographer. For instance, in 2015, 20% of the photographic entries for the World Press Photo Award were disqualified for being manipulated, and a major prize was withdrawn after the winner was found to have staged images and provided misleading captions.
Abstract photography emphasized the experimental and conceptual character of the photograph. It uses composition, line, color, and forms that may or may not have an association with objects in the world. Some abstract photographers sought out the details of the city or landscape rather than the experimental possibilities of the medium. For instance, Aaron Siskind, a noted social documentary photographer, who depicted life in Harlem in his photo book Harlem Document (1932-40), began to take extreme close-ups of subjects in the early 1940s. This led to works like Jerome, Arizona 21 (1949) where a close-up of peeling paint on a wall becomes an abstraction of shape and form. Inspired by Edward Weston to take up photography, Frederick Sommer used a large format camera to document the desert landscape and adopted innovative framing techniques, for instance, photographing the desert without a horizon to create, what he called, "constellations" as the landscape itself approached abstraction.
László Moholy-Nagy's "New Vision" in photography experimented with the medium, its unconventional forms and techniques, to give the image a graphic structure. Some of his techniques included a simple photogram (placing an object directly on the light-sensitive paper and exposing it to light), photomontages, the combination of photographs and modern typography, or unusual angles, such as the close-up. Moholy-Nagy's photograms from the twenties are one of the many ways he experimented with the medium. As painter, photographer, sculptor, and filmmaker as well as graphic, exhibition, and state designer, Moholy-Nagy believed in the power of images and advocated for the integration of art and technology.
Photography's power to mirror reality shaped the Straight approach to create an ideal, yet honest picture. The influence of American Straight photography can be found as late as the 1970s in the work of Czech photographer Josef Sudek. However, given the prevalence of the photographic image and its use by democratic and dictatorial governments alike to promote their various national agendas in the post WWII period, progressive artists and photographers inevitably critiqued the media's universal claims. Conceptual photographers in the 1970s, in particular Douglas Hubler, sought to break down the conventions of documentary photography and provoke viewers to examine their visual culture. Postmodernism attacked photography's neutral, objective images. Photographers such as Andreas Gursky and Cindy Sherman resented the documentary approach, because as the art critic Deborah Solomon explained: "They resented the street aesthetic or documentary approach because they wanted to show that all photography - even the most seemingly real - is an illusion. They thought it was silly to pretend that documentary photography offers truths."
As a result, the viability of both the artistic and documentary photograph are still debated, given the proliferation of technology, cell phone cameras and digital software, which has resulted in an explosion of images. The photographer Stephen Mayes in a Time magazine 2015 issue argued, "We'll look back at the black-and-white photograph that was the voice of truth for nearly a century, as a simplistic and incomplete source of information about what was happening in the world."
Nonetheless, Straight photography persisted to define a vision of how we interact with the world into the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Inspired by their awareness of time, some photographers interestingly used the concept of the snapshot, tied to the fleeting experience of life, to explore the daily aspects of their own lives and/or local cultures, such as Martin Parr, Wolfgang Tillmans, Richard Billingham and Nan Goldin. Simultaneously other photographers have reinterpreted the concept of the series, by photographing a single subject over an extended period of time, as seen in the Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra's work Israeli Soldiers (1999-2003) that depicts a young woman at various points in her year and a half stint in the Israeli army. For many artists, the camera became the ultimate tool for revealing what would otherwise remain obscured or hidden from view.
Other twenty-first century artists, however, continue to interrogate and reinvent the medium of photography anew, as in the work of Matthew Brandt, Marco Breuer, Lisa Oppenheim, Alison Rossiter, and James Welling, who continue to evoke the abstract and formal vocabularies used by modernist photographers in the twenties and thirties.
Famous advert for Ide Shirt collars by Paul Outerbridge (1922)
Photo of Eugène Atget
Ansel Adams photographing with a large format camera in Yosemite National Park
Factory, San Francisco (1932) is notable for its realism
Walker Evans at work, ca. 1929
Henri Cartier-Bresson captures a street scene in his Rue Mouffetard, Paris (1954)
Capa on assignment in Spain, using a Filmo 16mm movie camera. Photo by Gerda Taro
Sadakichi Hartmann's Life and Career
Son of a multi-lingual and affluent German trader and a Japanese mother, Carl Sadakichi Hartmann was born in about 1867 on the island of Desima in Nagasaki harbor. After his mother, Osada, died in childbirth, Sadakichi and an elder brother, Taru, were taken to Hamburg, Germany, where they were brought up in luxury and given excellent schooling, primarily under the care of a wealthy uncle and their grandmother. Sadakichi was baptized a Lutheran, attended private schools (reading all of the works of Goethe and Schiller by the age of nine), and wore a uniform for a time at a preparatory naval school at Steinwaerder, Hamburg. Upon the remarriage of his father, Hartmann was placed in a naval academy in Kiel, but he rebelled against the Teutonic discipline and ran away to Paris. His angered father disinherited him, shipping the thirteen or fourteen-year-old boy off to an uncle in America.
When he arrived on a hot June day in 1882 in America, Hartmann discovered an environment that was, by comparison with his aristocratic surroundings in Germany, drab and barren. Working at menial jobs in printing and engraving shops, he discovered the Philadelphia Mercantile Library and spent his nights studying a variety of subjects, steadily gravitating toward the arts in search of a career. He visited Walt Whitman at Camden, and occasionally translated German correspondence for the aged and ailing poet. These visits are recorded by Hartmann in a small book entitled Conversations with Walt Whitman (1895).
During intermittent associations with the poet, Hartmann made four summer trips to Europe to further his study of literature, the theatre, and the visual arts. He studied stage machinery under Lautenschlaeger at the Royal Theatres, Munich, and art and literature in Berlin, Brussels, and Paris. He met Liszt, Bjornson, Carducci, and Gabriel Max, glimpsed Ibsen in awe from a distance, and was briefly a protege of Paul Heyse. During a trip through Belgium and Holland in 1888, he spent three months of near-starvation in London, where he also met Swinburne and the Rossettis. In 1891, he journeyed to Europe as a foreign correspondent for the McClure Syndicate, interviewing many of the most prominent artists, writers, and poets of the day. He became acquainted with Stephane Mallarm� in Paris, and continued corresponding with the poet as late as 1897. In one of his articles ("A Tuesday Evening with Stephane Mallarm�"), he described the literary salon of the Symbolist poet. His subsequent studies of the Symbolist movement are reflected not only in much of the art criticism and many of the essays he wrote in the 1890's, but in his own plays and poetry.
As an art critic, Hartmann began writing essays for the Philadelphia newspapers in the 1880's. Between 1887 and 1889, he essayed the role of a Society Lion in Boston, giving readings, receptions, and concerts. Here he also wrote for the Advertiser and the Transcript, as well as for Poet-Lore, The Theatre, and The People. In literary circles, he met Lowell, Whittier, Holmes, and John Boyle O'Reilly. An effort to introduce Ibsen to America failed through lack of sufficient financial backing. Disillusioned, Hartmann spent several nomadic years in New York, barnstorming, engaging in hack writing, frequenting the Cafe Manhattan, and finally becoming discouraged to the point of attempting suicide.
While serving on the staff of the Weekly Review (1 893), Hartmann issued 1,000 copies of his symbolist drama Christ, deemed by James Gibbons Huneker as "absolutely the most daring of all decadent productions." Almost all copies of the play were burned in Boston by the New England Watch and Ward Society, and Hartmann was arrested and spent Christmas week in Charles Street Jail, No. 2. This play was followed by his second symbolist drama Buddha (1897), which Vance Thompson referred to as "strange, gaudy, fantastic -- a thing all color and incense; something gilded and monstrous and uncouth as the temple of Benares." Other religious dramas also followed: Confucius, Mohammed, Moses, and the unpublished Baker Eddy. A volume of short stories, Schopenhauer in the Air, appeared in 1899.
In 1893, Hartman launched his magazine the Art Critic, visiting over 750 studios in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia to drum up subscriptions. In an 1894 letter which addresses Hartmann as "My Dear Symbolist," the noted American muralist F. D. Marsh writes from Paris to describe meetings with Whistler and Sargent and his own enthusiasm in acting as an unofficial promoter of Hartmann abroad. But the magazine was soon doomed to failure; Hartmann had ranged too far ahead in his appreciation of European dramatists and painters, and America was incredibly indifferent and unreceptive to what had already been accepted on the Continent.
Hartmann was forced once more to turn his hand to what he considered hack work and journalism. Between 1898 and 1902, he turned out more than 350 sketches on New York life -- ranging from studies of the poor to essays on high society -- for the New York Staats-Zeitung. He served on the staff of The Criterion, wrote numerous articles on pictorial photography, and lectured widely on art. He also continued his efforts as a dramatist, and his realist play, A Tragedy in a New York Flat, was praised by Edmund Clarence Stedman in 1896. He recognized early that he lacked the talent to achieve fame as an artist, but throughout his life he painted and did pastels (almost 350 works in this medium), and his first exhibition of pastels was held in 1894. His pastels were often strikingly interesting, enough so that he was exhibited with Glackens, Fuhr, Perrine, and Lawrence at the Allen Gallery in 1900. He was also a critic of the dance and had unique ability as a dancer. Edward Weston said that no woman could approach "his feeling and understanding" for this art form.
In 1896, the same year that Alfred Stieglitz launched his Camera Notes, Hartmann attempted to revive his art magazine under the name of ArtNews in New York City. The venture soon failed, although artists such as Augustus St. Gaudens hailed Hartmann for his perspicuity in art matters. Stieglitz was quick to recognize that Hartmann was a man he needed. During the next two decades, Hartmann was at his most prolific, contributing important critiques on both art and photography to Stieglitz's Camera Notes and later to his more famous and innovative Camera Work.
Hartmanns first book on art, Shakespeare in Art, was published in 1900. His two-volume History of American Art, used as a standard text-book for many years and revised in 1938, was published in 1901. Other works of a popular nature on art followed, including Japanese Art (1903) and The Whistler Book (1910). Some of these works appear to have been hastily turned out by a man whose reputation as an art critic was rapidly growing. Meanwhile, his most incisive essays were being published by Stieglitz, with whom he enjoyed a respectful relationship, and in the pages of many now defunct journals. Many of his pioneering essays on photography as an art form and photographic techniques were published under the pen-name of Sidney Allan.
Among photographers whom Hartmann wrote about with originality, tact, and discrimination were Steichen, Keiley, White, Stieglitz, Eugene, K�sebier, Curtis, Strand, and Day. He also encouraged recognition of many contemporary painters and sculptors, e.g., Ryder, Tryon, Maurer, Hartley, Marin, Sloan, Luks, Lawson, Henri, and Max Weber. Similarly, in a later period, he promoted the work of Bellows, Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and others whose reputations testify to his prescience. In a recent letter, prior to this exhibition, Thomas Hart Benton wrote to say Hartmann "was far more intelligent about art problems than Huneker, and that a collection of his writings, letters, and other kinds, is due." His exotic Eurasian face made him a favorite subject of painters, sculptors, and photographers. He was painted by many of the great and near great, and, as he once said, "photographed by everybody."
The many-sided Hartmann has left diverse impressions; he could be enigmatic as well as uncompromisingly clear in his positions: "I am neither a freethinker who denies everything in playful irony, nor a devotee capable of performing rituals with a constant, bewildered enthusiasm. My ways are those of an agnostic. My father was a genuine freethinker; the rest of my family were mildly Lutheran. My stepmother was a Catholic. One of my aunts a French Jewess. My mother presumably was a Buddhist. These influences shaped my early view point." Near the end of his life, living in poverty on the Morongo Indian Reservation in Banning, California, he could say in summary: "I have devoted my long literary career largely to a promotion of a National U.S. Art and a lifelong plea for tolerance in religious matters. I wrote six dramas to prove that every religion has profound merits and deplorable defect. . . ."
Hartmann's entire life seems to have been an impassioned search for identity. En route he assumed many roles and guises: the sensitive, austere young poet and dramatist of the 1890's; the iconoclastic, fiercely uncompromising art lecturer of the turn of the century; the serious Sidney Allan with the omnipresent cigar and eye-piece; the roistering irresponsible King of Greenwich Village; and finally the aged clown in rags, court jester to the John Barrymore circle in Hollywood.
Although he was far less political than aesthetic in orientation ("I was always somewhat of an esthetic sybarite, looking primarily for manifestations of Plato's fine frenzy, Aristotle's purification of thought and sentiment, and Schopenhauer's moments of cognition."), Hartmann was a participant in the anarchist movement, joining Emma Goldman, Edwin Bjorkman, and John R. Coryell in founding the magazine Mother Earth. While he remained friendly with the anarchists, he never was able to commit himself to the movement in a genuinely activist way. Rather, he remained throughout his life skeptical, even pessimistic, about extreme political ideologies. As for the possibility that anarchism might work, his philosopher Kung in Confucius (1923) warns: "A cook is needed even for the most frugal brew."
From the turn of the century to the end of his life, he lectured on art and photography in cities throughout the nation. He assisted in bringing together various collections, reorganized art departments in libraries and museums, and stimulated interest in art in many cities from New York to Los Angeles. He was instrumental in discovering many young artists, whom he spoke of as "my art children," young men and women who in turn responded to the elderly Hartmann with fierce, devoted partisanship.
Throughout his life, Hartmann suffered from severe asthmatic attacks which became worse as the years went by, making it impossible for him to work at any steady job, and forcing him by the early 1920's to settle in the San Gorgonio Pass near Beaumont. He continued to make lecture forays eastward, but his health steadily deteriorated, and more and more he relied heavily on alcohol. During these years of physical and professional decline, his increased drinking, the shambles he made of his private life, his dependence upon patronage which he exacted from friends and admirers as tribute, and his acting out of Bohemian roles made him appear to many to be a grotesque caricature of the artist manque -- even a charlatan.
He cultivated Hollywood, trying to write motion picture scripts. He wrote the first script for Don Quixote, but it was never filmed. For many years he was Hollywood columnist for The Curtain, published in England. He even appeared in a brief part as the Court Magician in Douglas Fairbanks The Thief of Bagdad. As the years passed, he did less and less publishing on art, although between 1923 and 1932 he struggled intermittently on a 278,000-word book, EstheticVerities, a critical summing-up of all his ideas on art. Occasionally, in the pages of Art Digest and other magazines, there appeared Hartmann's annual Art Handicap Derby in which he placed his bets on future winners. His best works had passed silently into oblivion. By the 1920's, noted artists who had once been his friends looked upon him as the disreputable Gully Jimson of American art. Even Jo Davidson, who had rousted with him in New York and written him enthusiastically from Paris in the early 1900's, wrote of Hartmann in his biography as a more casual acquaintance than appears to be indicated by recent evidence. There were a few last sparks, among them an impressive book titled The Last Thirty Days of Christ, praised by Ezra Pound and eulogized by Benjamin De Casseres as one of the strikingly original works of American literature.
Although a failure in Hollywood, Hartmann found himself adopted as a drinking companion by the John Barrymore crowd, a group that often centered its doings in the studio of artist John Decker on Bundy Drive. Before this group, Sadakichi displayed his mordant wit and fatalistic humor. His tales of Whitman and Mallarm�, of Isadora Duncan and Greenwich Village characters -- tales related with a half-mocking quality and often fantastic embellishments -- were regarded as sheer invention by the Hollywood crowd that kept the old man in drinks in order to be entertained by his talk, recitations, and bizarre dancing. They liked this shabby self-proclaimed genius with termagantish tongue, and they brought him to parties as a put-on guest to shock the easily outraged. But they were convinced, nonetheless, that he was essentially a hoax and a poseur. How else explain the sly mockery of a man who would outrage all credibility by beginning an anecdote: "On a day like this, there were Rodin, Whitman, myself and three beers in a cafe in Vienna . . ."
One should know, however, that during this same period Hartmann was also well known to a very different circle, whose activities centered around the home of a vivacious young woman, Margery Winter, at 1640 Sargent Court. Here a varied association of artists and intellectuals, some of them immigrants from Russia, offered Sadakichi a very different milieu from that described by Gene Fowler in his Minutes of the Last Meeting, which recounts the activities of the Barrymore circle. It was here in this house, overlooking Elysian Park, that many artists--Ben Berlin, Raymond Brossard, Ronald Paintin, Einar Hansen, and others--often gathered for lively discussions and parties.
These were painters who he numbered among his "art children," just as there were many more in cities throughout the nation. The Detroit painter Marvin Beerbohm recalls that he and his wife "knew and loved Sadakichi from the time we first met him in 1934 in Detroit until his death." On his many visits to Detroit, Hartmann scolded, cajoled, and encouraged Beerbohm unceasingly. "As a struggling young painter and his wife, fighting the financial and cultural despair of the Depression years," writes Beerbohm, "we were proud to be numbered among Sadakichi's 'art children' of whom he had many across the country." Similarly, the Florida photographer, C. Verne Klintsworth, recalls it was Hartmann who first made him realize that photography was something much more than a commercial profession.
In the last six years of his life, Hartmann retreated to Catclaw Siding, a shack he built adjoining the home of his daughter, Wistaria Linton, on the Morongo Indian Reservation in Banning, California. There, he continued to paint pastels and write sporadically.
World War II imposed its horrors on the old man when the FBI started inquiring into his Japanese-German background, despite the fact that he had been a citizen since 1894. After they were interviewed by FBI agents, many of the Hollywood crowd quickly dropped Hartmann and invitations to parties ceased. Only Gene Fowler continued to show interest in the old man. In numerous embittered letters, Hartmann pleaded with high government officials not to intern him, arguing that there could be nothing more American than to have written the first modern History of American Art. The harassment never completely ceased, and sheriff's deputies again and again received reports from townspeople that Hartmann made periodic climbs to the top of Mt. San Jacinto to signal Japanese planes with a lantern.
In 1944, the 77-year-old Hartmann set out on his final journey east to visit another daughter, Dorothea Gilliland of St. Petersburg, Florida. He had in mind gathering material to complete his long unfinished autobiography, but instead he died in his daughter's home while sitting in a chair in November, the month of his birth.
By George Knox. Excerpted from the Introduction of The Life and Times of Sadakichi Hartmann, 1867-1944. An Exhibition Presented and Co-sponsored by the University Library and the Riverside Press-Enterprise Co. at the University of California, Riverside, May 1 to May 31, 1970.
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