Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Edward L. Wilson wanted photography to have a special place at the Centennial Exhibition. Smartly dressed, the publisher of the nationally­-read Philadelphia Photographer stood out from the typically rumpled and chemical-stained lensman. But his enthusiastic promotion caused him to stand out even more. Wilson nudged his colleagues toward professionalism and toward his vision of a productive, lucrative future.

As Wilson saw it, the op­portunity was defined by the three mile-long fence built around two hundred and thirty-six acres in West Phila­delphia. Every conceivable facet of human enterprise was converging in an extravaganza to open in May 1876. There would be cutlery and clocks, windmills and warships, a giant Corliss engine and an equally awesome mammoth model of the Kansas State Capitol made of apples. In the large, domed building now called Memorial Hall, there was to be an exhibition of art. Behind it, a more modest wooden annex would house more paintings and sculpture. And there, a room was to be dedicated to photography.

But for Wilson, one room seemed hardly enough. In August 1875, he published a design for a one-story building that would be nestled beside the Art Building. It was to be called “Photography Hall” and within its wooden walls and beneath its mostly glass roof, “photography might be given a place, where all its beauty, its profusion, and its utility might be demonstrated to the assem­bled nations of the earth.”

Precedents for such a display were at hand. Crystal Palace in London in 1851 and, more recently, in Vienna in 1873, exhibitions demonstrated and promoted new photographic processes and explored their new poten­tials. In fact, Philadelphia had seen the effects of the annual exhibitions of the Institute of American Manufactures in the 1840s and 1850s. In June 1864, Logan Square was covered with temporary structures for the Great Central Sanitary Fair, a fund raising event for hospi­tals during the Civil War, which featured a photographic department.

The benefits of a separate building for photography – one under the control of photographers – would be­come a vehicle for both public relations and professional education. Wilson felt these reasons were enough to justify asking American photogra­phers to pay for its construc­tion. “What photographer may not come here then and learn enough to make him rich?” inquired Wilson with his plea for twenty thousand dollars.

Half of the funds were raised within a month, eight months before the scheduled opening, and the Centennial Board of Finance agreed to build. Already, timing was a problem. Even after the May 10 ceremonies, “boxes of pic­tures in great numbers occupied the alcoves but only a few lone exhibits were in any de­gree complete.” But by mid­summer, the three art buildings, two for painting and sculpture and one for photography, were installed with two and one half miles of work from around the world.

At the still-tender age of thirty-seven, American pho­tography had placed itself in the international limelight. “We pass from end to end,” wrote an enthusiastic reporter, “photographs, only photo­graphs and their wonderful appliances meet our eyes. This is wonderful; such an exhibi­tion as was never seen before. A great hall, beautifully ar­ranged and lighted gallery devoted exclusively to photog­raphy. What a compliment to this youngest of the arts.”

Beyond the breathless boosterism and the dizzying dazzle was there a lasting impact of the photographic display at the Centennial? Had photography established an identity? Or was Philadelphia’s exhibition little more than a huge trade show featuring the likes of James Cremer’s “im­proved metallic graphoscope,” the micro-photograph of a fly’s tongue or a thirty-one foot long panorama of Sydney, Australia?

Something more was ex­pected, as one reviewer sug­gested, “something more subtle and intangible than silver-baths, iodides, and bromides, or the dexterous mechanisms by which won­derful effects are produced.” That hoped-for, intangible benefit was the thematic thread that made all of the technical advances make sense; it was the ability to make expressive photographs. During the Centennial era, only a few photographers who had mastered the practice of photography had also mas­tered its theory. Rather, the art grew more slowly than the practice. And Philadelphia provided the stage for this dramatic rise of an idea.

One of the principal actors was the quiet and thoughtful John Moran, who believed in, and practiced, artistic photog­raphy. His two Centennial-era articles in the Philadelphia Photographer, “Thoughts on Art, Nature, and Photogra­phy” in June 1875 and “Reflec­tions on Art” in October 1875, were received in silence, how­ever. Moran’s independent taste was uncharacteristic of the rest of the field. In fact, he lambasted the current and very popular style of heavy retouching. “The great power of our art to delineate charac­ter, expression, texture, and personal identity, is forgotten.” Criticizing such portraits as “rejuvenated lies,” he added that they were “so sugar coated and polished that all individuality was lost, and nothing remained but the vacancy of a waxen figure. I hope to say in a year hence, we have changed all that.” Nevertheless, Moran had high hopes for the Centennial.

So did Marcus Aurelius Root. In a letter to the editor of the Philadelphia Photographer in December 1875, Root com­mented that he expected the Centennial to show that “something more and other than mere mechanical aptitude is indispensable to the produc­tion of pictures of high merit.” He predicted that, “the time is not distant when true artists by nature, and good judges of art, will soon find that success in photography … is due to the employment of good lenses, and to the HEAD and hands, and not alone to any peculiar chemical processes.”

Root was too politic and Moran too idealistic to openly admit that the artistic potential of photography was, in 1875, still a long way off. But the Centennial offered the exciting hope that the scope and direc­tion of an American artistic style in photography would become evident when so much work was displayed together.

“What many wished and expected, a characteristic new style, is not to be seen in the Exhibition,” complained Berlin’s Hermann Vogel. Moran’s warnings and Root’s pleas had gone unheeded. Large numbers of life-sized portraits heavily enhanced by crayon, pastel and oil filled the hall. Many of the purely pho­tographic works Vogel found annoyingly contrived. James Landy, the studio portraitist of Cincinnati, Ohio, had submitted a series of prints, each twenty by twenty-four inches, illustrating William Shakespeare’s seven ages of man from As You Like It. Each scene had been re-created with painted backgrounds. Landy either hired or cajoled actors and acquaintances to dress to portray the figures. “It seems to be a very precarious undertaking to try to represent the ages of man,” wrote Vogel in a diplomatic tone. “Such a task should have its difficulties even for an artist, and can be considered unsolvable by photography.”

Edward L. Wilson was ecstatic about Landy’s work. “There is nothing in the Hall so grand in conception and execution as these seven pictures,” he editorialized. Landy’s actor in the last scene, Shakespeare’s “second childishness and mere oblivion – sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything,” pleased Wilson. “Nothing could be more expressive than the drooping head and the limp and nerveless hand as it drops involuntarily at his side.” The suite was so popular that Landy soon issued copies in book form. It was not this set that won Landy an award but, instead, his depiction of thirty-two crying babies entitled Expressive Pets.

Commercial studio photographers, such as James Landy, seemed to dominate the public’s response to the exhibition. Philadelphia’s William Curtis Taylor won an award for a scene entitled Criticism in the same category. It depicted two ladies and a gentleman in an opera box – not the real thing but a studio prop – chatting about the performance. Similarly, Chicago’s Henry Rocher illustrated the “charmed recesses of domestic life”: girls twining wreaths in a garden, one dressing for a ball or a bridal scene. The judges lavished praise.

Critics didn’t know quite what to think about the poorly printed – but truly intimate – scenes of England’s Julia Margaret Cameron. Her Parting of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, made as a plate for Idylls of the King in 1875, appeared, one full year after its exhibition at the Centennial, on the cover of Harper’s Weekly. In the accompanying article, Wilson praised Cameron who helped to “establish for photography its coveted claim of being a fine art.” Here was a photographer interpreting literature with a lighter hand: no painted backgrounds and no stage sets. Only expressive faces and costume alone told the story.

John Moran and Marcus Root had probably hoped for more. They may have feared that the risk in bringing before the public the unripened fruits of a new profession would gamer public enthusiasm for mediocre commercial work and create a new and a superficial agenda for photography. The landscapes Moran exhibited went without critical notice, and Root’s display – perhaps the first exhibition chronicling the history of photography – was overlooked in the frenetic atmosphere of Photography Hall.

Marcus Root was one of the few who had earned the statesman-like stance of historian. He had entered the field when it was only a few years old and had published a treatise, The Camera and the Pencil, in 1864. Root’s collection of early daguerreotypes was shown “to illustrate the progress made from time to time, by way of contrast.” He also showed what he called “the very first specimen of the daguerreotype art ever made in this city.”

This “very first specimen” was probably not the first, but the second. Historians agree that on or about September 25, 1839, Joseph Saxton made two daguerreotypes from windows of the United States Mint building, where he was an official. He later presented the first, a view across Juniper Street, to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The second plate, “representing certain buildings west of Broad Street,” made that day was given to Root. The image appeared in the exhibition; it is now lost.

In Root’s case were several plates by the man from whom he learned the art, Robert Cornelius. For eight years, Cornelius had been working in his father’s plated ware and lamp business. Apparently, he was involved with photography from the beginning; in fact, he is suspected as the original source for Saxton’s plates. But it was the team of metallurgist Robert Cornelius and physician-chemist Paul Beck Goddard that produced excellent daguerreotypes. Goodard suggested that plates be sensitized with bromine in addition to iodine, an improvement that shortened the length of exposures and made portraiture possible. One experiment conducted during the autumn of 1839 was Cornelius’ self portrait which appeared in Root’s Centennial exhibit. By the following May, Cornelius had opened a portrait studio – the first in Philadelphia – on Eighth Street, just south of Chestnut Street.

Several customers were friends and acquaintances, but business was difficult. John McAllister, Jr., whose shop provided the optical equipment, appeared at Cornelius’ door on May 6, 1840, the day before the studio was to open. Others had to be convinced to sit. A letter to Morton McMichael dated May 11, 1840, indicates that McAllister was more the exception than the rule. “Our Mr. Cornelius,” wrote Isaac F. Baker, “has commenced making miniatures by the daguerreotype process and he desires me to invite you to sit. If convenient for you to call at the store any clear day from 10 to 3 o’clock I will be happy to accompany you …” If McMichael did visit, his portrait was lost to time. If he had visited, he would have received, as one reporter noted, a daguerreotype “about seven by five inches in neat metallic gilt frame … for five dollars.” A few early examples survive, including the recently-discovered portrait of Robert B. Davidson.

Cornelius advertised from June to September and then apparently dosed his studio. Although he reopened the following June at a new location, 810 Market Street, his commercial work ended after just one more season. Altogether, not quite forty examples by Cornelius survive, but it is enough for an assessment of his ability and intent. “Robert Cornelius, alone among his contemporaries, understood and approached daguerreotype portraiture not just as a technical challenge, but as an aesthetic problem,” wrote William F. Stapp in a 1983 monograph. These daguerreotypes “reveal a consistent concern for the communication of his sitters’ personalities, not merely the literal recording of their physiognomies.”

Over the decades, Cornelius’ theme of expressive photography became Philadelphia’s most valuable contribution to the field. Root, who studied portrait painting with artist Thomas Sully and the daguerreotype with. Cornelius, expounded on the importance of aesthetics. The best daguerreotype portraits, he believed, should exhibit that “shadow of the soul which genius intuitively discerns. summons forth and ‘fixes.'” The “genius,” of course, was the photographer’s.

Examples by Philadelphia daguerreans – the brothers William and Frederick Langenheim, James McClees and Washington Lafayette Germon, Montgomery Page Simons and Samuel Broadbent – display mastery of the studio conventions. However capable of producing interesting and strong portraits, they really could not add to the auspicious legacy of Cornelius. In fact, in all of the proliferation evident in Photography Hall, not much could actually exceed Robert Corne­lius in expressiveness. But that was somewhat lost to the Centennial’s robustness, its overt celebration of industry. Tucked into the bottom of Root’s modest case, Cornelius’ plates appeared more as quaint antiques than anything from which photographers might learn about their me­dium.

Even so, John Moran’s three essays on photography and art in the Philadelphia Photogra­pher prove that a photographic conscience existed in the Cen­tennial era. But Moran had been outside the photographic mainstream since the early 1860s, when he produced stereographic views of the expected kinds of scenes, historic and picturesque places. Even then, he was indulging in a variety of exper­iments, notably pairing winter scenes with verse. By the late years of the decade, Moran made larger views of old Phila­delphia buildings, which he sold directly to the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1870, a unique transaction. Although the album, A Collec­tion of Photographic Views of Philadelphia and its Vicinity is without narration, Moran’s lucid essays provide guidance for what he intended his view­ers to see.

“Photography is a realistic art,” wrote Moran, “and within its sphere no human hand can rival it; it is a translator, not a creator, and we, the transla­tors, ought to look to it that we take noble themes, not false and artificial subjects …. ” Moran’s choice of a subject in the Vestibule of Independence Hall, 1869, from his album, is a unique treatment of a familiar and noble theme. By photo­graphing the interior of Inde­pendence Hall, Moran redrew the boundaries and refreshed an old, tiresome theme. Im­agemakers since William Birch in 1800 had depicted the build­ing in similar, familiar ways, and Moran reacted to that dry pictorial tradition by finding a more intimate view. He uti­lized photography’s own special capabilities to stir reaction in the mind of the viewer. “It is the mind that gilds and beauti­fies this world of ours,” he wrote. Yet there was another difference. Moran did not consider himself a maker of souvenirs, as did so many other photographers. In fact, it was his ability to straddle the professional and amateur interests that makes him so worthwhile to study today.

Moran was an active early member in the predominately amateur Photographic Society of Philadelphia, founded in 1862. The importance of ama­teurism was addressed by Englishman Henry Peach Robinson, who wrote, “The tradesman is so occupied with his business to earn a liveli­hood that he has seldom any time or desire to step out of his daily routine of picturetaking; but the amateur devotes him­self to the study of art princi­ples involved …. ” Significant, too, was the boost to amateur­ism given by the commerciali­zation of the convenient dry plate negative in the early 1880s. By 1887, twenty-one of the twenty-eight American photographic societies were less than a decade old. In England, France and Ger­many, there were seventy-four clubs, many of which shared ideas through publications and exhibitions. In the midst of this new era, a full decade after the Centennial, the Pho­tographic Society of Philadel­phia found it opportune to co-sponsor a major, interna­tional exhibition. Held at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the show featured 1,871 pictures by 114 profes­sional and amateur photogra­phers.

While critics commented upon the technical oddity of William Nicholson Jennings’ photograph of a bolt of light­ning, what pleased them most were George Bacon Wood’s fifty platinum and albumen prints. A painter turned pho­tographer, Wood “took the cake” with American subjects. The exploitive Dat Corn takes a mighty site ob hoein’ was praised for “telling its story almost without any title.” The gentler Reading Aloud reminded some of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, particularly those of Alma­-Tadema. They admired A Young girl playing the banjo and Whistling for its clarity, bright­ness and nearly perfect com­position. George Bacon Wood captured all three awards in the figure composition cate­gory. After the success in Phil­adelphia in 1886, the Photographic Societies of New York and Boston agreed to join with Philadelphia and rotate shows annually.

In 1888, a national photog­raphy competition with the subject of Hiawatha drew an entry from Wood, but the winner was James Landy. Both photographers used their daughters as models, and Landy, whose entry seems not to have survived, made a large print with a lavish thematic frame in dark oak and deco­rated with brands to resemble wampum, arrowheads, claws of the grisly and, at the top, a tomahawk. Possibly such competitions served to wean photographers like Landy of his dependence on Shakes­peare, although his Hiawatha was criticized as “rather an Oscar Wilde Indian than a wild Indian.”

Meanwhile, at the second Joint Exhibition in Philadel­phia in 1889, Wood showed his Death of Minihaha, but the pace of the exhibition was set by the rising aesthetic from England and Europe. Peter Henry Emerson’s book Naturalistic Photography was newly re­leased; he exhibited some of the heavily atmospheric plati­num prints for which he be­came famous. British dominance in Philadelphia in 1889 was evidenced by their awards. England’s Harry Tol­ley of Nottingham. W.W. Winter of Derby and J. Pattison Gibson of Hexham won big in Philadelphia.

The influence from abroad burgeoned, and the vision of photography as an art was growing more pervasive with every show. Exhibitions began evolving as art shows. One sponsored by the Vienna Cam­era Club in 1891 offered no medals, selection was juried and the show was hung spar­ingly. In it, only two Ameri­cans were accepted, Philadelphian John C. Bullock and New Yorker Alfred Stieglitz. The following year, an article entitled “Leading Amateurs in Photography” appeared in The Cosmopolitan. Its writer, Clarence B. Moore, himself a member of the Phila­delphia circle, broadened the group to include George B. Wood, Charles L. Mitchell, Albert S. Redfield, all Philadel­phians, balanced by others from Rochester, New York City, Chicago, Baltimore and Lowell, Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, an English group of photographers se­ceded from the Royal Photo­graphic Society in 1893 and formed the Linked Ring. George Davidson, one of the founders, claimed that their exhibitions signaled “death to the old style of show where mechanical. scientific and industrial exhibits are all jum­bled together with very little distinction.” That same year, Philadelphia hosted its third joint exhibition. Davidson’s now-famous Onion Field was on view, but marked “not for competition.” It impressed one reviewer for “technique and artistic feeling much in advance of anything by our home work­ers.” British entrants garnered thirteen of twenty-six medals. Six of the American winners were Philadelphians. Alfred Stieglitz called it “the finest exhibition of photographs ever seen in the United States.”

By 1893, the jumble of the joint exhibitions was looking dated and the New York Joint Exhibition the following year was a decided flop. “Abolish the joint exhibitions”, advised Stieglitz, who was becoming the voice of the evolving and maturing American art pho­tographers. They had “done their work and served their purpose.” Instead, he sug­gested, ‘1et us start afresh with an Annual Photographic Salon, to be run on the strictest lines. Abolish all medals and all prizes; the acceptance and hanging of a picture should be the honor:’ Stieglitz thought that New York should be the logical site for this American Salon.

Philadelphia, which for two decades had mounted the most successful photographic exhibitions, was not ready to let go. The Photographic Soci­ety of Philadelphia, led by Albert 5. Redfield, had the talent and the ability to refine the idea. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Photographic Society of Philadelphia co-sponsored an annual Salon which would “show only such pictures produced by photography as may give distinct evidence of individual artistic feeling and execution.” Photographers submitted more than twelve hundred photographs for the first Salon in 1898; only two hundred and thirty-nine im­ages were selected.

The Salon, which opened on October 21, 1898, was an unqualified success. More than sixteen thousand visitors attended. A critic for the New York Evening Post called it a “revelation.” The work of the Photographic Society of Phila­delphia and the new American school was well represented, but, as historian Mary Panzer pointed out, “a Salon devoted to fine art photography alone would disturb their union by its necessary exclusion of many local lights.” The Salon pulled at the seams of the venerable old Philadelphia Society.

Almost immediately, exclu­sion raised opposition amidst the first raves. It grew after the second year, and, by the third, had become a theme about which amateur photographer Edmund Stirling, editor of the Public Ledger and a member of the Salon committee, had to warn Stieglitz. “We are likely to have a fight on our hands this fall in our own society,” wrote Stirling. The most vocal opponent was Charles L. Mitchell, whose insulting letters to Redfield bore criti­cism of the “experiments and failures of a lot of cranks.”

Artistic homogeneity drew dire criticism from Mitchell in reviews published both in the Photo American and the Ameri­can Amateur Photographer. “When photography is ad­vancing by leaps and bounds as it is today when its applica­tions in medicine, in science, in newspaper and periodical illustration, in color work, etc. etc. is being made more universal, it seems short sighted to confine an exhibition of photographs to the products of one narrow, limited, rather egotistical school. … It is time that there should be more variety in photographic exhibi­tions … at the present time there is getting to be too much ‘Bunthorne and the Lily’ busi­ness about photographic sa­lons. There is too much sentiment, too many ‘twenty love-sick maidens’ … There are too many ‘impressions’ and too few clearly conceived, thoroughly expressed realities; too few real pictures and too much ‘trash.'” The belief that photography could be an art had begun in the work of Robert Cornelius, and was reiterated in the 1860s and the 1870s in the work and writings of John Moran and Marcus Root. In the course of the following twenty years, the concept had run its course. For three years, Redfield had pre­sided over the Photographic Society, as well as the exhibi­tions that had come to divide it. But by the turn-of-the-­century. Philadelphia was looking less and less like the home of a national league of art photographers. Redfield recognized that the Society had contributed its part to the development of art photogra­phy and, in 1901, he chose not to run again for its presidency.

“We’ve had a rough time of it the last four years, but I enjoyed it and am glad that the experiment has been hon­estly and faithfully tried,” wrote Redfield. The recipient of his letter was Alfred Stieglitz, who was ready to take the experiment back to New York, in the form of the nationally-based Photo­-Secession, where art photogra­phy would be kept very much alive. And the Photographic Society of Philadelphia would soon end the Salons and re­turn to its basically conserva­tive course.

 

For Further Reading

Finkel, Kenneth. Nineteenth-Century Photogra­phy in Philadelphia. New York: Dover Publications, 1980.

Panzer, Mary. Philadelphia Naturalistic Photography, 1865-1906. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1982.

Rosenblum, Naomi. A World History of Photography. New York: Abbeville Press, 1984.

Stapp, William E. Robert Cornelius: Portraits from the Dawn of Photography. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983.

Taft, Robert. Photography and the American Scene: A Social History, 1839-1889. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1942.

 

Kenneth Finkel, Philadelphia, has served as curator of prints for the Library Company of Philadelphia since 1977. He received his bache­lor of arts and master of arts degrees from Temple University. His articles have appeared in American Heritage, Nineteenth Century and the Philadelphia Inquirer. For Dover Publications, Inc., New York, he wrote Nineteenth-Century Photogra­phy in Philadelphia (1980) and co-authored, with Susan Oyama, Philadelphia: Then and Now (1988). With Kathleen Foster, he is currently working on a book devoted to the American water­colors, circa, 1816-1817, of Capt. Joshua R. Watson, to be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. The author is a member of the executive committee of the Photogra­phy Sesqui-Centennial Project and vice president of the Museum Council of Greater Philadelphia.