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Posted March 2014 in Composition, History of Photography, Significant Photographs
When evaluating the chiaroscuro masterpiece Campo San Margherita by James Craig Annan, a striking vertical composition taken in 1894 during his visit to the Campo San Margherita piazza in Venice-an outdoor market and tourist destination still popular today- the idea of Modernism, a decidedly 20th Century school as applied to the photographic arts, should be taken seriously considering the intent and evidence posed by this finished work.
Documentary, cubist in form and radically pictorial for its time, this slice of life study showing the interaction of a market vendor and customer can be dissected for compositional posterity with the intent a post-mortem of sorts by this reviewer is reason enough when re-considering the historical record of early photographic aesthetics.
First off, Scotsman Annan was a master engraver and pioneer of the hand-pulled photogravure, an intaglio process similar to etching, but with the matrix of a photographic negative “from life” doing the stand-in for the artists brush or pencil. With this control afforded, the photographic results transferred to a copper plate could be altered at will depending on artistic intent, giving Annan the ability to subtly control and change aspects of his composition after he took the initial exposure by camera.
Arbitrarily beginning at the bottom of the frame, a subtle flow begins to develop reaching near the top of this composition. Here we see the Campo San Margherita title, with letters spanning the entire width of the vertical composition placed in its own compartmentalized box serving as anchor to the entire work.
From here, the eye travels upwards. With an engraver’s burin, Annan deliberately alters a portion of highlighted marketplace cobblestones to a shaded version- the result being complimentary, contrasting diagonals now taking residence within the dead-zone of space created by his decision to present the work as an extreme vertical composition from the outset.
This in turn brings us to the very center of the frame. Without reading too much into it, the scale itself is the perfect symbol for what Annan achieves in this area we are most interested in visually. Holding it out while weighing a marketplace purchase for his customer opposite, the vendor’s action gives credibility to the idea a kind of balance has been created and achieved at the very center of the frame, especially after she conveniently stoops to his same level while contemplating the purchase.
The rest of the frame serving as backdrop to this drama in the middle compliments everything else within in, but with a twist. Instead of a purely static presentation of a lone moment occurring in the marketplace, the hat-wearing gentleman walking directly behind the vendor preparing to bust out of the frame gives a refreshing jolt to the work. Annan’s inclusion of this other action reminds us the marketplace bustles with life.
Finally, the central part of the background: a large shaded alleyway dividing two separate buildings anchoring the entire left and right margins of the frame, neatly compliments the balance of the two windows seen behind the man wearing the hat. Here, the area of the arched window frame in the top left of the composition reaches upwards to its natural conclusion: another area of naturally shaded discoloration similar in tone and effect Annan manipulated for the bottom third of the frame.
But this is just one opinion, albeit from someone who has spent a lifetime constructing and deconstructing photographs. Hopefully, this insight into one singular example of Annan’s art might give others the chance to see his motives and intent for what they are: a strong example of photographic Modernism ahead of his time.