Prepare to be Mesmerized

Jul 2011 | Texts

Welcome to PhotoSeed!  When I was a child, my reading of English archeologist Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tut’s tomb in Egypt inspired me enough to start digging around in my own backyard. Later, as a young aspiring photographer, I came across a quote by American photographer Harry Callahan which really stuck with me: “I love art because it doesn’t have rules like baseball. The only rule is to be good. That’s the toughest thing to do.”

PhotoSeed: A Compendium Designed for your Inspiration

Along with my parents, who instilled a love of art in me at an early age, the progression of my professional life as a newspaper photojournalist combined with an innate love for art and history has lead me to the present undertaking.

What is PhotoSeed? It is a destination based on derivation. It will evolve as an online photographic compendium focusing on the historical record of “artistic photography” roughly produced from the 1880’s to about World War I.  With apologies to Alfred Stieglitz and others, there will be plenty of flim-flam, and the major “isms” of this era: aestheticism, naturalism, and pictorialism, will be here in abundance.

I’m not going to consciously ignore something because I don’t care for it. Mundane and repetitive work of the period is very instructive for the time in which it was created. Taken collectively, all of the work on this site added to the general conversation of ideas that pushed photography forward. I promise to make plenty of exceptions to keep things interesting, however.

The material presented here will continue to validate my own respect for Callahan’s observation “to be good” in guiding the site’s purpose, relevance and spirit. Carter’s influence will be illuminated by the site’s ongoing “photographic archeology” which will unearth delights not known by casual photographic historians.  

That’s why I’m taking the time to share with you the fruit and results of photography’s early artistic efforts. In my estimation, their gleanings still matter. These photographs can and should inspire today’s practitioners–be they armed with ubiquitous cameras built into smart phones or those keeping alive the medium’s noble processes including daguerreotype, wet plate, and film.

As for its name, PhotoSeed’s derivation stands for growth and renewal in the photographic arts at a time when taking chances with a camera was seen by many as subversive. It is my hope PhotoSeed will evoke and conjure the time and place of when this photographic record was created.

For once planted, seeds, as represented by the ideas sown by photography’s pioneers and toilers alike, required only the sun overhead to realize their potential:  

“Like the sunflower, the sun was a popular symbol with art photography clubs. It represented photography’s necessary light as well as the inspiration, power and renewal associated with otherworldly presence.” 1.

And about that “mesmerization” thing? The history of photography includes a delightful account of photographic hypnotism decades before George Eastman’s Kodak mania took hold and put people around the world in a different kind of trance.

English journalist Henry Mayhew, whose series of profile vignettes first published in 1851 as London Labour and the London Poor, included one dispatch published in the third volume of the series (1861). In his “A Photographic Man” (2), Mayhew writes about a former banjo busker turned photographer who teams up with another like-minded chap and enters the exploding yet dubious shilling and sixpenny portrait (ambrotypes & ferrotypes) trade. Sometimes, the duo are able to make a little bit extra at the conclusion of a portrait session. In this respect, the mysterious and telegenic power of the camera recounted in Mayhew’s profile reveals the gullibility (and empties the pockets) of the largely working poor clientele these photographic “entrepreneurs” cater too:  

“People seem to think the camera will do anything. We actually persuade them that it will mesmerise them.  After their portrait is taken, we ask them, if they would like to be mesmerised by the camera, and the charge is only 2d. (2 pennies) We then focus the camera, and tell them to look firm at the tube; and they stop there for two or three minutes staring, till their eyes begin to water, and then they complain of a dizziness in the head, and give it up, saying they “can’t stand it”.  I always tell them the operation was beginning, and they were just going off, only they didn’t stay long enough. They always remark, “Well, it certainly is a wonderful machine, and a most curious invention.”

Here at PhotoSeed, mesmerization is absolutely free. So sit back, relax, and try not to get too dizzy. This operation is just beginning. We hope you do stay long enough to agree the artistic results of this most curious invention are most wonderful indeed.

–David Spencer  (2010)

1. Janet E. Buerger, The Last Decade: The Emergence of Art Photography in the 1890’s  (Rochester: International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, 1984) 4.

2. Henry Mayhew, “A Photographic Man,” London Characters & Crooks: ed. Christopher Hibbert, (London: The Folio Society, 1996) 12: 295-303.

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