Appellate Judge James A. Stewart isn't eating fruit now; it might be art.
"Break down the elements of photography…"
Soon, the photograph will be two hundred years old—or at least the first known one, from 1827, will. It's easy to point and shoot today, but the first time around, it took hours. A person who just walked by in an instant wasn't even a blur.
Photo: A History from Behind the Lens doesn't start with that bit of photography history, instead choosing to open at a photo booth—the site of French surrealist occupation and preoccupation when it arrived in France in 1928. From there, it takes on photo history in twelve parts, each roughly half-an-hour long:
• "Surrealist Photography"—See how two shoes can become a ghost, along with vintage films from Salvador Dali and Man Ray.
• "The Primitives of Photography: 1850-1860"—Making photo paper with albumen and egg whites is demonstrated as painters and travelers take to these new camera thingies.
• "The New German Objectivity"—A retouched scene from a supermarket, infrared photos of Dusseldorf at night, and some really huge photos are featured.
• "Staged Photography"—Andy Warhol, a too-small bathroom, masks, and stills for movies you'll never see are featured.
• "Press Usage"—The first photo essay in a publication, the Great Depression, and some unpublished photos of Pittsburgh highlight a discussion of photos for print.
• "Pictorialism"—Photos of a falling cat, soft focus, silhouettes, and blue hues are featured.
• "New Vision: Experimental Photography of the 1920s"—Russian smokestacks and cities are photographed as angles and perspectives roar into focus.
• "Photographing Intimacy"—An amateur photographer's images of women, humor, and family eventually are celebrated as self-portraits and intense subjects such as AIDS are captured on film.
• "The Inventors"—Here's how we got from shadow puppets and fruit art to that first photo. Early portraits and panoramas are featured.
• "Found Images"—A family photo on the moon, an unexplained collection of archival photos, and some scrambled images from cut-up negatives are featured.
• "Conceptual Photography"—An attempt to capture "thought rays" on film opens a look at ideas like Passaic monuments and a literally definitive portrait of a chair.
• "After the Photo"—Welcome to the digital age—unless you're part of the Loma Society International, which wants to preserve film cameras.
Since this is a French documentary television series repurposed as a short course on photography, you'll notice that it's not quite in order. That's not a huge problem, though, since Athena includes a small booklet with timeline and glossary to keep things in order.
The emphasis, as you'll note, is on artistic photography, but if that's your focus, Photo does a good job. The narration is lively and well-illustrated, and you'll get a good overview.
However, there are some things you need to be aware of:
• There's a tendency toward Terry Gilliam-esque illustration to show the way photos are cropped or manipulated.
• There's also an odd detachment, since it's mostly photos, and in the rare demonstrations, you'll see only a hand.
• The lone voice is the narrator (which makes it easy to dub).
• It's not one that you'll want to show your kids; there's artistic nudity throughout the series.
If any of the above sounds like a distraction, you might not like Photo.
Still, Photo: A History from Behind the Lens is entertaining as it
informs. If you're interested in photos as art—whether as a photographer
or a gallery viewer—this one is for you.
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