Important Photographs and Artists of Straight Photography

Progression of Art
Frederick Henry Evans: 'A Sea of Steps', Wells Cathedral, Steps to Chapter House (1903)

'A Sea of Steps', Wells Cathedral, Steps to Chapter House

Artist: Frederick Henry Evans

This image depicts steps ascending to the Chapter House in Wells Cathedral in Somerset, England. Remarkable for its composition and sense of light and space, the photograph conveys the climbing up the stairs, as if analogous to ascending toward the divine serenity symbolized by the illuminated archway. The vertical lines of the columns rise out of the curve of the steps that seem to flow and swell like ocean waves; what Evans' called "a sea of steps." As a result, Evans introduced a new departure in photography. He drew on the Symbolist manner of using objects to directly express esoteric ideas. Evans framed the interior view of the flight of stairs (an architectural space) to suggest the ascent up the sancta scala (holy stair), giving the image an emotional and spiritual resonance.

Evans was a bookseller who began experimenting with photography and in 1898 became a professional photographer, focusing on architectural subjects, in particular noted cathedrals in France and England. A member of the Pictorialist Linked Ring Society in London, he represented the extreme Purist approach within the Society. Evans practiced and advocated for a purely photographic image - thus he was a patriarch of Straight photography. A perfectionist, he would sometimes spend weeks in a cathedral studying the effects of light at different times of the day to capture the perfect image. Light, he felt, was the equivalent of spiritual enlightenment.

Platinum Print - The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

Paul Strand: Bowls (1917)


Artist: Paul Strand

This photograph depicts a close-up view of regular kitchen bowls that are used to study the effects of light and shadow. The round, concave objects are reduced to geometric circular shapes, defined by the highlighted linear top edge of the bowls and the depth of the shadows. The composition of overlapping circular shapes dismantles the structure of the object, making it almost abstract, and not easily recognizable. Paul Strand said that his "abstract" studies were a matter of clarifying "for me what I now refer to as the abstract method, which was first revealed in the paintings of Picasso, Braque, Léger and others... ." These close-up shots parallel his close-up portraits of ordinary people taken in the street at the end of 1916, which border on social documentary.

Strand's work, published in the last issue of Camera Work in June 1917, went as far as possible in defining a photographic point of view. Significant here is the creative freedom found in the photographic act. Alfred Stieglitz added a short essay in support of this new aesthetic: "The work is brutally direct; devoid of all flim-flam; devoid of trickery and of any 'ism'; devoid of any attempt to mystify an ignorant public, including the photographers themselves." Strand's close-up photo of bowls introduced a new photography that objectively analyzes the features of ordinary people and objects.

Photogravure - Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Ansel Adams: Monolith, the Face of Half Dome (1927)

Monolith, the Face of Half Dome

Artist: Ansel Adams

Adam's photograph of Half Dome, a landmark of Yosemite Park in California, launched his career. This shaped granite rock formation is captured as a dark imposing monolith rising up to a distant peak against a dark sky and snowy landscape at its lower left and lower right. Throughout his life Adams returned to this subject and commented, "it is never the same Half Dome, never the same light or the same mood." This image was met with critical acclaim, and Adams himself felt it was "one of the most exciting moments of my photographic career," because he had his first instance of what he called "visualization," being able to see and frame the picture in his mind's eye.

To take the photograph, he climbed 4000 feet through snow, carrying his large Korona view camera, a wooden tripod, and a dozen glass plates that he set up on a rocky outcropping. When the light began to fall on the monolith, he took one photograph with a yellow filter, and then realized that using a dark red filter would make the image, as he said, "a brooding form, with deep shadows and a distant sharp white peak against a dark sky."

Adams was one of the leading members of Group f/64, along with Cunningham and Weston, and an ardent advocate for what he called "pure or straight photography." His landscapes were enormously popular with the general public, but critically influential to many photographs, like Harry Callahan who felt that Adam's focus on "just the straight photograph" set him free to pursue his own photographic practice.

1927 - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York New York

László Moholy-Nagy: Funkturm Berlin (Berlin Radio Tower) (1928-29)

Funkturm Berlin (Berlin Radio Tower)

Artist: László Moholy-Nagy

By using an aerial view, described by art historian Christopher Phillips as “the purposefully disorienting vantage point,” this photograph emphasizes geometric structure, creating a relationship between sharp bold angles and circular forms. The tower descends vertiginously, as it intersects the pictorial plane diagonally. Simultaneously, high contrasting tonalities give dimension and texture to the concrete grid at the tower’s base, the wire-like lines of the concentric circles, and the convex white circles and cross shapes arranged in symmetrical clusters. As a result, as art historian Lynne Warren wrote, “the spaces, shadows, and objects below intersect into a dense and abstract pattern, implicitly celebrating the technological and industrial shaping of modern life.” The use of line, creating a number of intersecting triangles, unifies the picture, while reflecting the artist’s innovative emphasis on modern technology, as the image becomes a kind of visual embodiment of radio transmission.

This photograph was one of a series that Moholy-Nagy took of the recently completed tower and reflects the ideas he expressed in Neue Sehen (New Vision) (1927), viewing photography as a way to explore, “the perspectives offered by the modern city — its high-rises and dramatic scales, its geometries of contrast, its industrial patterns and texts.” His experimental images were intended to let the viewer see space, and later in his essay "A New Instrument of Vision" (1932) he defined eight varieties of vision that summarized the conflict between a passive and active use of photographic space. This image takes an active, even aggressive approach, to that space, using Straight Photography to configure it dynamically.

Gelatin silver print - The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois


Escala de Escala (Ladder of Ladders)

Artist: Manuel Alvarez Bravo

This photograph focuses on the threshold of a coffin-maker's shop, where two ladders lean against the door and, behind them in shadow, coffins for children are stacked from floor to ceiling. On the upper right of the doorway, a small white coffin rests on a shelf, identifying the shop by its wares. Another small coffin sits on a table in the lower left of the image. It is open and a gramophone speaker rests inside it, evoking a poetic melody or reverie. The straight photograph is both undeniably real and surreal, as the shop's threshold is a metaphor for the transition between light and dark, life and death. The evocative title links the ladders against the door with the ladder-like effect of the stacked coffins. The result is dissonant, as if the idea of ascending to heaven were connected to the reality of death.

While working at a government job, Álvarez Bravo began to teach himself how to photograph. He achieved his earliest success around 1925, when he won first prize in a local photography competition in Oaxaca. Tina Modotti, who he befriended, influenced his work, and introduced him to Edward Weston as well as to a lively intellectual and creative milieu of artists, writers, and poets. His interest in folk art, particularly burial rituals and decorations, stem from his encounters with the Mexican mural painters, in particular Diego Rivera, and his photographic work for the journal Mexican Folkways. After meeting André Breton in 1938, he became associated with Surrealism. Breton promoted his work in France and subsequently asked Alvaréz Bravo for a photograph to use as a catalog cover for a Surrealist exhibition in Mexico. The result was La buena fama durmiendo (The good reputation sleeping) (1938-1939), a controversial image that was censored in Mexico for nudity but which became his best-known. Álvarez Bravo's ability to capture, based on a straight approach, everyday reality with its surrealist qualities became a signature of his work.

Gelatin silver print - The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York


New York at Night

Artist: Berenice Abbott

This aerial view of New York City at night, taken from a high-rise building, shows the lights of the buildings and streets glowing so that the rectangular forms of the high rises, the streets between, and the elevated train line seem incandescent and monumental. Abbott visited New York in the late 1920s to find a publisher for a collection of Eugène Atget's photographs. She was so struck by how the city was changing that she decided to undertake her photographic project, Changing New York.

Working as a darkroom assistant for the photographer Man Ray in Paris in the 1920s, Abbott turned seriously to photography when she was inspired by the work of Eugène Atget. She became a tireless promoter of his work.

Known for her rigorous standards and straight approach, many of her images, like this one, required meticulous planning. For this photograph, knowing that office workers left, shutting off the lights at 5 pm, she realized that only on the shortest day of the year could she take a photo depicting the lit up city beneath a dark sky. She explained: "This was a fifteen-minute exposure and I'm surprised the negative is as sharp as it is because these buildings do sway a bit. I knew I had no opportunity to make multiple exposures because the lights would start to go out shortly after 5:00 P.M. when the people began to go home and so it had to be correct on the first try." Abbott's ability to maximize the lighting of the city to illuminate her image demonstrates the challenging process of pure photography.

Gelatin silver print - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Walker Evans: Allie Mae Burroughs, Hale County, Alabama (1936)

Allie Mae Burroughs, Hale County, Alabama

Artist: Walker Evans

This portrait depicts Allie Mae Burroughs, the wife of an Alabama sharecropper and mother of four, as she stands against the side of her house. Though she was twenty-seven years old at the time, her face lined and worn from worry conveys the hard circumstances of her life. She looks at the camera sternly, and the horizontal lines of the wood siding behind her, emphasizing the lines of her mouth and eyebrows, convey the flatness of her expression. This image was one of several that Evans took of Mrs. Burroughs, each slightly different, but all reflecting the same honest and clear depiction - his documentary style. Her unreadable expression conveys a sense of her as a private person, rather than as a symbol of suffering.

Evans and James Agee spent the summer of 1936 with three tenant farming families in Alabama on assignment for Fortune magazine. Even though the magazine never published their story, Agee continued to work on the project. As a result, Evans and Agee published an enlarged and more ambitious work titled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1941. Characterized as one of the most influential publications of the 20th century, Evan's signature photos, including this stark image, captured the effects of the Great Depression on the rural poor.

Film negative - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


FRANCE. Normandy. June 6th, 1944. US troops assault Omaha Beach during the D-Day landings (first assault)

Artist: Robert Capa

This photograph immortalized the allied forces coming ashore during the beach landing, known as the D-Day invasion. In the foreground a soldier lies prone in the water as he looks forward, his gun extended in front of him, while in the background, troop carriers can be seen, and objects floating in the water. The blurriness of the photo, due to the photographer being in the water himself, dodging bullets, conveys the feeling and urgency of the scene. The impelling energy, chaos, and risk of the invasion are conveyed.

With his coverage of the Spanish Civil War, Capa became the acclaimed war photographer of his generation. He was the only photographer to go ashore with the D-Day invasion, and this image, along with others that he took of the invasion, became part of the national consciousness. As the photo-historian Sally Stein comments " the nexus of war, modernity, and photographically illustrated magazines that, starting in this period of hand-held, up-close camera reporting, sought the most grisly trophies of humankind's penchant for so-called inhumanity." His work reflects how the photograph's exacting standards of photojournalism, where the straight approach is profoundly connected to accurate and objective depictions of newsworthy events.

Film negative - International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos


Blue-Throated Hummingbird, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona

Artist: Eliot Porter

Here a hummingbird is caught in flight with its wings arched back, its body suspended in air, and in all its glorious detail and exuberant energy. Porter remarkably captures in this photograph the incredibly quick tiny hummingbird in mid flight in the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona where the species thrives. The viewer can both marvel at the bird, seldom seen so closely, and feel a sense of soaring elation.

The older brother of the realist artist and noted art critic, Fairfield Porter, Eliot Porter met Stieglitz and Adams in the early 1930s and was encouraged to transform his lifelong love of photography into a career in 1939. Trained in chemical engineering and medicine, he brought a sense of scientific rigor to his nature photography, which became an early standard of the genre. Now such detailed and frozen images are relatively easy to make given the many years of technological innovation, but over 50 years ago, this was not the case. Porter's earliest inspiration had been photographing birds at his family's estate on Spruce Head Island in Maine. He was to photograph birds all of his life.

Photographing birds presented unique challenges, as he was using a large format camera to sharply depict detail. He even used color photography, when many considered only black and white photography a serious artistic medium. When someone asked him, "Why birds?" he reportedly answered, "Because they fly." But capturing them in motion required innovations in the use of flash photography and hours of observation for a single shot. In 1943 his bird photographs were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of New York, in a dual show with Helen Levitt, where the catalog said he "insisted on attaining three things: a clear and characteristic portrait of the bird, a technically good photograph, and an emotionally satisfying picture."

Dye transfer print - The Museum of Modern Art, New York


Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey

Artist: Diane Arbus

Arbus photographs two identical twin sisters, dressed in matching dresses, standing in front of a white wall in a Knights of Columbus hall in New Jersey. The identical black and white elements of their dress create a psychological effect: the white collars, cuffs, stockings, and headbands contrast with their dark hair and dresses, suggesting that we are looking at the dark and light aspects of the human character. Accordingly, the differences in their facial expressions convey two different personalities: the girl on the right seems self-confident in her body language, whereas the girl on the left seems guarded, her slightly raised shoulders, downturned mouth, and lowered eyes communicate a sense of aversion. The effect is uncanny; it is as if we are looking at the surrealistic theme of the double, the division between the conscious and unconscious self.

Arbus's portraits had a significant impact on the notion of new documents in the 1960s, because they reveal the strangeness underlying ordinary reality. Known for her portraits of freaks, nudists, and people at the fringe of American society, her direct approach towards her subjects gave her work a sense of authenticity. The strangeness depicted was not the result of photographic manipulations but reality as it revealed itself to her. Her photographs provide glimpses into the dark side of American consumer culture, its psychological truths and constricting conventions, the anger and frustration just below its surface. It is this direct, brazen, even empathetic seeing that defines Arbus's achievement.

Gelatin silver print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Vondelpark, Amsterdam

Artist: Rineke Dijkstra

This portrait captures an adolescent couple sitting in Vondelpark in Amsterdam under a shady tree near a pond. The image focuses on the confident young woman accompanied by her reserved boyfriend, who is seated to her right, yet slightly behind her. Her bright orange, red, and blue floral, patterned summer dress contrasts with his black shirt, electric blue tie, and blue jeans. These two young adults express who they are in their distinctive dress, their body language - the young man sits on his knees with his clasped hands resting on his lap - which suggests a reserved rather than an open relation to the world, and their direct or indirect gaze at the photographer. In this series of Park Portraits, Dijkstra presents school children and adolescents engaged in activity, daily life, and in repose, as encountered in city parks in Europe, China, and the United States.

Dijkstra's portraits resemble classical portraits in terms of the frontally posed figure isolated against a minimal background. In this sense, she follows August Sander's portraits that isolate and identify social types. By comparison, Dijkstra looks for the individuality of her subjects in small details, gestures, or general posture. Her series of portraits maybe grounded in a uniformity among the sitters, yet their particular character or emotional state disrupts the uniformity of the subject.

Chromogenic print - Galerie Max Hetzler


Photogram on expired photographic paper

Artist: Alison Rossiter

This photogram evokes a landscape, instead of actually capturing a landscape through the camera's lens. Using chemicals in the darkroom, Alison Rossiter conjures a "scene" on the expired photographic paper. These "lake landscapes," as Rossiter calls them, make her think of Edward Weston's sand dunes in terms of the sharp distinction between the light and the shadows or Edward Steichen's soft focus. This celebration of the medium itself reflects on the unique nature of the photographic process so integral to Straight photography.

Rossiter has collected unused packages of photographic paper, in which she finds discoveries, such as papers with latent images - found photograms - or atmospheric damage that has occurred over the years. She processes the papers straight out of the box and uses chemistry to created her landscapes and other images. Her search for these old photo papers started as an expression of her lament that these things were being lost. Then the sadness gave way to a fascination with bringing these papers into a contemporary context.

Silver gelatin print - Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto, Canada

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Straight Photography Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 30 Oct 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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