Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Pictures That Made History Before It Was History

History, to paraphrase a saying, is in the eye of the beholder. What unites these books is the exclusive use of black-and-white photography. As viewers, we are not lulled by flashy color: We can instead focus on content, composition, and tone. The editors encourage us to look with new eyes at the work of photographers who, at the time they took the pictures, were simply doing their jobs, unaware they were making art. With time, the photos became historic. But each photo is also compelling on its own terms, not just as a historical document.

Carleton Watkins photographed from 1860 to 1890, capturing the scale and scope of the state of California. Today's pocket-camera-toting tourists might gasp at reports that, to make his pictures, Watkins would transport 2,000 lbs. of gear, including 100 glass negative plates, into the wilds of Yosemite.

About these ads

His photographs are remarkable for their technical excellence and elegant design. He transforms a factory scene into a dreamscape; makes a Yosemite landscape pulsate with energy; and creates a geometric view of early San Francisco in which the city looks ready for anything.

Unfortunately, the diminutive size of In Focus somewhat takes away from the monumental themes Watkins addresses.

Led by noted landscape photographer William Henry Jackson, a team of photographers documented America at the turn of the century. The often-stunning images they captured became attractive postcards that the Detroit Publishing Co. sold at a rate of 7 million per year.

In Dreamland: America at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century, the most striking images are architectural, their tones and textures lovingly reproduced. The natural landscapes often contain people, giving the majestic scenes a sense of scale. Many of the portraits, however, seem stilted.

From the perspective of these politically correct times, the chapter titles - apparently using the terms of the era - are illuminating: "Natives in Costumes" for native Americans, "Real Men" for cowboys and miners, and "Pickaninnies and Prisoners" for African-Americans.

The photographs in this extensive collection, The British Century: A Photographic History of the Last Hundred Years, represent an effort by the editors to visually portray British history. Photojournalistic in nature, the powerful images paint a portrait of a nation's smiles and scowls, classes and individuals, whimsy and wars. And of course, plenty of royalty.

The small island nation has had a huge effect on the rest of the world, from colonialism to Beatlemania. By the end of this century, the sun has virtually set on the British Empire, but these photographs shout: "What a hundred years it was!"

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.