In the late 1800’s the world was beginning to take shape into something more of what it looks like today. Industrialization was coming to cities and taking them, literally, to the next level. Ships were being built larger and larger. Railroad systems were being expanded into uncharted territory. Industrialization brought birth to a lot of great things, one of which was introducing new visual problems for photographers to solve.
Prior to these massive skyscrapers, ships, and trains, our landscapes were serene and unspoiled (okay, maybe less spoiled). The popular aesthetic of romanticism in painting was easily replicated by photographers in tranquil scenes. Landscape photographers used vignettes and deep shadows around the edges of their scenes to center the viewer’s focus. Portrait photographers used plain backdrops to mask elements that would detract from compositions and their subjects. But what on earth was a photographer to do with some of these behemoth, man made structures? Does it even fit within the entire view of the lens? Where do you cut the composition? How do you deal with vast exposure value differences between these large (often dark) objects and the bright sky? Several photographers had their own ways of dealing with these issues and it forced the expansion of the photographic language and aesthetics into new directions.
In the mid 1800’s two men, Robert Howlett and Joseph Cundall partnered to document photographically the building of a huge steamship called the Great Eastern. Cundall preferred to show the entire ship in the composition and photographed the early stages of construction. He even made some two plate panoramic images in order to show the entire ship. At a certain point Howlett took over the documentation. He had a completely different style. He preferred closer compositions. It didn’t bother him if the whole boat was pictured or not. He believed tighter compositions gave viewers more of a sense of scale of just how enormous the boat was. He accomplished that sense of scale. He also informed future photographers how decisions on where to crop those lines. Howlett’s compositions and where he chose to crop images set a precedent for photographers following in his footsteps about what appears visually “correct” about a crop.
Another photographer, Edouard Baldus, documented Railroads. Railroads were being built over vast landscapes. He utilized the repetition and rhythm of the railroad to influence the balance and symmetry of his photos. For him, the architecture was all about the standardized, geometric, mechanized nature of industrialization. The exactness of the build was retained in the exactness of the photograph.
Construction time lapse
Philip Henry Delamotte laid the groundwork for the beginnings of time lapse photography. He photographed the building of the Crystal Palace of London at Sydenham every week, from the same spots, for three years. The photographs, all together in a collection, became a record of the entire process. While putting these photos into quick succession as a flip book or movie had not yet come into the realm of photography yet, the concept of documenting the exact same thing over time to view it’s changes was original and new.
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