The term straight photography probably originated in a 1904 exhibition review in Camera Work by the critic Sadakichi Hartmann, in which he called on photographers “to work straight.” He urged them to produce pictures that looked like photographs rather than paintings—a late-nineteenth-century approach known as Pictorialism. To do so meant rejecting the tricky darkroom procedures that were favored at the time, including gum printing, the glycerine process, and scratching and drawing on negatives and prints. The alternative demanded concentrating on the basic properties of the camera and the printing process.
The great modernist tradition of straight photography resulted from the thinking of Hartmann and many others. It featured vivid black-and-white photographs ranging from Eugéne Atget’s luminous images of a rapidly disappearing Parisian cityscape to Imogen Cunningham’s striking nudes of her husband on Mount Rainier. It was often considered equivalent, especially during the first half of the century, to documentary photography—loosely, the pictorial equivalent of investigative reporting. Documentary photography was epitomized by Lewis Hine’s turn-of-the-century images of slum dwellers and the government-sponsored portraits of the Depression-era poor by Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange.
Straight photography is so familiar that it is easy to forget that it is an aesthetic, no less artificial than any other. The fact that black-and-white pictures may look more “truthful” than color prints, for instance, points to just one of straight photography’s highly influential conventions. After World War II the orthodoxies of straight photography began to be challenged. Unconventional approaches emerged, including an interest in eccentric lighting, blurred images of motion, and tilting of the frame for expressive effect. So, too, was there widespread interest in the snapshot aesthetic, and finally, even the use of color.
The debate over whether photography is an art raged for nearly a century. The early-twentieth-century photographer, publisher, critic, and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz linked straight photography’s destiny to modernism by simultaneously championing it along with modern painting and sculpture. While straight photographs have been exhibited in museums and galleries since 1909, a market for them did not really develop until the 1970s, when painting and sculpture in traditional formats were in unusually short supply.
Straight photography has lost much of its prestige as postmodern photographers have rejected its once-dominant tenets. They now produce works that counter the purist emphasis on straight photographic process (manipulated photography), on documentary veracity (fabricated and manipulated photography), and on maintaining the distinction between art and popular culture (fashion aesthetic).
Extracts from 'Artspeak' by Robert Atkins (copyright (©) 1990, 1997 by Robert Atkins) reproduced by permission of Abbeville Press, Inc.