GLAMi nomination: Pioneers of Photography

nominated by: Erica Gangsei, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, USA
institution: SFMOMA
category: Exhibition Media or Experience

What was photography before film and photographic paper? Before shutters and adjustable apertures? The pioneers of the medium had to experiment and invent. They built their own precision equipment and mixed reactive chemicals. SFMOMA’s “Pioneers of Photography” series includes five videos that masterfully juxtapose the early photographic experiments of these individuals with imaginative, hand-drawn animations. These photographic pioneers worked before moving image technology, and in some cases even contributed to its invention; in the absence of archival footage these thoughtful films illuminate the lives of some of the first practitioners in this now-ubiquitous medium. 

Each video focuses on an individual innovator, revealing their context, inspiration, and influence. Illustrations recreating complex historic processes are paired with the resulting photographs.

“’Crimes against Photography’: Man Ray and the ‘Rayograph’” explores the artist’s relationship with Dada’s playful aesthetics and the darkroom accident that led to the Rayograph and other explorations of light.

“Sun pictures: Henry Fox Talbot and the first photographs” introduces viewers to the lesser-known inventor of photography and his experiments with light sensitive chemicals and exposures to create “sun pictures.” The film reveals Talbot’s scientific exploration, his legacy, and his competition with the better-known Louis Daguerre.

“Peaks and perils: The life of Carleton Watkins” provides a better understanding of the scale of Watkins’ mammoth plates. It details the arduous physicality involved in transporting his photographic equipment through the unsettled American wilderness, where he produced images that propelled environmental protection and the establishment of national parks.

“Pictures from a glass house: Julia Margaret Cameron’s portraits” introduces viewers to one of the history of photography’s most acclaimed portraitists and the thinkers, artists, and celebrities she documented, including Charles Darwin and Alfred Tennyson. The film narrates Cameron’s receipt of her first camera at the age of 48 and explores the criticism her mythical, mystical, and softly focused portraits were subjected to, introducing one of the earliest female photographers, her unique challenges, and her vision.      

The development of cinema is also explored through the dramatic story of Eadweard Muybridge, including his daring photographs of Yosemite, his studies of motion, and the murder trial where his photographs would become evidence of his insanity.

SFMOMA was one of the first museums to recognize photography as an art form, and remains one of the foremost centers for the study of photography. The “Pioneers of Photography” animation series continues SFMOMA’s commitment to sharing and exploring photography by offering approachable, engaging snapshots of the history of photography to museum visitors of all backgrounds and interests.