Mazie M. Harris is an assistant curator in the Department of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum. She received her Ph.D. from Brown University, and her scholarship has been supported by the National Gallery of Art, New York Public Library, Smithsonian, Winterthur Museum and Library, American Antiquarian Society, and Terra Foundation for American Art. Her most recent exhibition, Paper Promises: Early American Photography, was on view from February 27 - May 27, 2018.
We spoke on May 21, 2018 at the Getty Museum.
Paula: How did you come to be interested in early American photography?
Mazie: The history of photography tends to be told in this nice, evolutionary way in which one technique gave way to the next technique in the march of progress. The narrative said that Americans preferred daguerreotypes, these one of a kind photographic processes, while elsewhere they're picking up negative/positive photography. In France and Britain you see that they're really getting excited about this idea of photography in multiple, and it’s always seemed interesting to me that the American story was different. So I began to explore why that was the case.
I ended up looking at two different things. Why were Americans really excited about the daguerreotype and less excited about negative/positive photography? Secondly, what about the photographers who were doing negative/positive photography in the United States? The story isn't clean. It’s not as though we went from the daguerreotype to the albumen. In fact, there were people playing around with paper negatives. What were those people doing, what kind of experiments were they making? Things are much more complex and messy than the histories might make it seem. It really is a history of technology question, how we start to try to adapt new technology with a kind of reluctance, and how excitement is often tinged with anxiety.
Paula: Do you have a sense of why Americans had a different feeling about positive/negative?
Mazie: I think there were a couple of different things. A crucial one is the way they got reported in the press. The daguerreotype is described as miraculous and amazing with this incredible fidelity to nature, and negative/positive photography is described as really labor intensive and confusing. In some reports it said it looked exactly like a daguerreotype, in other reports it said it looked exactly like a print. It was a muddled story, whereas Daguerre's wasn't burdened with all the technical details. It was just "it's incredible!"
The second part is that the second-hand reports start to be a little skeptical about negative/positive photography. If it could easily reproduce things and easily be manipulated, then maybe it could be used for bad ends, for nefarious purposes. That's when certain early American photographers such as John Adams Whipple start to become associated with counterfeiting.
We have a couple of examples in the exhibition that show this kind of photographic counterfeiting, and I was glad to find them and thrilled to put them on view. I think they're quite rare. Something about the way the technique was being promoted and explained got negative/positive photography caught up in this issue of counterfeiting. In the 19th century there was no national currency, so each bank was printing its own money. Can you imagine going to your bank branch and they have their particular denominations and bills, and then you go one town over and that bank has completely different denominations, completely different looking money? It was really hard to have a sense of which of these bills was authentic. Historians say that about 40% of the paper money in circulation at that time was counterfeit. It was an incredible problem.
Paper money had a negative connotation about it versus metal money, which held its intrinsic value. When Whipple's process gets caught up in this, this report gets spread all over the American press and there starts to be an idea that although there could be some advantages to sharing circulating pictures, maybe the downside is that it would really allow this explosion of counterfeiting.
The 19th century is a time when you start to have social mobility and people able to rise outside of their class. With that ability to change and to represent yourself in a new way comes this idea that people can misrepresent themselves. If you have a photographic form that can represent itself as something it's not, that was really scary for people. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the great writer on photography, talked about negative/positive photography in really outlandish terms. He called the negative diabolic, and had the idea that the kind of inversion that comes with negative/positive photography was really troubling. It’s not so much that people were seeing paper photographs and rejecting them, but they were reading about them in the newspaper, and they had this note of alarm attached to them.
Paula: It sounds very much like our issues with social media.
Mazie: Absolutely. It seems great, it has democratic potential, more people can be represented, you can share, and then on the other hand it's easy to lose track of your image, a photograph that you post can be used in any number of ways ... so I think that's absolutely the case.
Paula: And uncertainty about what's real and what's not real. It’s easy to lie.
Mazie: And manipulate images, exactly. We see again and again that the potential of reproduction is hugely exciting in the history of photography, and with that comes potential loss of control, which is scary.
When you look at these examples of early negative photography, it seems John Adams Whipple thinks he's doing the right thing by promoting this medium. He's saying it can rival printmaking. Then these very terms that he's using to promote it are the terms that make people afraid of it. I sort of think of them as start-ups, these early adopters, they got there too early. They had this great idea, this idea that negative/positive photography would take off, but the market wasn't quite ready yet. So it definitely feels similar to some of what we experience these days.
Paula: it also seems that there is a difference in the image quality between the two, so there are pros and cons between the reproducibility and the quality questions.
Mazie: The daguerreotypes have this incredible resolution, they're hand-held, and they have a wonderful kind of intimacy. You can imagine if you have a close-knit family, they're perfect for sharing within the small group of your family. As your family is spreading out, maybe some people may be moving west, you might want a photograph in multiple. It might be nice to have photographs of people.
As you point out, the quality is quite different, and it's because American photographers, unlike many of their European counterparts, are not necessarily trained as artists or chemists. Most of the Americans were entrepreneurs who took this up as a business proposition, and so they're just reading a manual and you need to be able to follow steps very carefully. If you're in a part of the country where the humidity is different, you may not have the chemical knowledge to adapt accordingly. A lot of the photographers are really just trying to follow the European techniques, which might not work for every climate in the United States. The daguerreotype is a much more standardized product.
Mazie: You see people trying different things; I love the example where someone is trying to print photographs on sheet music. If you wanted music, you had to have sheet music, so it was a big form of visual culture. You can get the sense of them as businessmen really trying to figure out how to get people on board with this type of photography, but not always succeeding.
Paula: Still, a lot of ingenuity.
Mazie: It’s true that you start to see that American ingenuity is in appropriation and adaptation. They’re not coming up with these techniques themselves, but they're figuring out how to adapt them for the needs of this country. They're not inventors in the way that we might think of some of those European photographers, but they're clever about trying to adapt what they've been given.
Paula: A lot of the story of photography is about materiality and paper and the objects. How do you follow this through to today and the Instagram age, when there's very little photography printed on paper? What becomes of the study of photography and the museum’s role in preserving and talking about it?
Mazie: It's a great question. What is the relationship between an Instagram image and a daguerreotype? They feel so far apart; the technologies are radically different. So what is a photograph? What do these things have in common? Why do we call them all photographs? They're very different things. I think a photograph is like a belief system, it's a belief about a camera image that captures something in the world. That's about our cultural acceptance of this phenomena.
We all grew up imagining photographs to be rectangles on paper, but when you're in this space, you realize it could have been a completely different substrate. From the photography journals of the time we learn that they were printing on mica, cloth, the paths were wide open. Photography could have been any number of things. Sure, it could have been a rectangle; it might have been a circle. I think they're really grappling with the question of materiality, and what material best suits the nation at this time. The daguerreotypes suit the nation, because it has this intrinsic value and it has an incredibly fine resolution, but then the paper photographs start to suit the nation as there's more and more expansion.
So as we're in this age of Instagram, people are again finding the way to make photography suit their needs, to make it be a part of their lives. To capture your loved ones, to memorialize events, to promote science, for propaganda. I think the more open and flexible we can be about how photographs are a part of our lives, it allows us to be more open to these varied histories including these dead ends, these very fertile dead ends that have happened throughout the medium.
There’s a lot of discussion about the de-materialization of photography, but I don't think that's quite right. I think it’s re-materialization. We still have an embodied experience of photographs, even if they're on our phones. We cradle them, much as you might a daguerreotype. We have this very intimate, embodied experience with them. It's a very physical, we don't look at photographs with our eyes, we experience them with our whole bodies, and that's still the case. If we can think about use and reception as much as the kind of things themselves, then it gives us a much more holistic idea about the medium, as opposed to these more reductive evolutionary histories. I think as open as we can be to all these different experiments; it allows us a richer idea about the medium. And then I think it keeps us from having that alarm that they were feeling in this period. We can be open without feeling that attendant anxiety.
Paula: Do you imagine that the Getty, in a hundred years, will have an exhibition of the most "liked" Instagram photos of a particular period? How will a museum handle it as the cultural receptacle of the time?
Mazie: I think we're interested in people who use the medium in innovative ways, who have found a relationship between the material and the concept. I don't imagine the Getty ever being a place that would collect all the Instagrams in all the world, but maybe a place where someone who's using a digital medium because it really makes sense with the concept that they're grappling with, I think that that would be completely of interest.
You want the form and the concept to have a relationship. We see a lot of people who are working with digital photography but making traditional landscapes, and you want to feel as though there's some reason that they’re using digital; there's some reason that that's the most appropriate way of expressing what it is you're trying to get across. We're interested in photographers who are experimenting, who are trying new things, but who are really grappling with how form and function might have a relationship. I am less interested in people who are using digital just because it's easier, because it's fast, but really how does their use of digital get at something?
Paula: In addition to the technology question is the use question. There were a number of uses of early photography. We’re standing in a portrait gallery. Can you talk a little bit about the different ways that photography was utilized in this time?
Mazie: We were just as egotistical as humans back then as we are now, so of course portraiture was a popular topic. Really early on celebrities and politicians realized that it was a great way of controlling and circulating a particular representation of themselves. So you can imagine how an important sculptor such as Harriet Hosmer might want a very dignified representation of herself, and this is a beautiful hand-toned photograph from the studio of Mathew Brady. Sculpture comes across in the beautiful texture, very subtly done in the dress and the coat that she's wearing. You can get a sense of her, with this upright posture, with this careful pose, with this look into the distance, really being thoughtful about how this might be a kind of public presentation.
Mazie: If you're using a daguerreotype, that's a much more intimate exchange, but this is something that could be shown in the Brady gallery, which was a space for people to come and experience images as much as to buy them. So you get a sense of how these prominent Americans would think about photography in multiple as a way of crafting self-representation much as we craft our photographic images today.
That's certainly the case in the portraits of Frederick Douglass. African-Americans are learning how to wield negative/positive photography to counter stereotypical representations of race at the time. Frederick Douglass was the most photographed person in the 19th century. He not only had photographs made, he had paintings made too. He was very, very thoughtful about how visual culture could shape public perception.
Paula: So these portraits were directed and controlled by him?
Mazie: Absolutely. He's an incredible orator, an incredible writer, his rhetoric is fiery, and he's thoughtful about getting his message out into the world. He’s just as thoughtful about getting his portraits of himself out into the world, very carefully stage managing the way that he is posing for the camera to create these very dignified, impressive representations of African-American selfhood. He's very careful about having these images produced. We look at these images from the 19th century and they seem small and brown, and they feel a little difficult to access sometimes. But I think it's important to remember that they're not just pieces of history. They're not just documents of what happened, but they were active parts of making things happen. They created social change; they didn't just document it. You can see how he's wielding these photographs as, if not a weapon, at least a tool for greater self-representation for African-Americans.
When you take the time to look closely at these images, you start to see these faces that transcend that historic moment. You start to see, oh, gosh, I can see this person at the grocery store. We don't think of them anymore as historic documents, but as representations of selfhood in a way that makes them feel much more accessible. In the portraiture section you really see how it is both manipulation, as you see with Harriet Hosmer, and multiplication, as you see with Frederick Douglass. Those two core aspects really allow the negative/positive photography to help Americans shape their public personas.
Paula: You've talked a little bit about the desire to have diverse voices and representation in the collection and in exhibitions. Is that something that you were particularly cognizant of for this show?
Mazie: It is. American history is hard because it was not always the democratic ideal that we would want it to be, but of course America is a place where many people came to try to make lives for themselves. We wanted to show the ways that Americans were striving to be a part of the nation and also show the reality of how difficult that was for people. I'm grateful that we were able to bring several works into the collection and into the exhibition that give a greater sense of diversity in sitters. That's something that we really need to continue to strive to do.
Here I have an image of a gentleman from Baltimore, showing himself much like Frederick Douglass was doing, in a very dignified way, wearing a very fine suit. I love the way in which people are donning particular clothes for the photography studio, presenting themselves as upright members of the country. That's a remarkable example of how we can continue to open our 19th century collections to better reflect the really rich American experience.
Paula: It’s beautiful, and this guy clearly has the means to be able to dress this way and to have his portrait made. Are there pictures of people in different circumstances?
Mazie: Yes, and I'm so grateful for the donors who were able to help us acquire that material. It's something we really need to strive to do with our 19th century collections. Founding collections here were really focused on a narrative about great American photographers, and I think it's important that we have better representation of great American subjects as well.
For example, while in the portrait of the gentleman from Baltimore you get a sense of the person choosing to have their portrait made. Here in this portrait of an American Indian woman you don't necessarily know if she chose to have her photograph made. Her expression feels a little fraught. She’s not engaging directly with the camera.
We don't know much about this sitter or her back story, but what we see framed alongside is a carte de visite of this same sitter, where the photographer has vignetted the subject and gotten rid of a lot of the clothing that might make her seem more of an individual. Then he's added a caption that identifies her as an American Indian who was well known in stories, that kind of potentially apocryphal story about American Indian sacrifice for your family.
It’s a case in which an individual has been replaced by a kind of symbol about what American Indians might look like, how they might act in their world. In contrast with Frederick Douglass, who was trying to move away from stereotypical representation to self-representation, here you have an example in which someone is having their photo being used, probably without her permission, and circulated to create a stereotype.
Paula: So tell me something of your story. How would you describe your particular area of interest?
Mazie: I am trained as an Americanist. My PhD is in History of American Photography. I was originally interested in the 1950's and the 1960's. Then I started working at the National Gallery, and I was working on a project for them called "From Darkroom to Digital," for which I was trying to create a very nice timeline about who did what, when. The more I looked into it I realized how complicated it was, that it wasn't as easy as I thought it would have been. I started to become interested in the early years of photography and the struggles between photographers to take credit for different ideas, so I really moved back into the 1850's from the 1950's.
The questions that interest me are the questions about American representation. I guess the unifying thread is just being excited about photographers who are trying to document their world and use photography to bring about change. I'm interested in the way we, as curators, can be socially committed in the materials we choose to bring together.
Paula: Is there a unique quality about American photography that separates it from elsewhere?
Mazie: I would say no, absolutely not. I joked that the subtitle for this exhibition should be "Photography in the not-so-United-States." There was no real America as we know it. There were all these different territories jockeying for attention and a lot of fights in the lead-up to the Civil War between federal and local governments. There really was no America, and there were certainly no new American ideas, they're really adopting European ideas. It’s really a kind of struggle about self-definition that Americans have always gone through. Always trying to have an understanding of self that's in relationship to what else is going on in the world. That's probably something you think about in your own collecting as well.
A funny way I think to put it is that I grew up in Texas, and I didn't think of myself as particularly Texan until I left Texas, and then I was suddenly very aware of how I have been formed by that background. I think it's true for all of us. You can be mad about American politics and then you travel outside the U.S. and find yourself having to speak about American politics. We're always, as a country, defining ourselves in relationship to each other and in relationship to what's going on elsewhere. I've limited my study to American photography because I think it continues to be rich and open and strange and interesting, and not because I think that there's something particularly essentialist or exceptional about it. I just continue to be interested and want to know more. It’s fun because there's always more to learn.