Morgan Meis in The Easel:
It is said that the great Luxembourgish-American photographer Edward Steichen once took a thousand pictures of the same white teacup. This was in the days before digital photography, mind you, so the commitment of time and expense was considerable. Steichen photographed the teacup against different variations of white and black backgrounds. He was studying his art, trying to get the nuances of light and contrast just right. The result of such studies is a photo like The Little Round Mirror (1901, printed 1905), which is a classic work of early Modernism in photography. The posing is sculptural. The print has so many painterly qualities that it might possibly be taken for one (a painting, that is).
Now fast forward seventy years or so. It is 1976 and John Szarkowski (the incredibly influential Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art from 1962 to 1991) exhibits the photographs of a man named William Eggleston. The show includes a shot (titled, simply, ‘Algiers, Louisiana’) of an aging dog lapping up water from a brown puddle in front of a parked car and a suburban home. There is nothing sculptural about the shot, nothing painterly either. It has none of the studied artiness of a Steichen photograph. Given the short length of time dogs generally spend lapping water, Eggleston couldn’t have had more than minute or so to compose and execute the shot, if that.
The exhibition of Eggleston’s photographs at MoMA therefore caused something of a stir among people interested in art photography. ‘Serious photography’, from roughly its inception in the mid-nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth century, was supposed to be deeply studied in terms of framing and composition. It was supposed to contain ‘important’ subject matter (be that other works of art, social commentary, serious portraiture, etc.). And it was supposed to be in black and white.