Part 5) A Brave Old World, Pythagoras and the first irrational constant
The Greeks generally liked order and whole numbers so they must have been v pissed-off when Pythagoras came up with the √2 as 1:1.414. However, they became stuck with it because it proved so useful when building temples, and anyway it was good practice for pi and phi that were coming along later to shake the foundations of their universe some more.
The interesting thing from an artists point of view isn't the triangle but the rectangle, the A4 rectangle's proportions at 210x297mm for instance is unique in that its aspect ratio remains constant when it is multiplied or divided by 2, we’re so familiar with A size paper we take it for granted, but I still think it has real elegance.
... The Golden Ratio, Phi
Golden Mean or Section, is all over the net and is 1:1.618 and is a sure fire cure for insomnia, it fits many and is the bases for a lot of western aesthetics, worth a quick look on Google, where you will find it used to delineate the proportions of both art and nature.
This is the type of thing it will do, and the western taste has been fitted to this proportion so long now it’s difficult to tell weather ones response to it is real or simply a cultural convention.
... and it helps demystify how a certain Frenchman knew where to point his Brownie on some occasions
Part 6) A Brave New World
So as you can see by the time photography was filtering down to us plebs in the 20’s and 30’s there wasn’t a unified human aesthetic concept. It was split between a well developed, if constrained by tradition, spiritual eastern view and a western rational view, that was further divided by class. That whole artistic sensibility then sat on top of some hard wired human visual perception of the Gestalt philosophy.
By the early 20th century a perfect storm was coming together, small portable cameras were in the hands of the middle classes and trickling downwards (my granddads camera, the first in our family, dates to 1932). There was a huge demand for mass-circulation publications, great and terrible events were afoot in Europe and Pathe Newsreels along with Albert Kahn’s Autochromes had given the common man a taste for photography. Up to that point, in common with all new media, the driving force in photography had been the “French postcard” type pornography.
Now this part may be a wee bit contentious; but time will tell. At the same time this was happening, bearing in mind this is the pre-TV era, the western artistic elite had it’s pants round it’s ankles and was staring resolutely into the navel of cubism, surrealism and any other ism that passed the time of day, and ignoring photography as anything like a form of legitimate art. The art of the day needed a degree to come anywhere near appreciating it and so left a huge vacuum in western culture just begging to be filled.
So it was on to an empty stage that Cartier-Bresson, Capa at al wandered on to in the 1930s.
Over the previous few decades pornography, being in the vanguard, had formed a vernacular visual idiom (sorry about the jargon, by that I mean by that a convention, a common way of looking at and understanding an image) porn from the start of the 20th century was based on Victorian classicism, so was almost free of the erotic to our trained eyes.
... by the 20's the photographers had learned how to portray, and we, both male and female, had learned how to interpret an erotic photo, and a visual idiom was solidifying to that style which will forever say "dirty photo" to the vast majority of people.
It's difficult to believe those photos are probably only about 20 years apart, sorry but somebody has to study this stuff you'll understand.
There was a similar idiom beginning to develop with travel/exotic photography, however National Geographic only abandoned plate cameras in the 30's if I remember correctly, so it was very much in its infancy.
Photographing the realities of conflict and warfare on the other hand had proved for the most part beyond the state of the art during the Great war so the canvas was, if not blank only sketched in a bit, in 1930(ish) Cartier-Bresson walked onto a empty stage and found a blank canvas; fortunately he was French and missed the mixed metaphor completely
So while Adolf was still deciding if his bum looked too big in jodhpurs, and planed a Greek holiday with Benieto, Capa and Co. were in Spain covered in dust and smelling of cordite. Cartier-Bresson was forsaking surrealism, wandering round Europe with his box brownie developing an interest in photos of young boys. They and the then small fledgling band of “miniature” photographers had no idea they were witness to events at the start of a decade stuffed so full of events they must have been dizzy by the end of the war.
As the world slid into chaos magazines and newspapers desperate for pictures and a public that had not had a popular graphic art-form for a generation sucked in these new photojournalists’ product, and eagerly learned it’s new idioms, history too gave them a break with event after event to go photograph and a fast developing technology to photograph it with. They were, in short, among the luckiest buggers on the face of the planet by a mile
Now, this I believe is the important bit, these chaps were not the masters of this art, there simply was no art to be master of in 1930, they took pictures and over the course of the next few years, and they in conjunction with the developing perceptions of the common people created this vernacular graphic idiom we take for granted. The building blocks of photography were formed by the skill set of that group and the circumstance they were in, almost every photographic genera that has followed is indebted to it in some way.
Towards the end of the Great War this is about as good as it got, it would have been accepted as “reality” by the audience at the time.