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LOS ANGELES — The premise of Paper Promises: Early American Photography, the Getty Museum’s current photography exhibition, may at first strike the visitor as aimed mostly at a specialist audience of photohistorians. How much present-day relevance can be found in the history of negative/positive photographic methods and the rise of paper photography in the US? A whole lot, as it turns out. A visitor who enjoys reading all the didactics will leave this show with a much richer understanding of a diverse, divided, by turns confident and anxious United States bent on territorial and economic expansion from the 1840s to the 1860s, a crucial period bookended by Manifest Destiny and the Civil War. She might also be struck by the parallels between the anxieties that the advent of new technologies caused then and now.
As curator Mazie Harris writes in the show’s thoroughly researched and lavishly illustrated catalogue, paper photography, which Americans adopted more slowly and reluctantly than Europeans, eventually gained dominance partly because it was an important means of “sharing ideas about the nation and its people.” Taking this to heart, the show does an excellent job of capturing the racial, ethnic, gender, and class diversity of the nation, taking pains not to fill the rooms with images of only wealthy and white sitters associated with the best-known American photographers of the time, such as the Boston daguerreotypists Southworth and Hawes.
We see the active participation of women in the country’s cultural and political life in portraits of the author Harriet Beecher Stowe and of Harriet Goodhue Hosmer, the first female professional sculptor, whose striking figure still reads readily today as that of a no-nonsense lesbian. In another captivating portrait, we behold Eliza Gilbert, a dancer known professionally as Lola Montez. An international celebrity during her lifetime, she blazed across three continents, leaving a string of dead husbands, lovers, and even a manager in her wake before her own death at age 39. Though the label tells us that the portrait on view was meant to rehabiliate her reputation through an image of modesty, her determined gaze serves as a reminder that opinionated and stubborn women have long been more likely to be remembered than “well-behaved” ones.
The country’s racial diversity also comes through in images of both anonymous and named sitters. Among the latter are Frederick Douglass, well known for his savvy in constructing a public persona, but also Theodore Ferris, jarringly nicknamed “Candy Sam.” Ferris was a blind African American seller of fruits and sweets on the Yale University campus whom George Kendall Warren photographed repeatedly in the 1850s and 1860s (see here, here, here, and here). Paper photography made the yearbook as we know it possible, and Warren specialized in producing commemorative photo albums that he sold to university alumni. To the curator’s great credit, she chose for this show the image of Ferris (who has recently been immortalized in stone on the Yale campus) over the surely more numerous images of the Yalies for whom the albums were intended. Warren also photographed Aaron Molyneaux Hewlett, the first African American on the Harvard staff and faculty, who, along with several anonymous sitters, testifies to the upward social mobility that people of color achieved in those parts of the US where it was possible.
White photographers also documented slavery in the South, competing through their images for the soul of the nation. James Osborn and Frederick Durbec’s 1860 photographs made near Charleston, South Carolina present an anodyne picture of plantation life with faceless slaves doing chores in the middle ground, while Alexander Gardner and James Gibson’s 1862 “Contrabands on Mr. Toller’s Farm” shows a resolute group of men, women, and children who sought protection from slavery in Union-controlled territory. The images that perhaps most poignantly capture white America’s feelings about race, which remain unresolved to this day, are Charles Paxson’s and M.H. Kimball’s carte-de-visites of children who traveled as emancipated slaves on the abolitionist circuit during the Civil War. Their photographs were used by organizations such as the National Freedmen’s Relief Association to help raise money for the education of freed slaves and rouse enthusiasm for the war effort. What is remarkable about the photographs is that the children shown could all have easily “passed” for white. An illustration of the cruelty of the one-drop rule? Certainly. Yet it also suggests that perversely, even among Northerners, getting sympathy for black people was a lot easier if they didn’t actually look black.
The photographs of Africans Americans and a whole room devoted to images of the Civil War put human faces on the price of slavery — the “peculiar institution” which in the abstract was a major driver of economic growth in 19th century United States. Similiarly, the show puts faces on the human costs of Manifest Destiny and of the territorial expansion that created the United States we know today. Native Americans are represented in several photographs in the exhibition, and the show does not pull any punches in linking the popularity of photographs of Native people with the country’s rapid and ruthless westward sprawl. One of the most striking photographs is a panorama of four groups of sitters that commemorates the 1880 negotiations in Washington, DC between representatives of the Tabeguache Utes and the US government. It’s hard to read emotions reliably in portraits made with long exposures and stiff staging, yet to my eyes, these photographs are evidence of the Native delegants’ deep discomfort, as contrasted with the relaxed confidence of the white men who surround them and who ultimately concluded a treaty that relocated the Ute from their mineral-rich land in Colorado to reservations in Utah.
Two images by J.E. Whitney depict an anonymous Dakota woman whose portrait the photographer used on mass produced carte-de-visites, presenting her as the “Sioux Belle” Anpetu-Sapa-Win (Black Day Woman). According to legend, she flung herself and her children into a waterfall rather than “face dishonor.” (It is unclear to what particular indignity the euphemism refers.) The story stems from the forcible removal of the Sioux from Minnesota which Congress decreed in 1863, a wound that is yet to heal, as the controversy surrounding Sam Durant’s “Scaffold” recently showed. In the context of such tragedy, it is upsetting to think of the seemingly innocent carte-de-visite as the way the photographer cashed in on white Americans’ fascination with the Others whose way of life their government was destroying. It is, however, also necessary to look to such images as a reminder that evil has long been done in the name of national interests and that photography was as suspect at its inception as it is today, in the age of fake news and truthiness.
Which brings us to the second way in which the show reveals its relevance to the present moment of technological excitement and unease. It details the anxiety Americans felt about paper photography as a new medium which had great potential for promoting communication, but seemed all too open to manipulation. An astonishing fact is buried in one of the exhibition’s object labels: in the 1850s, forgeries made up to 40% of all paper currency circulating in the US! The exhibition’s title, Paper Promises, comes from a pejorative term used at the time for untrustworthy paper money, and the exhibition argues compellingly that the advent of paper photography in the US was slowed by fears that it would worsen the problem of counterfeiting.
Concerns about the manipulability of paper photography were also linked to larger anxieties about fraud in social life. “The flipside of the American dream [is] the American scheme,” a wall text pithily observes in describing the portrait of the “confidence operator” Amos Leeds, a puckish character who calls to mind the Duke from Huckleberry Finn. The catalogue too offers a remarkable period quote: “Counterfeiting, in social life, is…as rampant as the financial. …Counterfeiting seems to prosper in these latter days, the world over. Knaves counterfeit honest men, and despots counterfeit a love of liberty.”
In our own moment of mounting anxiety about the trustworthiness of digital imagery crafted by knaves and despots, seeing Paper Promises is oddly comforting in that it suggests that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Fake news, sensationalistic click bait, a deluge of unreliable information, and social media echo chambers are all real present-day dangers, but, as the exhibition clearly demonstrates, as a culture, we have already coexisted for a long time with representational technologies that make us uneasy even if we can no longer imagine ourselves without them.
These technologies undoubtedly have winners and losers. For every Amos Leeds bent on cheating others with a fake facade and for every Native person whose visage gets co-opted and sensationalized, there is also a Theodore Ferris, able to enter the historic record, and a Harriet Hosmer, able to project a persona of her own making. More insidiously, these technologies, in their many protean purposes, have the capacity to undermine individuals’ trust in a stable social order — in the belief that people are who they say they are or that as inhabitants of a single country, we all share a set of fundamental beliefs and a baseline reality. Yet looking at the protagonists of Paper Promises as residents of a dividied country headed towards a bloody Civil War, I cannot help but think that the heightened anxiety that new technologies of representation elicit may, — if acknowledged and examined, — be a blessing in disguise. Without setting out to do so, paper photography captured and made visible the symptoms of some of America’s greatest upheavals. If it, as all such new technologies, made people doubt their certitidues, it’s probably because they deserved to be questioned in the first place.
Paper Promises: Early American Photography continues at the J. Paul Getty Museum (1200 Getty Center Dr, Los Angeles) through May 27.