Photography from the Depression to the Digital Age

By Bruce Poli


The evolution of photography in the 20th century cannot be told without the great influence of publications, galleries and museums. Critics, curators and educators played a major role as well.

Among the most important voices was John Szarkowski, Director of Photography at MOMA. In his book Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960, he describes the ‘realist’ image maker:

“‘It is the realist view that the world exists independent of human attention, that it contains discoverable patterns of intrinsic meaning, and that by discerning these patterns, and forming modes of symbols of them with the materials of his art, the artist is joined to a larger intelligence’”

So photography followed a century of progression as a craft from portraiture through photojournalism and art, eventually taking an electronic turn in equipment and digital with images. And of course today we have the iPhone, so everyone can be a photographer.

The first ‘photo gallery’ (presenting major photographers’ work as art) was a small West Village Café and Gallery called the Limelight run by Helen Gee who lived on Jane Street until her death at 85 in 2004. She displayed the works of W. Eugene Smith, Weegee, Robert Frank, and Bernice Abbott and Lisette Model (Both lived at 55 Grove diagonally across Sheridan Square from the Limelight, which is now Jekyll and Hyde.)

Andre Kertesz, Harold Feinstein, Model and Abbott were among the West Village residents known to the photography world.

Ken Poli’s involvement in photography spanned the century from the Depression—when Alfred Stieglitz was a major figure—through the introduction of Kodachrome in 1936, onto war photography (he served in New Guinea and the Philippines), and into the heyday of photojournalism (Alfred Eisenstaedt, Eddie Adams, Mary Ellen Mark, Gordon Parks, Carl Mydans), art photography (Man Ray, Minor White, Duane Michaels), and fashion (Richard Avedon, Irving Penn et al); then into the modern sexy celebrity portrait arena of Annie Leibovitz, Herb Ritts and Helmut Newton. Beyond that comes our 21st Century—the digital era, almost post-photography, when the definitions get blurred.

With breathtaking speed we are now in the era of everyman as photographer. The iPhone has virtually replaced the standard camera for the social networking culture of today. Serious photographers still use cameras, but the world of instant gratification demands instant photographs. The innovation that was Polaroid (where my father nearly worked) has been replaced by the free, super instant, super gratifying selfie.

Following the development of photography in the 20th and 21st centuries allows us to follow the advancement of human evolution and gives us a hint of where we’re going and at what speed.

I think we better all get out of the way…

These are Ken Poli’s thoughts on the subject:

Some thoughts about photography:

It is not an art. It is a medium of expression–like music. There are lullabies, folk music, pop music, jazz, symphonies. A means of expression to shoot many tastes.

A good photograph is music for the eyes. How to handle cameras and manipulate image qualities can be taught. But how to make a photograph art can only be learned. It must be conceived in the head of the photographer.

The best photography, like the best music, therefore bears an individual Point of view. It should be something that the photographer has seen that most others may not have noticed. It could be a fleeting expression captured in a portrait, a small detail from a wide landscape, and intriguing, accidental gathering of components in an otherwise banal scene.

What is a good photograph? Any photograph is a good one. To somebody. You wouldn’t have taken yours if you didn’t think it was good.

So, picking a good photograph is like picking up a drop of mercury with your fingers. I can’t teach you what a good one is today because I believe that photographic seeing can be learned but not. You can learn from books or other people the tools that are available to you to make, manipulate, and improve what you were trying to say in your picture. But what you want to say and how you say are entirely up to you.

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