Carlebach Book ReviewMichael Carlebach Book Review

Paul Martin Lester, Ph.D.
Department of Communications, H-230
Fullerton, California 92634
FAX: 657.773.2209


Michael J. Carlebach, The Origins of Photojournalism in America. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992. 194 pp.

Let me begin by revealing a few biases: I am a long-time fan, practitioner and teacher of the photographic medium, Michael Carlebach is a respected peer of mine, and I enjoy reading photographic histories especially when I can relate the information to practical, present-day concerns. I am relived to report that Carlebach doesn't disappoint.

Two of the primary issues for today's image makers is the inevitable transition between analog film to digital materials and the associated ethical concerns of the new, electronic medium. (Did Hillary Clinton wear an S&M outfit in the oval office? Did Tanya and Nancy ever skate together? Did Marilyn Monroe really know President Lincoln? - to give a few examples from recent covers). It is no wonder, then, that a book that traces the early history of photojournalism from the daguerreotype introduced in 1839 to the halftone process of 1880 should have so many helpful guidelines for predicting future visual communication challenges because in those 41 years, the photographic medium underwent several major changes:

1) In the technical process - the precious and detailed daguerreotype and the fuzzy, but negative-producing calotype were eventually replaced by the messy, yet beautiful wet-collodion process that was superseded by the practical and modern gelatin dry plate,

2) In photographic publishing - prints simply glued within the pages of a book, as well as tintypes, carte de visites, cabinet and stereocards were replaced by wood and metal engravings based on photographs or expensive and time consuming Woodburytype or collotype printing processes until the halftone process revolutionized image/word production, and

3) In the photographic culture - from itinerant daguerreotype photographers "begging" for sitters to respected Civil War and western documentarians "whose pictures make the world at once familiar and understandable."

Lessons learned and lost by nineteenth century photographers, publishers and consumers have direct bearing at this "hybrid" stage between paper and screen.

The above is not to say that the work doesn't reveal many historical details that are interesting for their own merit. For example, Carlebach drops the acute accent from photography's founder Joseph Niepce because his family members preferred that spelling. (I would rather know the proper pronunciation of his name. Is it Knee-EPPS or simply Neeps, as said by one of my photography professors?) Carlebach reminds us of the roots of the photographer as "animal" with Nathaniel Hawthorne's unflattering description in The House of the Seven Gables. American photographer, John Plumbe was the first to recognize the importance of preserving the famous faces of his day. On May 9, 1844, the first news photograph was taken by William and Frederick Langenheim during a military occupation of Philadelphia (curiously, not chosen for the cover). Stereocards were the equivalent of visual journalism, although the definition of "news" was certainly not as immediate as today. In 1844, Sarah Judd from Stillwater, Minnesota is (much too briefly) mentioned as the first photographer to set up shop in that state. P.T. Barnum, the profiteer added to the credibility of news photographers by investing in a Frank Leslie publication. After Fletcher Harper entered the publishing business, freelance photographers were needed in great numbers. A detailed description of photography and photographers during the Civil War years is included. (It is a much appreciated chapter if, like me, you were disappointed that Ken Burns failed to elaborate on how the images were made during his otherwise excellent documentary). In 1866, Ridgeway Glover was the first photojournalist killed while on an assignment - by Sioux warriors outside of a Wyoming fort. And in the 1870s, Elerslie Wallace gave fellow news photographers and those working today practical advice when he wrote, "Keep cool, don't get over-excited, and work as deliberately as possible."

With over 140 images from several historical collections, the book is not only a good read, but visually stimulating. My only major criticism of the work is that Carlebach never mentions he is working on two more volumes: Photojournalism from 1880 to 1936 (Life magazine's introduction) and Photojournalism from 1936 to the present time. (In a recent telephone conversation, Carlebach revealed his intention to follow up and write the 1880 - 1936 history). Such treatment by a gifted writer, photographer and teacher will be of great value to the photojournalism profession.

Paul Martin Lester, California State University, Fullerton