I have spent the last week looking at the work of Adam Clark Vroman. I have long been interested in how the work of late nineteenth and early twenty century landscape photographers have dictated my own, if not others views of the West. Vroman is a kind of link between the early western expansion and survey photographers of Jackson, O’Sullivan, and Hillers and the later more sentimental landscape works of Weston, and Ansel. Take a good look at the landscape work of Vroman and you will see what I mean.
image from the Andrew Smith Gallery
Vroman was not a professional photographer, at least not by today’s silly standard of making more than half your money from photography. Vroman instead owned a bookstore in Pasadena California (which is still open by the way) and he often made trips to the Southwest over a period of ten years photographing landscapes and portraits. His photos he mainly gave away to friends, subjects, writers, and other intellectuals with an interest in the Southwest. Most of his prints were platinum and he never exhibited them.
Now a hundred years later he has become quite a historical figure in photography. HIs prints are bought and collected on a regular basis.
Vroman spent years photographing the Hopi and the Navajo at a time when Western tourism was rearing its ugly head for the first time. The hand held camera had recently democratized photography to the general masses and tourists were likely to pay Natives for a chance to photograph them. By 1902 Hopi Indians had actually restricted photographers to a small area during their their Snake dance. Whether or not Vroman was considered part of the problem still remains a mystery to me. The way he describes photographing a Native portrait seems to be more of an exchange of conversation, description, patience, and eventually prints from the session, seems to me to remove him from that category of camera toting tourist and put him into a documentary / ethnographic category.
The Vroman collection consists of 2400 negatives, mostly glass plate, and a selection of original prints. The collection was purchased by the Los Angeles County schools audio visual division and promptly forgotten about until 1957.
I find the work of Vroman quite beautiful, much as I find the work of Adams, Weston, and Strand beautiful. But my mind stops there on this kind of work. I find it meditative and I marvel at the technical prowess of the photographers, especially during a time of limited technology. I have spent more than my fair share of time working in large format out in the field and even today wit the advances in film and darkroom, it is still a laborious process, but that is part of the reason I do it. It slows me down.
I see this type of work still being made. Take a look at Flickr or even the APUG group and you will see it by the thousands. I even make work that echoes the sentiments of this type of work but I have a much greater task in mind. I want people to question this type of work and the effect that it has upon our sentiments. I want people to understand the power this type of photography has over us and its virtues as well as its downfalls. I need the viewer to think, not just meditate.