Out Of The National Attic


One day in the mid-1840’s, old John Quincy Adams, then congressman from Massachusetts, sat motionless, bolt upright, for a full sixty seconds while a young man named Mathew Brady took his daguerreotype. We can see the bald, bullet head sunk into the upright collar of the time, the eyes staring clearly out of the deep-lined face, the actual look of a tired old man whose work was done. Although Brady photographed Andrew Jackson and John Tyler about the same time, Adams was the earliest President who ever faced a camera. With him, the scales fall off the eyes of our history.

How different it might, quite easily, have been! The camera obscura, a device which brought an image through a pinhole onto a piece of paper, to aid in sketching, was known to Leonardo da Vinci, who died in 1519. In the same century, lenses, correcting mirrors and even a portable box were added to this artist’s device, which lacked only a method of preserving the captured image. As it was, as early as 1727, one Johann Schulze discovered the effect of light on silver nitrate. A few men tinkered with his discovery, and there seems to be good evidence that one Joseph Nicéphore Niepce of Chalon-sur-Saône succeeded, sometime after 1816, in fixing permanently a number of images, but the first photograph we have today is a picture of a corner of his studio made by a friend of Niepce, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, in 1837. If—and it is a small, understandable if—someone had stumbled on the combination a century earlier we could look on Johnson and Pitt, see Washington and Bonaparte in life, witness the Terror and the American Revolution as they actually happened.

But the date remains 1837. Before that, as far as the pictorial record is concerned, war comes down to us from the Egyptian frieze and the Roman triumphal arch in a stylization which lingers in our own military art, in the delightful crudities of Amos Doolittle and heroic groupings of Benjamin West. Here are the generals, tastefully posturing in dress uniform; there a man leaps forward with the flag; a few paces behind behold a pathetic death scene, the dying man’s friends gathered about him, all of them politely ignored by the enemy. The real face of war, grubby, spread out and poorly arranged from the standpoint of artistic composition, was first glimpsed in the Mexican War by an unknown photographer, and in the Crimea by Roger Fenton, an Englishman who recorded the ports, the dismal battlefields and the groups of generals (most of them named after sweaters, or vice versa) posing in ridiculous cocked hats. There is, of course, no motion, no action. That had to wait for faster film and less cumbersome apparatus.

It was a half century before George Eastman began to place an easily operated camera in the hands of an army of amateurs, and a little longer than that before the photograph was widely used in print—in newspapers, magazines and books. In the meanwhile, the national attic filled up with photographs, daguerreotypes, stereopticon views and other pictorial materials which were never published, or seen by very few. Much of this treasure trove, alas, has been swept away, but a great deal remains—hi private hands, in museums, in the archives of local historical societies, in the vast Library of Congress. It has been leaking out more and more in recent years, in the form of picture histories.

This year’s crop of such books is the most impressive yet. Never was there such a display of American history even if, on close inspection, the range of subject is rather narrow. There are two books on Buffalo Bill, two on the Model T Ford and at least a dozen on the West. The Civil War, antique automobiles, and railroading, all regular favorites, are represented, making it painfully clear that the authors, or the publishers at any rate, are not very venturesome.

By their very nature, picture books must be subject to different standards of criticism from those applied to the purely written word. For one thing, any given word may be used time and again by author after author without risk of becoming tiresome. For another, it makes very little difference how well the written word is printed, or how tastefully the pages are arranged; both of these matters, however, are important in picture books. The successful picture historian is the one who taps at least one new or forgotten archive. Beyond this he must have some knowledge of design and layout, and know how to organize related scenes and present what he has found.

He must learn how to write text and captions which move along with the pictures, placing them in his argument so that the book reads smoothly, neither too endlessly detailed nor too superficial. Captions which merely bark “Oil!” or “Sanctuary” or “Texas Is Big” only serve to infuriate, and the day is past when the author can get away with placing his pictures helterskelter, or tucking them away in a special section, sending the reader after them with commands to hunt down Fig. 4 or Plate XXVII.

Certain limitations are forced naturally upon picture books, especially those which depend primarily on photographs. The still camera can record action, anger, laughter, war, peace and a thousand exterior manifestations of things. It can only approximate how and why and philosophical concepts, and there are many doors, of mind and spirit, through which it cannot penetrate at all.