Information and discussion on all aspects of British photographic history
On 19-20 May, the special edition of The London Photograph Fair returns to The Great Hall at King's College, adjacent to Somerset House. The fair, which coincides with Photo London, is the only established fair devoted to vintage photography in the UK. For this year's edition, Andrew Daneman will present a collection rare photographs of American railroads from the early 1900's.
It was a chance discovery. In 1977, the American photography dealer and collector Andrew Daneman came across a collection of more than 300 beautifully blue toned cyanotypes. The images were of American railroads, trains, wagons, bridges, warehouses, supply stores, tools, workers, stationmasters and their families. While some images were of a documentary character, many others showed the photographer's distinct modernist vision, with surprising angles, close-ups and abstractions, all the hallmarks of the modernist photography championed first by Paul Strand in 1916, then
followed by Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Charles Sheeler, Edward Weston and Walker Evans.
Except, the photographer couldn't possibly have been influenced by the aforementioned masters. There was enough information in these images to make clear that they predated them by at least 10 years. So why weren't these images part of the photographic canon? And was it time to rewrite it?
And who was the photographer? There were no signatures, stamps or identifying information on the back of the prints, except for a few inscriptions, linking them to Wilmington, Delaware. Following some skilled detective work, Daneman finally had a name, Frank Bird Masters (1873-1955). And then it also became clear why Masters had taken the photographs and why they hadn't been included in the history of photography. Daneman explains, "Masters was a highly skilled illustrator. He worked for advertising magazines, book publishers and magazines such as Scribner's and The Saturday Evening Post. He took photographs as inspiration for his illustrations so they were never used for publication or exhibited. In some cases he followed the photographs very closely. In others, he used only specific details for his illustrations."
The images give a fascinating insight into the American railroads in the early 1900s and the people who worked on them. Daneman concludes, "We see throughout Masters' photographic imagery an attraction to dynamic lighting and powerful angles. Even in his recording of these details, though primarily intended as studies, he never relaxes his formal approach to composition. The result is nothing less than modernist abstraction of the highest quality"
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