The explosive development of photography as a medium of untold expressive power and as a primary vehicle of modern consciousness occurred during the two decades immediately following the Great War. In the aftermath of this first totally mechanized conflict, avant-garde artists, commercial illustrators, and journalists turned to photography as if seeking to discover through its mechanisms and materials something of the soul of contemporary industrial society.
Photography’s long-acknowledged power to mirror the face of the world was by no means abandoned, but in the 1920s and ’30s a host of unconventional forms and techniques suddenly flourished. Abstract photograms, photomontages composed of fragmented images, the combination of photographs with modern typography and graphic design in posters and magazine pages—all were facets of what artist and theorist László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946) enthusiastically described as a “new vision” rooted in the technological culture of the twentieth century.
An influential teacher at the Bauhaus in Germany, Moholy-Nagy championed unexpected vantage points and playful printing techniques to engender a fresh rapport with the visible world (1987.1100.499). Other photographers in Germany, such as August Sander (1876–1964) (1987.1100.82) and Albert Renger-Patzsch (1897–1966) (2005.100.147), emphasized a rigorous objectivity grounded in the close observation of detail. And with the advent of the 35mm camera in the early 1930s, photojournalism and street photography became possessed of a new grace, deftness, and mobility.
In France, Surrealism was the gravitational center for avant-garde photography between the wars. Launched in 1924 by the poet André Breton, the Surrealist movement aimed at the psychic and social transformation of the individual through the replacing of bourgeois conventions with new values of spiritual adventure, poetry, and eroticism. Essentially a philosophical and literary movement, Surrealism was greatly indebted to the techniques of psychoanalysis, and Freud’s research into free association and dream imagery. Surrealist photographers made use of such techniques as double exposure, combination printing, and reversed tonality (1987.1100.81) to evoke the union of dream and reality.
In Russia, the Revolution of 1917 imposed transformation through a reordered society. It enlisted the enthusiastic participation of artists like El Lissitzky (1890–1941) and Alexander Rodchenko (1891–1956), who saw in photography the most efficient way to express the dynamic reshaping of their country. In their photographs, they used a repertoire of defamiliarizing devices—extreme up and down angles (1987.1100.5), tilted horizons, fragmentary close-ups, abstracted forms—as part of an attempt to break old habits of perception and visual representation.
The late 1920s saw a series of international exhibitions devoted to New Vision photography. The most significant of these was Film und Foto, an exhibition held in Stuttgart, Germany, in May–July 1929, which included approximately 1,000 works from Europe, the Soviet Union, and the United States.
The rise of Stalinism and Fascism in the 1930s would disillusion and silence many of the photographers associated with the new vision. By turns euphoric and despairing, prey to utopian optimism or deep spiritual disarray, the short period between the two world wars remains one of the richest in photographic history.
Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Part of Emily Dickinson’s traditional mystique derives from her supposed isolation from the world. The image persists of her as a reclusive genius, living in her big house in the sleepy little western Massachusetts town of tending to her garden, and writing out her hundreds of enigmatic little poems on scraps of paper. Her writing seems to have come from nowhere and her verse was like nothing else both in her own time and in American literature. Yet despite her apparent physical and cultural isolation, careful study has found the tracings of the wider society threaded through her mysterious and elliptical poems. Questions of faith and salvation predominate, but current events pop up as well, none more than the Civil War. Dickinson started writing in the late 1850s and there is a sense of a hush in many of her poems as the impending crisis turned into a full-blown war; studies have linked her writing to the effects achieved in landscape painting by the “luminists” and their sense of a foreboding, American sublime. Later her verse would reflect the battle being joined—she saw the dead and casualties being returned to her town; she may have seen illustrations of the battlefield—and then the awful aftermath. In the first stanza of one poem, she laid bare how the reality of war exposed the hollowness of the rhetoric that was used to instigate and justify it:
My Triumph lasted till the Drums
Had left the Dead alone
And then I dropped my Victory
And chastened stole along
To where the finished Faces
Conclusion turned on me
And then I hated Glory
And wished myself were They.
Dickinson may have intended her poem to quietly turn upside down the emotional tone of Walt Whitman’s frenetic “Beat! beat! drums! –Blow! bugles! blow!/Through the windows–through doors–burst like a ruthless force.” Whitman concludes with the dead as well, but only to point out how they are ignored when the ferocious war music sweeps us along, out of ourselves. Dickinson shows us the aftermath and the regret not only for the loss of life but of what war does to the living. Dickinson and Whitman show us two ways of working through the problem of how to mourn and how to gauge the effect that the war was having on Americans. Their point of view—Dickinson distant, Whitman near the front in Washington—inflected their writing, as did other factors such as gender: Dickinson’s is a more private grief; Whitman’s is a poem about propaganda. But both small poems reflect how, to adapt Lincoln’s words, “the war came” to American poetry.
Literary historian Edmund Wilson's influential 1962 book, Patriotic Gore, shows how the war shaped American literature. He writes, in particular, about how the war, in the need for orders to be terse, concise and clear, had an impact on the writing style that would characterize American modernism. To stretch a point, you can trace Ernest Hemingway’s famously terse, descriptive style back to the orders written by generals like Grant or Sherman. But things were still in balance during the war itself as new ways of thinking and writing—the “modern,” if you will—contested with older styles and habits of feeling—the Victorian and sentimental. Yet the boundaries were not clearly drawn at the time. Dickinson inhabited a world of Victorian sentimentality, but infused its musty conventions with the vigor of her idiosyncratic point of view and elliptical style. “My triumph. . .” in lesser hands could have been overwrought and bathetic instead of the carefully calibrated gauge of morality with which Dickinson infused it. Similarly, Whitman, supposedly the preeminent harbinger of modern sensibilities, oscillated between the old and newer cultures. Famously, he wrote two mourning poems for his hero, Abraham Lincoln and they are very different. “O Captain, My Captain” is a fine piece of Victorian melodrama and sentimentality, much anthologized and recited on patriotic public occasions, but read the lines of This Dust was Once the Man:
This dust was once the Man,
Gentle, plain, just and resolute—under whose cautious hand,
Against the foulest crime in history known in any land or age,
Was saved the Union of These States.
Whitman would recite the poem at the conclusion of his public lecture “The Death of Lincoln,” and he grew weary of it. If “O Captain, My Captain” was rooted in the poetic vocabulary of mid-19th-century conventionality, Whitman’s second Lincoln poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” vaulted American poetry toward the future, creating a decisive break, both linguistically and in its cast of mind, with the time in which he wrote. It is a hallucinatory work that is as close as an American poet has ever gotten to Dante’s journey into the Underworld:
Passing the visions, passing the night;
Passing, unloosing the hold of my comrades’ hands;
Passing the song of the hermit bird, and the tallying song of my soul
Victorious song, death’s outlet song, yet varying, ever-altering song,
As low and wailing yet clear the notes, rising and falling, flooding the night . . .
Dickinson and Whitman were two of the most sensitive intelligences in the making of American poetry. That they were conflicted and pulled between the past and the future, only indicates the complexities that were in flux due to the war. Among other writers, from established authors to Americans who turned to poetry as a form of solace in a time of need, older patterns of expression continued to predominate. The over-stuffed furnishings of Victorian literature was a recourse and a comfort to people in great need. Later, Mark Twain, among others, would lampoon that culture and kill it dead in the 1884 "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." (The wreck of the steamboat Sir Walter Scott in the novel is Twain's pointed comment on the end of the sugar-spun world of the romance.) The violence of the war sloughed off all the over wrought, emotionally dramatic Victorian proprieties that evaded the immediate impact of the thing itself. As Americans recoiled from the reality of war, there was a sense of taking stock that in our literature and poetry would result in a more chastened and realistic language, one better suited to assess and describe the world that the War had created.
Like this article?
SIGN UP for our newsletter
About David C. Ward
David C. Ward is senior historian emeritus at the National Portrait Gallery, and curator of the upcoming exhibition “The Sweat of their Face: Portraying American Workers."Read more from this author