Photo History; Myths and Legends Part 2
A while back a friend gave us a photo book; “E.O. Hoppe’s Amerika”. I’d never heard of Hoppe though the book’s author said that he was one of the most famous photographers of his time. Given that I had by then read as many histories of photography that I had, well, I found that rather odd. It was the quality of his photographs though, that compelled me to think about Hoppe’s absence from these histories.
Hoppe was German born but a British citizen and a contemporary of Alfred Stieglitz. A successful portrait photographer in England he came to the U.S. to open a portrait studio in New York City and made several trips across the country, making a sort of photo portrait of the land and the people that were new to him. In fact, he did something remarkably similar to what Robert Frank did some 30 year later that produced Frank’s book “The Americans.” Though the concept was not completely new it was Hoppe who was the first to put it into practice in America. [2}
To get the importance of the discussion, you must look at Hoppe’s work from his American excursions. Bold, dramatic, compositionally experimental, all of these things are evident, especially in his city work. A nation of steel and glass was what the cities were proclaiming with innovative architecture and an industrial, and not pastoral key. Hoppe was brilliantly modernistic in his photographic approach, even using out of focus elements in his city work where and how they had not been used before, (at least not on purpose.) His images include street portraits made with the full awareness of his subjects (unlike the famous series from Strand) and they include out-of-work men, Jews, blacks, immigrants, Native Americans : Noble heads these.
Hoppe was a full blown Modernist, especially in the city work, utilizing the “modern” camera’s mobility, speed, and ability to capture quality negatives that earlier photographers, with earlier and less developed equipment, would have had a harder time capturing. His work parallels the work of those we identify as the premier photographers of the Modernist movement, Stieglitz, Strand, Frank Eugene, etc. He was well known, published many books and was widely exhibited in this country. as well as his own.
So why is he relatively absent from the history of photography? Here’s a suggestion. The photo-secessionists noted above were immersed in a “battle” to gain the stature for photography as a fine art. Because galleries and salons and art critics had been either reluctant to or adamant in refusing to grant such status to photography, that also meant that those photographers who considered themselves artists also felt snubbed by the fine arts establishment. The “good” galleries would not show photographs. Stieglitz is credited in many accounts as the chief warrior for such a change in status, especially in those accounts he himself makes. Hoppe, on the other hand, could care less about the whole controversy, and this did not ingratiate him with Stieglitz and his little circle. With New York City as the self-proclaimed center of the American art scene, Stieglitz took on the role of Guru/Godfather/Prophet, in regards to the place of photography as art in America. Those who, like Hoppe, were focused more on the craft itself , (and making a living at it), rather than their identity or status as “artists” tended to get lost or buried in the chronicles of the historians who took this sense of the battle for art photography very seriously.
All this is making me think again about the issue of photography as a fine art, but as well to a more fundamental question of the meaning of fine art as a concept. We have several friends who are what we call “clay people”. They do ceramics and we happily own some of their pieces. For many, pottery is considered a lesser art than let us say, painting. But what does that mean? It may mean something to galleries marketing art. It may determine relative financial value for the work itself. That clay work requires less skill and craft than painting or printmaking is simply not true, however, and the art market often looks a lot like the stock market, including big doses of speculation with future values in mind.
The Stieglitz camp’s obsession with status as fine art was also matched with their earnest efforts to make as fine of photographs as possible, with their own focus on craft and technique. In this they were completely at one with those like Hoppe who tried to be the best photographers that they could be.
Certainly one of the most enjoyable and intriguing aspects of film photography is the absolute requirement of good technique, and as Kathy and I dig deeper into the craft of it we are continually replenished by the nearly bottomless well of possibilities. Nothing in this commitment to craft and technique is antithetical to the creation of art. In fact, it is absolutely essential to it.
 E. O. Hoppe’s Amerika, Modernist Photography From The 1920’s. by Phillip Prodger.,2007, New York, W.W. Norton & Company
 Romantic America: Picturesque United States (New York: B. Westermann Co., Inc., 1927) and Das Romantische Amerika (Berlin: Ernst Wasmuth AG., 1927)