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Matinee: 'The History of Photography: Beaumont Newhall' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

23 August 2014

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the forty-seventh in our series of Saturday matinees today: The History of Photography: Beaumont Newhall.

You are five minutes into this 25-minute New Mexico PBS production before Beaumont Newhall appears (and even then you only hear his voice for a bit), but it's worth the wait. Who else can chat about the history of photography, having been there all along?

And chat is exactly what this charming man does through this all-too-short show, one amusing anecdote after another.

His mother, he begins, was a portrait photographer who had a studio on the top floor of their house and made images in the Pictorial style, as he recalls. He was drawn to her darkroom because that's where the magic happened. He loved watching the image come up during development, so much so that he tasted the developer. His horrified mother immediately washed his mouth out.

Enchanted by cinematography, he studied art history at Harvard but the curriculum stopped at 1900 and included nothing about photography at all.

After graduation, he was employed at the Museum of Modern Art hanging a Van Gogh exhibit and soon was invited to put together a show on photography. He thought he'd try to show the history of photography with a survey of the first hundred years of the art. The museum gave him $5,000 to do it, which inspired him to propose to his girlfriend, convinced he had a steady job.

The exhibit was a success and led to his book, The History of Photography, which is still in print. He had created this particular field of study all by himself.

In the video interview, Newhall discusses a few photographers and other subjects after that: Julia Margaret Cameron, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Stieglitz, the Eastman House (where he was curator after World War II), Alden Scott Boyer's daguerreotype collection.

In his autobiography, Ansel Adams devotes a chapter to both the Newhalls, Beaumont and his wife Nancy (yes, she accepted his proposal), herself a noted photography critic. Newhall had taken Adams to task over an early piece of criticism Adams had published. "His criticism was valuable to me, because he taught me the difference between aggressive personal opinion and logical presentation of facts."

Imagine that.

"Photography is an additional opportunity to see the world," Newhall says before the video ends in the kitchen with Newhall making bread. He thanks the crews for coming and invites them back again sometime "to do a real cooking show."

Oh, he wasn't just being modest. He actually published a book of his recipes, Beaumont's Kitchen. And, yes, it too is still in print.

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