Over the course of the Spring 2016 semester, students in ART 3573: History of Photography are visiting the OSU Museum of Art four times, seeing over 65 works from the permanent collection up close. Each visit, they select one work to research further. This spring and summer, the blog features outstanding examples of students’ research and writing about the works they chose. Our goals are to contribute to public awareness of the OSUMA’s photography collection, and to increase our knowledge about that collection. This week’s post is by Codee Classen.
Adolphe Braun (French, 1812- 1877) was most recognized for his still life photos and his intent to mass market them. He is one of the most notable links between art and commercialism during the 19th Century. A casual viewer looking at the Étude d’après nature (Study from Life) may not immediately make the connection to commercialism and consumerism representative of Braun’s usual work. The albumen print depicts a mature, but youthful Herefordshire bull. Likely purchased by ranchers, farmers, or those involved in the agricultural fields, Braun’s photograph appears to be not much more than an animal standing still; however, having some knowledge of ranching practices would allow the viewer to understand that it was more likely a photograph used to market the animal for sale.
The first thing that points to Braun’s photo being used as an advertisement for the sale of this bull is his own history as a commercially inclined photographer. Though often focused on still-life prints, Braun apparently ventured outside his normal countryside compositions to take this. He ran his entire studio as a business, doing everything but printing his own paper, so he likely approached the majority of his subjects in a manner consistent with “if it’s good for business”—meaning, if someone were able to pay him as a commercial photographer by the sale of this bull, he’d be happy to help.
Secondly, the manner in which the Hereford is standing is still a common style of posing market cattle today. This profile view of the animal, legs spread apart as if it is preparing to move forward, head slightly pulled up by the nearly invisible lead rope, is one of the most effective methods of showing off the potential and breeding quality of the cattle. If the audiences of Braun’s time were looking for entertainment, this isn’t the style of photograph that they’d be looking at—but the educational and commercial values of the photograph remain.
Study from Life gives viewers a few clues as to the size and scale of the subjects. The bull is seen in front of a building, but far enough from it that one cannot tell from that alone the size or age of the animal depicted. Since it is likely this photograph was used as a sales pitch, viewers would have come across it either on a flyer or in a cattleman’s book at auction. The fragile state of the albumen silver print today may be due in part to its age as well as the materials used to print. Though albumen was a much more cost-effective method to mass produce photographic prints such as those Braun was known for, it was also a frail material if over- exposed to light. The albumen would yellow and distort the original quality of the photo.
Adolphe Braun’s Study from Life is an early example of the documentation of market animals in a manner that has carried on for centuries. The small and subtle details in the photograph – the rapidly swishing tail, shown only in a blur, and the slight but still present texture of the wrinkles and veins in the bull’s hide – show how much photography advanced from its inception until Braun’s era and from Braun until today. Those small things that are often overlooked or simply not present in today’s photography because of the super fast shutter speeds and zoom lenses are the things that make this photograph so impressive. Historically speaking, this image of a Hereford bull was probably not used to show prospective clients, “See how much more accurate photography is than hand drawing? You can see the bull swat the fly with his tail!”—but that detail is exactly what allows us to infer that this image is indeed more than just an animal standing still.
Naomi Rosenblum, John Hannavy (ed.), Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. 1 (Routledge, 2007), pp. 203–204.