The picture book of industrial America: S&R honors Andreas Feininger

When we here at S&R honor someone in our masthead, we’re paying tribute to a figure whose career we respect, even revere. But we’re usually telling you more about ourselves than we are the subject being discussed. Such is the case with Andreas Feininger, who today claims our 54th mast. Honestly, I don’t have anything to tell you that you can’t find by Googling his name. Born in Paris to American parents of German descent. Abandoned architecture for photography. Became one of the world’s foremost shooters. Wrote one of the most highly respected books on the subject of photography. Etc.

In most cases, our tribute posts rely on words to explain something of the subject’s place in the Scroguely canon. To that end, I’d like to explain in great technical and scholarly detail the place Feininger occupies in the history of photography. I’m not sure I’m qualified, though. I have long been a fan of the genre, and have lately taken up the process of trying to capture some of the magnificence of the world around me. But that doesn’t make me an expert.

What I can say, though, is that Andreas Feininger is one of the reasons I decided to buy a camera. The starkness of his vision, the ways in which he bent light and shadow to the task of telling a complex story about industry in America, his knack for showing us what was there, before our eyes, in a fashion that connoted far more than it denoted, these qualities inspired me as I’m sure they have inspired legions before me.

The poet inside me worshipped Yeats, and even though I knew I’d never be that good – nobody could ever be that good – he was nonetheless the standard I tried to strive toward. As I now set off to learn the magic of pictures the way a younger version of me did words, Feininger is my new Yeats.

As a writer, I’m dying to say more. But maybe it’s time to shut up and show, don’t tell.

Finally, what I believe is the most stunning photograph I have ever seen: Route 66, Arizona, 1953. The poster has been hanging on my wall for several years.

Image Credits: Fascie Populi, Lo Bueno Si Breve, Nature’s Pencil, George Eastman House, The Guardian, Japanorama, and Jantelagom. To view the source page, mouseover and click on the image.

11 replies »

  1. What’s really interesting about these shots is the high level of contrast. Nowadays, you can get these effects in post, but these were taken in the analog age when any effect you wanted had to be a combination of film, shooting technique, processing, and dodging and burning in an enlarger’s beam.

    My guess (and I should read his book) is that he’s using colored filters to get his contrasty look, as well as shooting on PanX or some other high-contrast film. The Texaco/sky photo is clearly shot with a filter, as you can tell by looking at the blackness of the sky and shadow detail in the clouds. I’d guess it’s at least an orange filter, and maybe even red. Same with the high-contrast skyline shot (perhaps a yellow filter) with the ships/ferry almost black in the lower part — though he was aided a bit by what looks to be the sun’s low-angle backlighting. So maybe a filter wasn’t necessary for that shot.

    BTW, that first photo? You can walk up Wells Street in Chicago, today, and except for the type of automobile, it looks pretty much the same.

    • I barely understand the complexity of what AF had to do to get these shots other than “that looks hard,” but your assessment is probably pretty close. It was a whole ‘nother world then, and you wonder what he’d have made of my new D90 and Photoshop and Photomatix and all the other digital tools out there. Maybe he’d have embraced it (Adams apparently was in favor of new technologies) or maybe he’d have been a purist.

      In any case, the work is remarkable and I’m planning on buying two Feininger books shortly. First, I just want a collection of his photography. Second, I want his how-to book. Already scoping them at Tattered Cover. I hope to learn a thing or two that takes me closer to his level of excellence.

  2. On my first trip to Alaska, Panatomic X and a red filter were my best friends. Of course, that meant lugging a tripod up glaciers and mountainsides. ISO 32 and a filter factor of 3 stops meant long exposures, even in the glare of Alaskan sun reflecting off ice.

    I revered Pan X in part because of the fine grain, but also because that grain pattern was so damn even throughout the negative.

    Feininger’s Texaco photo has always been one of my favorites.

    A fine choice, Sam.

  3. A red filter lets through more light on the red end of the spectrum while blocking light on the blue end. Therefore, blue sky and shadows (which are in the blue area) turn out darker in B&W than the warmer, more reddish hues. So, you increase shadow contrast a LOT with a red filter. There are gradations, as well: orange filter, yellow filter, and stuff in between. B&W photographers used to use green filters to let in more green light relative to the ends of the spectrum, which lightened foliage in their shots relative to other colors.

    As Doc points out, though, these filters really decrease the amount of total light coming through the lens, too, so that you need wider apertures and longer shutter speeds to get enough light onto the sensor for any given ISO. As Doc also points out, the old PanX film was not only wonderfully contrasty, with a fine grain pattern, but also very, very slow. So, you needed a lot of light and a relatively stable subject, ideally far away if it was going to move at all, to make the slow shutter speeds work.

    If you’re ever interested, I’ll dig out my old Rolleiflex medium format, TLR camera. We’ll load in some PanX 120 film, slap on some of the filters I have for it, and give you a taste for how that worked back in the day.

  4. His father, Lyonel, was an amazing artist, and the Feininger Museum in Quedlinburg, Germany, is an astonishing place–it started out, I believe, as the collection of 400 paintings and whatnot that were seized by the German government in the 1930s as “degenerate art.” He also was a photographer, but never showed his work publicly while alive. This is some family.

  5. Actually, Sam, to my way of thinking, manual cameras are the perfect way to learn, because you make a lot of mistakes that teach you how not to make them again. Film is expensive, true, but that just makes the learnin’ all that much more effective.