New York Photo Review
NYPR Archives - 2010

Before the War

Our Future is in the Air
Unknown British Photographer, 1917

Interesting above all for their historical interest, the photographs in the “Our Future is in the Air” exhibit at the Metropolitan serve chiefly to remind us of photography’s power as an art of time. Although, as my companion of the afternoon observed, the show does not in the least restrict itself to the 1910’s, it does provide an intriguing selection of images taken in the first twenty-odd years of the century, a period of events and inventions both astounding and cataclysmic. And the camera, like a lover from whom history will never again be parted, is there by its side.

And so we have (in a startling image) the camera at Nevsky Prospect recording the beginnings of the Russian Revolution, the camera hiding in the trenches of World War I, the camera genuflecting at the funeral of Leo Tolstoy, the camera celebrating the amusements of the rich and lamenting the condition of the poor, the camera following in the wake of cubist and futurist radicalisms, and finally the camera turning on its operator to witness mental breakdown and terminal depression.

In fact, by 1910 I exist therefore I am photographed is axiomatic and extended to just about everyone and everything.

So much so that inventors, such as the Wright brothers, made sure their work was documented photographically, as it is in a little gem included in the exhibit. The x-ray, the cinema, and the automobile, to name a few, are present as well, duly witnessed by the camera which now gives people and things their certificate of authenticity.

 by unidentified photographer.
W.P. Mayfield, Untitled (Orville Wright), c 1913

In the next door sister show, Alfred Stieglitz, photography’s most earnest champion, repeats his famous claims for photography as art. Yet, the 1910 show makes it clear just how powerful photography is as photography. With or without a photographer.

The more I think about it, the more I realize how simply amazing it is that the light reflecting off someone’s face at a precise moment in time should result in their likeness– and not a mere approximation but a breathing resemblance from which life emanates a hundred years hence. In one group photo taken in the early years of the century, for example, a little girl, “looking as if she were alive” enchants with her vitality and charm. Only photography can do this so utterly, utterly convincingly. Moreover, it can do it by itself, mechanically, without a human operator. No medium I am familiar with harnesses the power of nature as directly as photography, using the optics of light itself to create images here, there, or on the moon.

While some of the images in the exhibit are interesting from an esthetic point of view, virtually all are interesting from a historical one. As a reminder of how solidly entrenched in our culture the media was so early on, this compact, clever show succeeds nicely; as a demonstration of photography’s miraculous alliance with time even more.

In many ways offering greater insight into the nature of the medium than does the big Strand Stieglitz Steichen show next door, Our Future is in the Air is worth more than a few moments of your time.

Our Future is in the Air

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