So sometimes I look at the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher and think to myself, ‘Someone else must have come up with that idea before 1959, right?’ The Becher’s idea — objective photographs of structures that revealed clever commonalities in their design — is so simple, so straightforward, so utterly modernist that it seems like someone else must have done something of the sort earlier.
A few weeks ago, as I was walking through Huntington curator Jenny Watts’ “A Strange and Fearful Interest: Death, Mourning and Memory in the Civil War,” I saw this wall of photographs. The pictures were taken by Gettysburg-based photographer William H. Tipton between 1885-87. Each photograph is of a different monument or memorial that was placed on the Gettysburg battlefield in the years after the war.
So far as we know, Tipton never once hung his, er, typologies in a grid. They were typically printed for tourists, as cards or as slightly larger prints. The Huntington’s Tiptons run about 12 inches by 7. (Plus it looks like two large-format albums of his pictures were discovered and sold six years ago.)
I’m not suggesting that the Bechers knew about Tipton’s work or saw it. (Though given Germans have long been fascinated by the American Civil War, it’s the kind of thing that’s fun to wonder about.) And Watts’ grid-reliant hanging of Tipton’s work is certainly part of why I thought of the Bechers.
It’s just interesting to see an idea pop up, in a different form, 70 years before we all think of it as popping up. It’s the kind of thing that reminds us not to let our ideas about art, photography and history get too fixed in one place. [Image above: Installation shot from "A Strange and Fearful Interest" by John Sullivan via the Huntington. Below: Tipton, Monument honoring the 57th Pennsylvania Infantry, 1st Brigade, 1st Division, 3rd Corps, ca. 1885. Collection of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.]
Related: See more of Tipton’s monuments at the Huntington’s collection website. They’re pretty fascinating. For some more context: Richard B. Woodward reviewed the show for the WSJ. Watts discussed her exhibition on Episode No. 54 of The Modern Art Notes Podcast. On the Huntington’s Verso blog, Mario Einaudi muses on the Huntington’s Civil War photo collection.