When choosing today’s photographer I have to admit, I have been a little lazy. It’s just one day before my self-set deadline and I have a ton of other things to do today. I’ve been squandering my own time on reading up on large format wet plate photography plus all the trouble one can run into and was startled to discover it was already Thursday. So I randomly picked one off the list – hope you enjoy. Should you be interested, you can read up on my wet plate adventures on www.yvettebessels.com.
Frank Eugene Smith was born on the 19th of September 1865 in New York City. His father was Frederick Smith, a German baker who changed his last name from Schmid after moving to America in the late 1850s. His mother was Hermine Selinger Smith, a singer who performed in local German beer halls and theaters.
In 1886 he moved to Munich in order to attend the Academy of Fine Arts. He studied drawing and stage design and took his first steps into photography. After he graduated he started a career as a theatrical portraitist, drawing portraits of actors and actresses. He continued his interest in photography, although little is known of his teachers or influences.
He returned to the United States, and in 1899 he exhibited photographs at Alfred Stieglitz‘ Camera Club in New York under name Frank Eugene. The critic Sadakichi Hartmann wrote a review of the show, saying “It is the first time that a truly artistic temperament, a painter of generally recognized accomplishments and ability asserts itself in American photography.”
A year later he was elected to The Linked Ring, and fourteen of his prints were shown that year in a major London exhibition. At this stage in his career he had already developed a highly distinctive style that was influenced by his training as a painter. He assertively manipulated his negatives with both scratches and brush strokes, creating prints that had the appearance of a blend between painting and photography. In the summer of 1900 an entire issue of Camera Notes was devoted to his art, an honor accorded only a few other photographers.
After traveling to Egypt in 1901, in late 1902 Eugene became a Founder of the Photo-Secession and a member of its governing Council. In 1906 Eugene moved permanently to Germany. He was recognized there both as a painter and a photographer, but initially he worked primarily with prominent painters such as Fritz von Uhde, Hendrik Heyligers, Willi Geiger, and Franz Roh. He photographed many of these and other artists and designed tapestries that he used as backgrounds in his photographs.
One year later he became a lecturer on pictorial photography at Munich’s Lehr-und Versuchs-anstalt fur Photographie und Reproduktions-technik (Teaching and Research Institute for Photography and the Reproductive Processes). At this point, photography rather than painting became his primary interest. He experimented with Autochromes, and three of his color prints were exhibited at Alfred Stieglitz’s Photo-Secession Galleries in New York. In 1910 twenty-seven of his photographs were exhibited at a major exhibition in Buffalo, New York. The catalog for this show described Eugene as the first photographer to make successful platinum prints on Japan tissue.
More than any other photographer of the early 20th century, Eugene was recognized as the master of the manipulated image. Photographic historian Weston Naef described his style this way:
- “The very boldness with which Eugene manipulated the negative by scratching and painting forced even those with strong sympathy for the purist line of thinking like White, Day and Stieglitz to admire Eugene’s particular touch…[he] created a new syntax for the photographic vocabulary, for no one before him had hand-worked negatives with such painterly intentions and a skill unsurpassed by his successors.”
In 1913 he was appointed Royal Professor of Pictorial Photography by the Royal Academy of the Graphic Arts of Leipzig. This professorship, created especially for Eugene, is the first chair for pictorial photography anywhere in the world. Two years later Eugene gave up his American citizenship and became a citizen of Germany. He continued teaching for many years and was head of the photography department at the Royal Academy until it closed in 1927.
Eugene died of heart failure in Munich in 1936.
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