François Brunet is Professor of Art and Literature of the United States at the Univ. Paris Diderot/Institut Universitaire de France. We would like to thank him for contributing this post to the Kansas Memory blog describing his interest in, and use of, the Robert Taft Collection at the Kansas Historical Society.
It has been about thirty years since I started reading Robert Taft’s Photography and the American Scene: A Social History 1839-1889, a book published in 1938 that was the first comprehensive history of photography in the U.S. and that stands, to this day, as a major reference for the field. Robert Taft (1894-1955) was a professor of chemistry at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, and a man of many talents. Starting in the late 1920s, Taft embarked on extensive researches into the history of Kansas photography—later expanding his scope to the West and then American photography generally—, as well as the history of Western illustration (to which he devoted his second book, Artists and Illustrators of the Old West, 1953). His Photography and the American Scene is not, as sometimes assumed, a mere compendium of facts and anecdotes about 19th-century American photography, nor a mere “popular” version of the much better-known history of photography as art published at just about the same time by Beaumont Newhall. Taft’s book is an invitation to approach, collect, and interpret the enormous visual documentation of American life bequeathed by 19th-century photographers, much of which remained, in 1938, largely forgotten or beyond access, and which is now, more than ever, a rich field for discovery and rediscovery. Finally, Taft’s book was an ambitious attempt to trace and interpret what he called the “influence” of photography and photographs on American life and American history, and as such it forms today a very important precursor to later studies of the power of images in American culture and, more broadly, the history of the mass media in this country.
While my initial interest in Taft was motivated by his detailed investigations of the role of photography in documenting the 19th-century surveys of the West—my own Ph.D. dissertation topic—, more recently I have become interested in the larger issues of photography’s evolving role in the writing of American history or histories. For this topic Photography and the American Scene is an important landmark, and not only because it explores many aspects of the medium’s relationship to social and cultural American history, as opposed to the better-known artistic achievement of the medium. The book and its hundreds of footnotes reveal the extent of Taft’s research in 19th-century archives and, even more importantly, his assiduous correspondence with hundreds of period witnesses, descendants of photographers, collectors, archivists, curators, local historians, and other interested parties, who, in the 1930s and 1940s, became Robert Taft’s associates and sympathizers in a growing network of grassroots-type historical research on the visual history of America. Thus the book in its final published form may be seen as a reflection of a much larger enterprise, grounded in a wide network, and testifying to an increasing awareness, in the period of the Great Depression and beyond, of photography as a record of American history. That awareness, and the way in which Robert Taft brought it to publicity, is the topic of my current research.
In the 1970s Robert Taft’s children gave their father’s archives to the Kansas Historical Society (KSHS). The Taft collection is very large and includes not only his personal notebooks and research papers but very extensive segments of his correspondence, especially concerning photography. It has, however, rarely been studied or even consulted, perhaps because most academic historians of photography considered Taft’s work mere “popular” history.
I had been contemplating for some time a visit to Topeka in order to finally dive into this unexplored trove, when I learned through colleagues at the Nelson-Atkins Museum, in July 2012, that portions of the collection had been digitized (in late 2010) and published on www.kansasmemory.org in early 2011. What a boon! As I wrote Michael Church, Digital Projects Coordinator, on July 8, 2012, after my first forays into Taft’s “Photography correspondence”:
"I am a historian of American photography working in France, though often also in the USA. I have never visited the KSHS collection in person but I have long wanted to do so in order to explore the papers of Robert Taft, whose Photography and the American Scene and the work leading up to it have been very high on my agenda for some time now. Thus I was baffled and overjoyed to find out, through April Watson and Jane Aspinwall at the Nelson-Atkins Museum, that Taft's photography correspondence had been digitized and made available online. What a truly great service to research you are providing there. I want to congratulate and thank you very warmly. I believe this correspondence is of utmost interest to anyone researching the emergence of a historical consciousness of photography in the period."
Indeed, Taft’s Photography Correspondence provides a fascinating view of Taft’s historical work and, particularly, his slow, patient building of a network of informers and correspondents who, at a time when not only the Internet but even cheap methods of photocopy were not available, enabled the Lawrence professor — who hardly traveled outside of the West — to construct his uniquely rich narrative of photography’s first century in America. On the basis of this correspondence, as well as the research notes (the research notebooks especially) added to Kansas Memory in 2012, I have been able to write two articles that attempt to synthesize my findings, one on the hitherto unknown dialogue between Robert Taft and Beaumont Newhall in 1937-38 (Newhall served as reviewer of Taft’s manuscript for the publisher Macmillan), and the other about Taft’s overlooked interest into the whole topic (and problem) of the modern illustrated mass media, as it was emerging into public debate in the 1930s.*
I will continue this research, with special emphasis on describing the network of Taft’s correspondents and collaborators; and I cannot overemphasize my debt to the Kansas Memory digital archives —although I still hope to visit KSHS in person some time soon. But it is my conviction that there is plenty of material in the Robert Taft collection—concerning photography but also Western illustration—that deserves and awaits the attention of other scholars, and I will be glad if this post can help trigger that attention.
Univ. Paris Diderot/Institut Universitaire de France
* The first article, written in French, was published in a bilingual edition: “Robert Taft in Beaumont Newhall’s Shadow: A Difficult Dialogue between Two American Histories of Photography”, Etudes photographiques 30 (2012), 6-69: (see abstract: http://etudesphotographiques.revues.org/3327 - abstract). The second article is : "Robert Taft, Historian of Photography as a Mass Medium", American Art, 27/2 (Summer 2013), p. 25-32.