Balancing the Books for John Moran, Art Photographer

John Moran, photographer. "Nos. 114 & 116 N. Water St., 1868," ( Library of Philadelphia)
John Moran, photographer. “Nos. 114 & 116 N. Water St., 1868,” ( Library of Philadelphia)

Despite John Moran’s best efforts, Mary Panzer told us, his “photographs were never considered art. His audience believed that art was historical and made by hand, whereas photography was scientific and made by machines. In 1903, the year Moran died, Alfred Steiglitz won the battle to establish photography as a fine art, but by that time, Moran’s work was long forgotten, shelved as topography by the same audience who believed Moby Dick was a book about whales.”

What did they say about Moran, the photographer in a family of painters? His brief New York Times obituary confirmed Moran’s role as “one of the pioneer photographers of this country” but instead of crediting him with American art photography, it noted his role as chief photographer in “the work of the Coast Survey” and his having “made the first pictures of the original route of the Panama Canal” in 1871. It mentioned his participation in the federal expedition to observe the transit of Venus across the face of the Sun. And it mentioned his abandonment of photography and his turn, late in life, to landscape painting.

In 1865, when Alfred Steiglitz was in still in diapers, Moran had connected the ideas of photography and art. In February of that year, he addressed the Philadelphia Photographic Society on “The Relation of Photography to the Fine Arts,” declaring that photography “speaks the same language, and addresses the same sentiments.” Moran noted the need for the photographer’s “perceiving mind to note and feel the relative degrees of importance in the various aspects which nature presents.” Without that, “nothing worthy of the name of pictures can be produced.”

Moran had collected his small landscapes made in and around Philadelphia in the early 1860s and became known as “a young Nature artist.” In fact, he would make aesthetic choices with everything he touched. During the Civil War, Moran’s photographs of the Mower General Hospital were more than a record, they were expressive, lush and rich. By the end of the decade, images he and brother Thomas made in the Wissahickon Valley helped inspire the city of Philadelphia to add it to the expanding Fairmount Park.

In the late 1860s, Moran put his ideas of to work on the streets of historic Philadelphia. He searched for scenes that re-framed the past as an aesthetic, not merely as anecdote. At a time of great growth, massive industrialization and diminishing history, Moran relished the textures and sensibilities of the city’s oldest streets and alleys. Between 1867 and 1870, he and his 6-by-9-inch wet-plate camera and wooden tripod were picture-making fixtures. Again and again, Moran blocked out the modern and focused in on the past, offering it renewed life. The results were compelling. Moran mounted 78 of his prints in an album entitled A Collection of Photographic Views in Philadelphia & its Vicinity and sold it to the Library Company of Philadelphia. Their accession book confirms the purchase from “John Moran, artist.”

John Moran, photographer, "Water St. below Vine, 1868" ( Library of Philadelphia)
John Moran, photographer, “Water St. below Vine, 1868” ( Library of Philadelphia)

There’s a goodly stash of Moran prints from this series at the Free Library Print Department and at The two gems illustrated here are only a tip of the iceberg. In one small part of town now-long obliterated by I-95 Moran photographed Queen Street, Swanson Street at Christian and the “Ship Joiner” shop at 757 Swanson.

In all, Moran probably made as many as 100 views of the city in the late 1860s. But that was it. He would soon be drawn into the life of an expedition photographer for the federal government. By the time he returned to Philadelphia, Moran’s ideas about art had been tested and his confidence was even more firm. In June and again in October of 1875, Moran shared with his colleagues at the Photographic Society his “Thoughts on Art Nature and Photography” and his “Reflections on Art.”

The photographer has “the power to see the beautiful,” declared Moran (his remarks appeared in The Philadelphia Photographer) but “good work cannot be produced unless the workman has the instincts, feelings and education akin to those of the artist.” The best photographs are “quickened to life by their own spirit and intelligence…speaking the universal language of art.” As “a realistic art” photography “is a translator…and we, the translators, ought to look to it that we take noble themes, not false and artificial subjects…” Moran observed: “art in all its forms if the form of thought, and the photographic work that rises to this plane, is the expression of the photographer.”

So, how is Moran’s “discovery” of expression in photography accounted for today? One measure, of course, is the art marketplace. A few years ago, Christie’s auction house sold a Moran of the Bank of Pennsylvania. Never mind that the cataloger misidentified the scene as construction (it’s a demolition). The sale, $32,000, broke the record for a Moran.

How does this compare with Stieglitz? At recent Christie’s sales, six Stieglitz prints fetched more than $200,000 each. The priciest of these, was a view from the back window of the 291 gallery, the place where Stieglitz successfully promoted photography as art. That print brought $363,750, more than ten times what Moran’s did, but hardly a record. “Top Stieglitz photographs have sold for more than $1 million,” shrugged The Wall Street Journal.

Looks like it’ll be a while before the books of photographic history get balanced properly.