The continuing debate of where photography fits within the art canon has been in existence since photography was first invented at the end of the industrial revolution and has been mentioned and written about more than once in my various blogs. So why does it come up again? Other than the fact that it’s a research area within the flow of this course it’s also necessary to keep visiting this question as art, and what it is, is continually redefined, and so the further acceptance of photography as a higher form of art also has to be redefined, and that only comes from re-asking the question and looking at where it has been, where it is and where it is going.
Art, prior to the advent of photography, was something that only the wealthy could afford and patronise, and the idea of the masses being able to appreciate it was anathema to the classes that supposedly did appreciate it. What was depicted within the paintings and drawings of the time was also pretty well circumscribed by religious belief. Prior to the publication of ‘The Origin of Species’ in 1859 it was common to believe in the genesis of man as told by the bible, and one can only imagine that it would take many years from that publication for the theory to be fully accepted by the public at large, not that the average man in the streets opinion would count for much at that time, we’re talking here about the ruling classes and the church. Both these classes had a vested interest in denying the theory, and prior to publication art was seen as the representation of that belief or to cement the aristocracy and upper classes in their positions of control. But photography couldn’t comply with that order, or at least not easily.
Imagine then a new process that comes along whilst everyone believes in the old structures of church, wealth and power and is able to show a representation of how things really are, not just as how we’d like them to be, and very quickly becomes less expensive to produce an image than having to pay for a very skilled artist to paint your likeness. Add to that soon after its invention, whilst those that have seen it still believe that a photograph cannot lie, exponents of the art start to crate images that weren’t as they’d been seen by the camera, they’d in fact been made up from several images. Nothing unusual in making images that weren’t ‘real’, painters did this all the time, but now not only could the elite see the result the masses could too, and it was of an appearance that wasn’t interpreted by man and applied to canvas, it appeared to be ‘as seen’ in reality. As far as the literati were concerned, this new process must have seemed to be too easily an obtained skill (if they considered it to have any skill at all) and therefore not worthy of the talents of great painters who took many years to refine their gift. It was too accurate in its representation and didn’t require as much compositional thought, and worst of all it was produced by a mechanical/chemical process and didn’t require an artistic touch, and so it was roundly condemned by most. How could religion now control the image that was made? It wasn’t possible as a true representation of God would really be blasphemy (even if one could be obtained, which of course it couldn’t), nor could the wealthy prevent the poorer people from really visualising the differences in station and also from widening their horizons of what constituted the ‘real’ world. In fact photography came along at a moment in history which didn’t do it any favours as far as acceptance as art was concerned, the class status was beginning to undergo massive change as well and photography may well have been viewed by the ruling elite as one of the subversive elements in this change. Finally, with the coming of the mass-produced camera and the ability this gave to everyone to make photographs was the final nail in its coffin as far as art critics were concerned simply because art could not be practised by the masses, could it?
Continually having to justify itself as art has in a lot of ways helped the form: most human beings who believe in something rebel against those in authority who try to tell them no and as a result strive even harder to make their case. This is most probably true of photography. To start with it was used purely as a documentary tool to bring the wonders of the world to those unable, or unwilling, to travel to see them for themselves. Later it was used as an artists sketching tool to provide painters with a ready means of capturing a scene for them to realise in oils or water colours a later point in time, so lending a certain level of acceptability as art in itself. The first artistic genre to fall to photography was the making of silhouettes, this industry died virtually overnight when better, cheaper and quicker representations of the sitters could be produced. Next, a proportion of the portrait market fell as less affluent people could now afford a likeness by photography, and as it became the craze, so too did many more wealthy people who would normally have provided the market for oil paintings. When quality half-tone pictures in books and newspapers came along a further section of artists became redundant, the engravers. It’s no wonder then that photography had a problem attempting to be recognised as art when at the same time it was destroying established artistic practices.
As a way of attempting to be accepted as art, photography aped the styles of the established art market, but although it could provide a true representation it wasn’t the best medium and so it had to branch out, much like painters did with The Impressionists. The way photography developed from this point is similar in most ways to the way the entire art world developed, through the published manifestos from the various movements and schools of thought on artistic development and as its development accelerated through the 20th century to today it would take too long to consider each movement in this essay. However, the early history and its interpretation, is important to where we stand today with regard to the acceptance, or not, of photography as art.
I think the art of photography is now coming of age and is finding its own way in the art world with the setting up of museums and galleries that dedicate themselves entirely to photographic images. As yet there aren’t many, certainly the numbers are dwarfed by those that are dedicated to painting and drawing. Never-the-less photography can now produce images in many forms, equal to, if not superior, to traditional art by using techniques that are unique to the medium, or by cleverly copying techniques from traditional art forms.
Where will photographic art be in the future? I see it becoming the dominant form, at least for a while, like all forms dominate for a time. This will be because of the WWW, a medium of dispersal that ideally lends itself to the photographic art, and as more and more people use the web for everything so will their consumption of culture. Although this seems a simple way forward I believe it’s far from that. Even now, at the beginning of the internet era, the numbers of images produced in one day by the users is far more than any one person could possibly look at in their entire lifetime! This can only be accepted as fact at the moment as everyone rushes to take advantage of a new means of communication, but as the method matures and some form of discipline and order emerges ways of disseminating photographic art will emerge and develop also. It’s up to the practitioners themselves to help develop this by embracing the technology and not shunning it, like our forefathers did with photography, in which case a lot of attitudes will necessarily have to change.