Acceptance of Photography as Art
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?