History of Photography as Fine Art
The field of photography had to fight a tough and controversial battle in terms of being considered an art form. The multiple applications it derived into and the diverse areas it is used in made it a skeptical art medium. Its diverse usage, from scientific photography to commercial photography, added to the popularity and mass distribution of digital cameras, make it hard to be considered a medium of its own in the art world. Nowadays, photography is considered an art form as valid as any other, and there are multiple museums and galleries exhibiting photographic work. However, it wasn't so easy at the beginning, when photography was first invented, and photographers had a hard time being considered artists.
Concept of fine art
The dictionary definition for fine art states: "creative art, esp. visual art, whose products are to be appreciated primarily or solely for their imaginative, aesthetic, or intellectual content." The term involves a variety of disciplines, including painting, drawing, sculpting, dance, theater, and printmaking, among others. The concept of fine art traditionally involves certain formal aspects that must be respected, but mostly it refers to a creation that expresses emotion and inspires beauty, appealing to the senses and enlightening the spirit. These were the biggest challenges photography faced in its process of being considered a fine art discipline.
Origin of photography in the arts
Similar to the impact the printing press had on the distribution of literature, photography, since its origin, generated a revolution in the art world. The unpredictable consequences photography brought to art, and society in general, can be compared to how, although the printing press was thought mainly for facilitating the reproduction of bibles and manuscripts, the impact it had in the distribution of ideas across social classes and borders could not have been anticipated. Photography has changed the way we perceive the world. Modern history has been redefined thanks to photojournalism alone; a single image has had a bigger impact in describing an event than the number of words used to describe it. In terms of art, the world of painting was hugely revolutionized, with the dual effect of forcing the medium to move in new directions as well as providing it with new tools.
The question whether photography should be considered art or not was an ongoing debate in the decades following its discovery. It reflected a search for ways to fit a mechanical medium into the traditional expressive artistic forms. Several approaches were taken to this end, while some, by means of a camera, emulated the subjects and styles of traditional "high" art; others used it to benefit their observation and as a source of new ideas and information. The reproduction of art objects was also a key development in the use of photography; it had a profound effect on changing the visual culture of society and making art accessible to the general public, changing its perception, notion and knowledge of art, and appreciation of beauty. Moreover, it made possible the establishment of art history as a serious discipline.
Debates over the role of photography in art
From the ongoing discussions, heated articles and conflicting statements, particularly in France and England, over the role of photography in art, three main positions emerged regarding the potential of photography as an art form. The simplest argument, supported by many painters and a section of the public, was that since photography was a mechanical device that involved physical and chemical procedures instead of human hand and spirit, it shouldn't be considered an art form; they believed camera images had more in common with fabrics produced by machinery in a mill than with handmade work created by inspiration. The second widely held view, shared by painters, photographers and some critics, was that, as a medium, it should be useful to other art disciplines but not as an art form in itself, since it couldn’t be considered equal in creativeness to drawing or painting. A last group believed that photography was comparable to etching or lithography, and therefore could be used to create just as valid works of art, plus it could be a beneficial influence on the arts as well as general culture.
The French influential critic and poet Baudelaire believed that lazy and uncreative painters would turn to photography. He had as strong belief in art as an imaginative embodiment of cultivated ideas and dreams, and regarded photography as "a very humble servant of art and science, like printing and stenography" - a medium largely unable to transcend "external reality." They associated photography with the industrial madness at the time, which in their view would have tragic consequences on the spiritual qualities of life and art.
Another big debate arose over whether photography was document or art. In England, an article "Photographs," written by Lady Eastlake was the most important statement made in regards to this issue. She stated that since 'beauty' was the main element expected in an artistic creation, and it was a result of refinement, taste, spirituality, genius, or intellect - qualities not found in minutely detailed super-realistic visual depictions made by a machine, therefore, although 'truth' and 'reality' were valid qualities of a camera image, it could never compete with art, even if it had a role to play in the art world.
Another approach opposing photography as art was the belief that with the growing acceptance and purchase of camera images by the middle class it was generating the "cheapening of art." In London at the time, for example, there were around 130 commercial establishments where anybody could purchase portraits, landscapes, genre scenes, and photographic reproductions of works of art. Even though some critics recognized that the work of some individual photographers contained the style and substance associated with art, for the most part they believed that the appeal and increase interest of the middle class in photography would generate a tendency towards the mundane instead of the ideals.
Artists' reactions to the new medium
Artists reacted differently to the appearance of photography. Many portrait painters, thinking photography would make their medium obsolete, tried to take advantage of the new medium incorporating it with painting; others renounced to painting altogether and became involved with Daguerrotype or paper photography. Other painters, Ingres being one of the most prominent among them, although outspokenly denying photography's claims as art and the rights of photographers to legal protection, they nevertheless started taking advantage of photography to make a record of their own work, as well as to provide themselves with source material for poses and backgrounds while denying its influence.
Painters at this time, felt the threat presented by a potentially rival visual medium and were faced with finding ways to use the photograph, whether they admitted doing so or not. The most significant transformation in painting resulted by artists starting to find new ways to delineate form and new areas of expression worthy of depiction. Although tenuous at the beginning, the interconnections between graphic and photographic representation have gained strength over time and continue to invigorate both media.
1850s: First steps of photography as fine art
During the 1850s the photographic community pursued an increased activity to advance the medium's claims as art. In England, France, Italy, Germany and the United States several societies and publications were founded, such as the Photographic Society of London (now the Royal Photographic Society) and the Societe Francaise de Photographie, established in 1853 and 1854 respectively, still in existence. Numerous professional publications such as La Lumiere in Paris, the Photographic Journal in London, and others in Italy, Germany and the United States were at the vanguard of discussions regarding photography as a legitimate art form, promoting spaces which would included exhibitions of photography as well as painting.
At the beginning of 1862, an article published in the Photographic Journal, by an unknown author, summed up the discussions over photography as art, stating: "the question is not whether photography is fine art per se - neither painting nor sculpture can make that claim - but whether it is capable of artistic expression; whether in the hands of a true artists its productions become works of art." A French naturalist, Louis Figuier, also made an accurate observation in regards to photography and fine arts: "Until now, the artist has had the brush, the pencil and the burin; now, in addition, he has the photographic lens. The lens is an instrument like the pencil and the brush, and photography is a process like engraving and drawing, for what makes an artist is not the process but the feeling."
By the late 1850s, exhibitions and galleries started including photographic prints in their exhibits. At the beginning some problems arose in terms of classification, but photographers continued in their attempt to have their images included in the fine arts sections of the expositions, despite the indecision on the part of selection committees. However, exhibitions organized by the photographic societies in the 1850s included a large number of images that they displayed according to the conventions of the academic painting salons, generating criticism in the press and eventual repudiation in the late 1880s.
Approaches towards creating photographic art
In an attempt to compete with the productions of 'high art', photographic images were demanded to be truthful, beautiful and inspirational, which influenced the making of still lifes, portraits of models in allegorical costume, genre scenes and composite images. In order to overcome the sharp definition created by photographic images, that was considered as being too literal for art, photographers tended to use slower collodion or inferior optical elements, smear the lens, kick the tripod during exposure, or blur the print during processing.
Early struggles regarding the artistic expressions of photography, in part due to confusion among photographers as to what constituted artistic images, drove practitioners down uneasy paths. From a historical perspective, it is possible to conclude that photographic art was at its best when illuminating aspects of the real world, and least inspiring when emulating sentimental convention of genre painting. The unique power of photography was gained by its disposition to form, the varieties of textural experience, and the contrasts in lighting, rather than an emphasis on narrative content, regardless of whether the images were considered documents or art.
Photography and art work reproduction
Beyond the struggle for acceptance of photographic images as art, carried on by a small group of aesthetically minded photographers, a development of much greater consequence for the general population was taking place. Photographers, realizing that the accurate reproduction of works of art could be both commercial and culturally beneficial to the general population, started in the 1850s to publish photographic prints of the masterworks of Western art. There is little doubt that since then, camera images have been the most significant supplier of visual artifacts to the largest number of people, revolutionizing public access to the visual art heritage of the world. What was rejected as too real in terms of works of art was most valued in terms of reproducing art objects. This was a highly welcomed advantage of photography since it was believed that familiarity with masterful works of art would not only rejoice the spirit, but improve general taste and help people make better decisions when it came to decoration and dress in their daily lives.
Photographic art today
There is little doubt nowadays that photography, aside from its enormous variety of uses, is legitimately considered a fine art discipline. Almost any well-known and respected museum has sections dedicated solely to photographic art; and there are a number of museums and galleries dedicated specifically to photography. Photography finally stood its ground and found its place in the art world.
In the last decades, photography's potential has radically expanded. Aside from the traditional two-dimensional, modest-sized photographs in shades of black and white, the medium explores and includes images in a variety of shapes, colors, and formats, with varied intentions, such as providing information, making formal statements, selling ideas of products, or analyzing political and cultural events. The advances and development of new technologies and new aesthetic theories combined with the enhanced role of photography as a marketable commodity has influenced the way the medium is now being used and perceived. The accepted and expanded state of this medium is the result of a rich history in which photography flourished even more by being so closely tied to developments in technology, in the arts, and in the social sphere.
- A World History of Photography by Noami Rosenblum
- The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography; Michale R, Peres Editor in chief
- Truth and Photography by Jerry L. Thompson
- Library of Congress - A Brief History of Photography
- The Impact of Photography on Painting