Reflect and relate: The phases of photography in relation to its status as art



Untitled Film Still #92, by Cindy Sherman, 1977

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The dominant debate in the area of photography over the years has been based on whether or not it can be regarded as an artform. But in this essay I am going to point out the evidence that even as the discourse was being constructed to try and prove that it was an art, it was already proven by the mere fact that photography had gained access to the art world. By having a place in theories of art practice whether it was in a positive or negative light, it meant that photography was formidable enough to hold its own. Invariably, the question of the automatism of photography setting it apart from the other arts was continuously resurrected, but it was these very theories in the end that induced photography to undergo numerous metamorphisms that made it undeniable as an art force.

Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre presented the process of photography to the French Chamber of Deputies after the invention was announced in 1839. In a letter to William Henry Fox Talbot, Sir John Herschel called the photographs nothing short of 'miraculous'. But as it turns out, not everyone was as enthusiastic about the new invention.

Upon the invention of the process, photography was seen as a new technology and nothing more. It was certainly not seen as a form of art primarily because of the very distinct differences that separated it from the traditional forms of art such as painting, sculpture or traditional prints. (Jeffrey, 1981:7) the mere automatism of the process caused a problem. The idea was that paintings were made where photographs were 'taken'.

The traditions of art making were already well established by the 1840s. The art audience was familiar with these and therefore the conditions that allowed a photograph to be seen as an artwork were installed, carrying art making traditions into nature. In other words it was the photographer's eye that was expected to find the appropriate composition in nature - that is, a perfectly symmetrical tree or a reflection - that could be called art. And then after finding these images they needed to give meaning to them and they could do this by making use of signs and symbols. By manipulating emphasis and attention, the comprehension of the photograph could be controlled. Another method of likening a photograph to a painting was born in pictorials. The romantic portrayal with blurred effects were photographers' way of competing’ with painting and trying to prove that photography could achieve the same results as painting and is therefore worthy of an artistic status.

When Alfred H. Barr became the funding director of the Museum of Modern Art in 1929, he stated that in his understanding, various mediums were always interlinked and could therefore not be studied individually without taking other mediums into consideration. According to him it was necessary to pay equal stock to architecture, film, industrial design and photography as much as to painting, sculpture and printmaking. He stated that he was primarily interested in things prior to their popularity. We shall not go into the popularity of photography in this essay but it turns out that the twenty third work to be added into the Museum's Collection in 1930 was indeed a photograph by Walker Evans called Lehmbruck: Head of Man. Following that Beaumont Newhall directed the historic survey exhibition called Photography 1839 - 1937 at the same museum. Newhall went on to base his seminal 'History of Photography' on this exhibition. In addition, the museum's commitment to photography grew considerably after these events. So much so that The Department of Photography was established officially and independently in 1940. (Szarkowski, 1973)

As much as Post-Modernism is a development in not only art but other areas such as literature, philosophy and architecture which began towards the latter part of the twentieth century, Modernism was in its own right a new development. Modernism and photography were born at roughly the same periods of time and it could be said that in the arts Modernism was largely prompted by the development of new technologies such as photography. At the time of its birth, Modernism encapsulated what is new and happening. Presently however we view Modernism as a movement and now refer to the same ideas as contemporary. In the same way that Post-Modernism critiques former notions, Modernism also challenged pre-modernism. Where artists from before the time of Modernism dealt with mythology and history, Modernists looked at denaturalisation and defamiliarisation. Often at the birth of Modernism painting was thought to be a dead medium due to the invention of photography. It was Paul Delaroche who made the startling statement, quote: “From this day painting is dead". Delaroche made the statement after visiting Daguerre's studio, not only implying that photography was indeed an art form, but that it was formidable enough to replace painting. (Jeffrey, 1981: 11-23)

Of course not everyone agreed with this bold statement. During the reign of Modernism there was a general feeling among the European people that technology was dehumanizing because of its coldness and insensitivity. It was a time when people were moving forward but there was a tendency to take their ideas with them. As new technology influenced change in Europe, Freud's principles made people realise their uncontrollable urges, sentimentality prompted people to find more value in painting. Painting itself underwent a radical metamorphosis with artists like Picasso and Mondrian working more on flat surfaces with abstraction rather than the traditional limits of the canvas. The emphasis is painting became more focussed on spontaneity and expression and the idea was that the artist was some sort of Bohemia who does not conform to the traditional methods of art-making but at the same time the artist was seen as an author or poet of sorts because of his power to direct a canvas and employ meaning.

But these developments were inherent in photography as well. Modernist photography expected the photographer to have pre-envisioned the photograph unlike Post-Modernism where the final print depends on what happens in th