Is Photography Art?

Is Photography Art?

Jasmine Shah Varma

The camera is one of the most democratic tools of making or taking pictures. Yet there are select pictures that sell for millions and then there are millions of photographs that are forgotten in family albums. What’s the criterion that makes a photograph of a crowded departmental store sell for over $3.3 million? That’s how much was paid for contemporary German photographer Andreas Gursky’s ‘99 Cent II Diptychon’ (2001) in an auction by Sotheby’s in November 2006. It’s the highest price paid for a photograph yet.

John Szarkowski, photographer, curator and historian said about photography: “Photography is a system of visual editing. At bottom, it is a matter of surrounding with a frame a portion of one’s cone of vision, while standing in the right place at the right time. Like chess, or writing, it is a matter of choosing from among given possibilities, but in the case of photography the number of possibilities is not finite but infinite. The world now contains more photographs than bricks, and they are, astonishingly, all different.”

In the 21st century photography’s status as a serious art form is inarguable. Its definition however is a slippery topic and that has been evolving through the history of photography. In the early years photographers adhered to the norms applicable to painting and existing art forms. Louis Jacques Daguerre’s “The Artist’s Studio” – a daguerreotype was a classic still life: the plaster casts of heads of two boys rest on a windows-sill; there is a bottle covered with wicker; a framed painting; light and shadow. Describing the image Daguerre said it was in the naturalistic rather than the expressive tradition.

Owing to its mechanical process photography was diminished as second rate and not considered as ‘high art’. Photographers who saw more in the medium than the utilitarian ends it served strived to claim otherwise through their work. One of the earliest photographers of mid 19th century was Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 – 1879). At the time her technique of consciously blurring details and cropping the image compactly with the idea of capturing the physical attributes as well as reveal the inner features of her subjects was novel. She subverted the camera’s expected ability to make sharp, accurate photographs. Cameron said “My aspirations are to ennoble Photography by combining the real and the ideal.”
In the late 19th and early 20th century Alfred Stieglitz made a significant contribution towards publishing and exhibiting photography. Himself an ace photographer (won 150 medals for photography in his lifetime) he was editor of the legendary magazine Camera Work. Stieglitz firmly believed in photography as a medium of artistic expression. He formed an invitation-only group called the Photo-Secession (1902), to force the art world to recognise photography “as a distinctive medium of individual expression.” Its members included Edward Steichen, Gertrude Kasebier, Clarence White and Alvin Langdon Coburn. Their style was described as Pictorial. Again its aesthetics and styles were borrowed from the existing fine arts. Pictures were taken with soft focus, given graphic effects, the negatives and, or positives were retouched to give the final image a painterly feel. They manipulated the image from life to inject their own artistic sensibility.

The group’s pioneer, Stieglitz, moved on from this approach in later years. By 1917 he was supporting a different method as practiced by Modernists Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler. The new approach believed in celebrating the medium’s strengths of capturing life as is.

Stieglitz’s collaborator Steichen’s lifetime’s work stretched across genres from art photography, fashion, portraits, war and naval assignments. He is famed for his picture of Great Garbo taken in 1928. His approach changed too from his initial pictorial tendencies. His work as a photographer and position of director at the Museum of Modern Art, New York has been influential to the field of photography. To this day his work is celebrated and that was reflected in an auction in 2006. Steichen’s ‘The Pond-Moonlight’ (1904) created a record for photography sales in an auction. A copy of his picture sold for US $2.9 million. Made in the Pictorial period, he made use of colour, a rarity in those times. The process of colour photography, autochrome was available only after 1907 but Steichen experimented with an alternative method. This price is second highest paid thus far for a photograph.

In 1932 a faction of 11 photographers called Group f.64 challenged the norms of Pictorialism. It included the now celebrated photographers Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. Their philosophy was in direct opposition to the Pictorial stance. Calling their style pure photography their manifesto stated that their kind of photography would not possess techniques, composition or idea derivative of any other art form. They believed that as an art form photography should develop its own parametres and aesthetics within the limitations and possibilities of the medium.

Elsewhere Man Ray’s Rayographs found a prominent place in the Surrealist circles. Using various techniques such as solarisation, double exposure, combination printing and montage Surrealist photographs evoked the quality of the real and the dreamlike, an expression for the subconscious.

In Europe the idea of imbueing personal and aesthetic meaning in the image was initiated by Otto Steinert in the ‘50s with the movement called Subjective Photography. This movement emphasised the role of the artist in creating meaning for photographs beyond the factual reality of the objects before the camera. The photographs aimed to reveal the complexities of the inner state than external realities. This was in contrast to the practice of Magnum photo agency that included the illustrious group of photojournalists Henri Cartier Bresson, David Seymour, George Rodger and Robert Capa who would travel across the world creating an impressive archive of photo reportage.

Significant developments in the regard for photography as art were underway in New York, the centre of all art activity, when John Szarkowski was appointed the director of photography department in the Museum of Modern Art in 1962. He held this post for more than three decades transforming the status of photography as art like never before. Himself a notable photographer Szarkowski became one of the most influential figures in America for photography to date. In an interview to LA Weekly in December 2006 he said: “In 1962 there were a lot of civilized and cultured people who would accept the notion of photography being a kind of an art. But it was not part of the art market, not at all.” 

He facilitated the change with discovering young photographers, providing platform for experiments he believed in and curating seminal exhibitions. ‘New Documents’ in 1967 featured the works of street photographers like Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand. Arbus’s sharp, confrontational and no-frills documentation of people on the edges of society and their trauma’s and atypical life won her acclaim. Winogrand and Friedlander’s subjects also revealed aesthetics where the ordinary and downbeat was documented to illuminate life rather than photographing events of typical importance.

Through his exhibitions Szarkowski built a canon that defined photography afresh. Besides his celebrated exhibitions such as Dorothea Lange (1966), Brassai (1968), Cartier-Bresson (1968) and Walker Evans (1971), Szarkowski supported William Eggleston’s colour photography. Most of the serious work was in black and white, as we see even today art photographers often shy from colour. Amidst controversies MOMA hosted the first colour photography solo show called ‘William Eggleston’s Guide’ in 1976.

The 70s onwards experiments in photography emboldened. Staged photography came into its own. Cindy Sherman photographed herself disguised in a variety of characters and staged sets. In India N Pushpamala used the same typeface for her concerns in the 1990s. The idea of portraying human condition and asking pertinent questions regarding issues of the modern world through staged photographs rather than objective record came in to practice back in the 1970s. Photographing completely impossible and fantastical situations could be seen in the works of New Zealander Boyd Webb.

Staged photography has broadly continued to be the artist photographer’s framework. The idea of discovering an image or a happening has been replaced with creating a circumstance to express an idea. Jeff Wall, an internationally famed photographer is noted for his complicated and minutely calculated scenes, which appear completely natural. In a way staged photography revives the Pictorial tradition.

Another trend these days is of enormous photographs that are hyper-real. The work of younger photographers Andreas Gursky (1955) and Loretta Lux (1969) comes to mind. Their work is digitally manipulated and edited on the computer. Lux disturbing portraits of children appear to be a combination of photography, painting and digital manipulation. In an interview she said: “My work isn’t about these children. You can recognise them, but they are alienated from their real appearance.” Gursky comments on contemporary life photographing sites of commerce such as industrial plants, apartment buildings, hotels, office buildings, and warehouses. The pictures have multiple views of different location pieced together; they are digitally manipulated, and create an illusory feel.

Photography is no longer simply a record of a transient or decisive moment, but a broader medium with immense possibilities. The ease of using this medium is deceptive, though.  Szarkowski said in the introduction to ‘William Eggleston’s Guide’: It is not easy for the photographer to compete with the clever originality of mindless, mechanized cameras, but the photographer can add intelligence. By means of photography one can in a minute reject as unsatisfactory ninety-nine configurations of facts and elect as right the hundredth. The choice is based on tradition and intuition - knowledge and ego - as it is in any art, but the ease of execution and the richness of the possibilities in photography both serve to put a premium on good intuition.”

Reference: Introduction to William Eggleston’s Guide by John Szarkowski
Art History by Marilyn Stokstad
Art Today by Brandon Taylor
Museum of Modern Art online reference