Modern photography has not existed in a vault separate from the other visual arts such as painting or etching, especially in developing the photographic aesthetic. From its days of pictorialism, photography has continuously borrowed from the other forms visual arts. So much of its aesthetic existed long before the invention of photography itself in 1836. Pictorialism borrowed from the Romantic paintings of the early 1800s, Moholy-Nagy’s abstract photographs and the straight approach, championed by Stieglitz, embraced concepts of Modern Art movements of the early 1900s such as cubism, vorticism, surrealism and constructivism.
The Death of Pictorialism
Although pictorialism played a significant role in the acceptance of photography as an art in the early 1900s, its validity was soon challenged as Modernist ideologies began challenging and rejecting the old artistic styles of representation. Under modernism, roughly 1860s to 1970s, photography was held to be unique, with capabilities of description and depiction of truth beyond those of painting, sculpture, printmaking, or any other medium. Modernism’s distinction between verbal and visual arts by parting the aesthetic field into discrete areas of specific artistry led to the notion that Painters should go about painting, writers should focus on literature, sculptures go about sculpting, and photographers go about finding the photographic, each heading in its own direction in search for its aesthetic truths.
The Rise of Modernism
Modernism in the visual arts follows twentieth-century aesthetic that bases critical judgments about what constitutes a good photograph, a good painting or sculpture accordingly and led to the adoption of formalism. Immanuel Kant’s 1770 Theory of Aesthetic Judgement laid the foundation for formalism. Kant held that in the case of painting it is “the design” rather than the ”charm of colours” which constitutes the proper object of “pure judgement of taste” and the satisfaction in the object is combined with the mere judging of its form”. Simply put, the way in which a painting is constructed rather than its colours or representational value leads to its appreciation of the work in or of itself. Modernist art theory received a further boost from two British critics, Clive Bell and Roger Fry who held the belief that the formal qualities of an art work- line, shape and colour applied systematically or expressively – are self-sufficient for appreciation and all other considerations – representational, contextual, social or ethical functions- are secondary if not redundant.
By directing attention away from what is represented to how it is represented, Bell and Fry sought to ignore the artist’s intent in making a work of art. Their critical method and devotion to “significant form”, a term coined by Bell, was meant to allow a cross-cultural interpretation and evaluation of any form of art from any place or any time by isolating what they considered as the factor that stirred our aesthetic emotions – the visual common denominator of art. The idea that formal qualities could have value independent of their representational function was essential to the development of Abstract Art subsequently influencing artist such as Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp.
Under modernism, photography required its artists to cultivate the photographic, that the photographic be invented, so that its validity as an art would not be questioned. Photo-Collages, montages, cameraless images, unusual angles and extreme close-ups made up the photographic expression era. Although photography was thought to be unique, the influence of “isms” of modern art culture- Cubism, Constructivism, Abstractionism, Surrealism, Dadaism- are visible in the work of almost all photographers of the “new vision”. While some regarded these concepts as allowing the freedom to fragment and restructure reality, some individuals included in their works the typical fixtures of constructivist and cubist paintings.
The tendency towards abstraction spurred what followed and lingered throughout the twentieth century and the branching of two parallel approaches among American and European modernist photographers. These views included on the one hand, the inheritance of “pure” or “straight” photography launched by American Photographers such as Stieglitz his contemporaries, and on the other hand, an experimental aesthetic directly derived from the European avant-gardism. In common with other visual artists, photographers took, among others, the leading ideas in psychology such as Sigmund Freud’s theory of the unconscious mind as way of reaching a “supreme reality”, and the role that images might play in the social and political struggles of the times. Art activity became a way to improve the lives of ordinary people through the redesigning of physical and mental environments. The artist emerged as an individual who “remained true” to reality in order to reveal the true face of the time.
From this we begin to see a more direct link between photography and modern art movements. We begin to get a clear picture of the kind of photographs that flooded the 1900s and the Modern Art movements. We begin piecing the puzzle of our photographical aesthetic, its heritage, its leading figures, the ideologies they accepted, and the notions which they challenged and rejected.
In the next post I will take a look at our inheritance of “pure” or “straight” photography launched by American Photographers such as Stieglitz, Strand, Coburn and their contemporaries. We will discover the direction in which they spurred photography towards. We will take a look look at their styles, its leading thinkers, and its associtaion with modern art movements such as cubism.