On the previous post I looked at the photography and its impact throughout history, its impact on the public and the way we take photographs. In this series, I will be looking at photography’s impact on the arts and perspectives as well as look at the visionaries that saw the potential of the medium as a form of expression. I will also focus on photography’s acceptance in art galleries and museums, and the art movements that sprouted as photography collided with the arts.
At the turn of the 19th Century, the Daguerreotype process had allowed capturing light through automation possible and this started the debate on whether photography could be considered as an art or not, which lasted over a century and still carries its remnants to this day. While the photograph was thought to be purely objective, thanks to photography’s mechanical process, very few artists had thought of it as a means of expression, and even though the camera had been used to aid painting for a few centuries, it had never been thought of to be on the same level as painting. However, that was soon to change, as a few individuals challenged those sentiments and sought to elevate the medium to the same standard as painting and all this gave birth to Pictorialism.
Pictorialism vs Purism
Pictorialism was based on the premise that a photograph can be evaluated using the same parameters that are used for evaluating any other type of image i.e. painting, drawings, and engravings. Early pictorialists such as Henry Peach Robinson, Julia Margaret Cameron, Lewis Carol and the second wave of Stieglitz and his contemporaries (even though they would leave pictorialism behind) intended on replicating famous romantic era paintings which were highly expressive, usually dramatic and meant to evoke passion and devotion from their audience as artists expressed their deepest beliefs. Pictorialist photographs were usually staged and the final image manipulated through print processes such as gum bichromate. The processes fostered the idea that photography is an art form and consequently lead to works of art.
Purism on the other hand; sprouted in France after WWI, and was based on the premise that a photograph has a certain intrinsic nature and that the value of a photograph depends directly on its representation and its conformity to nature. Purists such as P.H Emerson, Eugene Agté, Ansel Adams and the f64 club believed that photography is unique and cannot borrow from painting or other art forms. The picture was final, with no post processing and certainly not a way to achieve “artistic vision”. The “purely” photographic act made it perfect and an admirable effort.
The Birth of Modern Art
While photographers argued amongst themselves over which direction was photography was to follow, artists, at the turn of the 20th Century, found themselves in a fast paced and ever changing modern world with technological advances, and dramatic political and social structure changes, and thus it was only natural that artists also turn to other things. This gave rise to Modernism as photography could now represent what the renaissance artists – and subsequent eras – had struggled with for centuries. Modernism deviated from the norm and celebrated innovation and originality, as avant-garde became cool, old artistic styles of representation challenged, rejected and traded-off for primitivism and formal reductions. Modern artists strived to revitalise art to become more in line with the modern age and reflect its struggles.
Monet and his impressionist contemporaries had focused on the quality and movement of light in their paintings as opposed to rendering the best formal representations of the subject matter. Cézanne focused on the use of colour to render representational elements in nature and this formed basis of his later paintings and gave birth to the style in which the next generation of painters would consider as the next tier for painting. Cubism, inspired by Cézanne and subsequently led by Picasso and Braque further deviated from the norm as artists moved away from the three dimensional perspectives to two dimensional objects from multiple perspective and lighting to convey a sense of totality in a uniquely modern way, simplifying natural forms into geometrical shapes like cylinders, circles, spheres and of course cubes. The goal for most cubist and impressionist works was to expressing the essence of the subject rather than reproduce it.
Photography as art and its acceptance into art galleries
While the debate continued, Alfred Stieglitz sought to elevate photography as an Art in whichever direction it followed, even though he took the pictorialists standpoint at first. His attempts gave birth to “The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession” (Gallery 291 as it would be known by its artists) and Camera Work seeking to introduce a new way of seeing to the American public and open their eyes to the 20th Century.
Stieglitz believed if he could find a talented painter who was devoted to photography as art; then this would help the cause. Enter Edward Steichen, who originally went to the New York Camera Club to show his work to Stieglitz and then left for France to study painting only to return later to pursue photography. He was the Golden Boy who would help achieve Stieglitz’s dream, and the duo started the Photo-Secession, exhibiting works from photographers such as Clarence White, Gertrude Kaesebier, Alvin L. Coburn, Paul Strand, and Charles Sheeler. They published their works quarterly in Camera Work, a magazine devoted to the publication of and display of sculpture, painting and photography within the same space, pushing the idea that photography itself was an art. The journal also included the impressionist works by Cézanne and early cubist works from Picasso, Matisse, Rodin and Duchamp and expressionist works by O’Keefe.
In 1910, The International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography, organized by the Photo-Secession for the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, at Buffalo’s Albright Knox Art Gallery (then the Albright Art Gallery), was the first fine arts institution in the United States to present an exhibition devoted solely to the medium of photography. The exhibition became a landmark in the history of photography. The month long exhibition featured five hundred and forty-nine photographs, works of sixty-five individuals in thirteen different photographic media. It also featured five photographers representing Stieglitz’s retrospective of what he believed to be the best in modem photography from 1894 to 1910 with over fifteen thousand visitors.
Although photography exhibitions had been held prior to this one (the Crimean war photographer Roger Fenton had exhibited his work in two galleries in England and several photographers around the world had studios that they would convert into galleries to display early daguerreotypes) it was this exhibition that placed photography among the ranks of other mediums of artistic expression, which would likely not been achievable without the participation and perseverance of Stieglitz and the others involved. The fight was finally over, even though Stieglitz continued exhibiting with the Photo-Secession for a few more years, the Albright Gallery exhibition was the break through that Stieglitz had sought, Photography was finally accepted into art galleries and recognised as an Art outside the walls of The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession.
Photography may have a shorter life span than that of the traditional arts like painting and sculpture, but one thing that we can all attest to is that photography is surely here to stay and its impact has rippled out through many other fields such as science and engineering. We have the luxury of a camera on our phones, capture the world we see and share it at a press of a button. By no way are all our images artistic, however, it doesn’t mean what we photograph cannot be considered art a few years from now.
In the next series I will delve a bit deeper into photography as an art and look at the individuals that have shaped our aesthetic in the past century, looking at photography’s modernism.