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Written by Neelakshi Chakraborty
Today’s most prevalent visual art is photography…something at once singular and yet rooted in the essence of visual culture. Photography is the soul of consumer society : does that sound like an oxymoron? if so, it is completely intended!
A couple in their suburban home, from Martin Parr’s album Signs of the Times, England, 1991
One of the key features of photography is that it is immediate and lacks some of the key features of symbolism which art possesses. This immediacy is both its USP and yet the factor which differentiates photography from ‘pure art’. This conception of photography as a mechanical recording medium never fully died away. Even by the late 20th century, art photography – the idea that photographs could capture more than just surface appearances – remained confined to niche galleries, aficionados and publications.
Syracuse University fine art professor Mary Warner Marien writes about photography : “Samuel F. B. Morse observed that a photograph could not be called a copy, but was a portion of nature itself. That notion, which persisted throughout the nineteenth century, found new life in the late twentieth-century language theory, in which the photograph was characterized as an imprint or transfer of the real, like a fingerprint.”
Julia Margaret Cameron made this explicit in her re-envisagings of renaissance pictures. Her Light and Love of 1865, for example, shows a woman in a Marian head-covering bending over her infant who is sleeping on a bed of straw.
My Grandchild by Julia Margaret Cameron. Photograph Hulton Getty
History of Photography
Though it is true that photography and paintings cannot be compared, both indeed are art : artificially composed mediums which have to be arranged carefully and manipulated into perfection. There is no hierarchy here: if indeed, a hierarchy is imposed, it is a false one, for photography is as much art as paintings is, unless it degenerates into kitsch.
Interested in the history of photography as an art form? Well, you don’t need to look far!
In this lovely short animation, Bulgarian-born Boston-based photographer Eva Koleva Timothy traces the evolution of photography through innovations in science, technology, and policy, from the Arab world of the 9th century to Leonardo da Vinci to George Eastman and beyond.
The scientific aspects of photography can be so overpowering that mastery over it can actually take up to a lifetime. However, to achieve mastery of the technical side of photography is to address only one of the two aspects of photography. The result is often technically excellent photographs which lack the finer qualities, softer qualities which make them appeal to people, and touch their hearts.
If we have to look back, photography’s earliest practitioners looked to paintings when they were first exploring their technology’s potential, and ironically enough, today their modern descendants are looking both to those photographic old master paintings.
Richard Billingham’s Hedgerow (New Forest), 2003. Photograph Courtesy of the Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London
So when a contemporary photographer such as Richard Billingham photographs his masterpiece ( see above), he is referring to a multi-faceted heritage that encompasses both the monochrome tonality of Gustave Le Gray’s atmospheric photographic seascapes of the 1850s and a painting such as Steamer on Lake Geneva, Evening Effect, 1863, by the Swiss artist François Bocion. This inter-textuality and inter-referential quality makes the work stand out,and simultaneously lends photography a legitimacy so far denied it.
In this anonymous early Kodak snapshot from about 1888, the maker’s shadow is clearly visible on the lower left side.
Susan Sontag in her iconic work on photographs titled ”Ón Photography” argues that the photographic image is a control mechanism we exert upon the world — simultaneous operating on two levels of reality, our subjective perception of the objective world, and the objective rendering of subjectivity.
The lens, an early idea that changed photography
The negative formed the basis of photography until the digital age. It is based on the reversal of dark and light tone.
“Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood. To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power.”
Photographers and photography educators have also had to analyze the tipping point of when something as synthetic as an artificially composed portrayal becomes a real honest-to-goodness vessel of creative flow. Believe it or not, there actually is a Picture Perfect School of Photography!
Some photographer-artists like to embrace objectivity even in the midst of creative calisthenics. The best way to do this is to incorporate an organic wholesomeness in the work.
For e.g. – Matthew Brandt’s lake prints may take you a minute to see the subject through the dizzyingly colorful haze, but it’s there in more ways than one. The photo of the lake is also dipped in the lake water.
Matthew Brandt,Lakes and Reservoirs.” Sylvan Lake, SD 5, 2012, Chromogenic print soaked in Sylvan Lake water.
Overall, photography is a wonderful art, something which is different yet retains certain old-fashioned attributes associated with art.
In the age of Instagram and smartphones, it seems anyone can be an artist. The trend playing out on social media is a reflection of what’s been going on in the commercial and fine art photography world over the last decade. The success of artists like Carlos henrique Reinesch, who have a massive fan following on Facebook, is a testimony to this fact.
Print-on-demand and other advances in production technology have democratized publishing and encouraged more artists to create and distribute their work themselves.