Photography as Art – Is The Debate Over?
Photography as art - vs. mere documentation - has been debated since 1839 when the daguerreotype was unveiled as the first efficient method to create lasting still pictures.
(Yet art and documentation are two aspects of what is often called fine art photography - as intertwined as the mind and body.)
"The camera's ability to mechanically record what it aimed at gave it instant value for reportage in a manner far more powerful than the painter's tools," says photographer Mark Chamberlain. "The popular perception was that the photograph does not lie, that it recorded reality. This gave the photograph unparalleled power."
The impact on the careers of illustrators and painters (from 1839 on) was dramatic. For many, years of training and steady work became irrelevant. Their livelihood was jeopardized by the camera - which they often viewed as a mechanical device or passing fancy, rather than as an artist's tool.
The public debate on whether it was photography as art or mere documentation began back then, often centering on the camera, rather than on the talents and intent of the photographer.
The real debate, according to Chamberlain, is "whether the hand or hammer shapes the art (similar to whether the computer writes these words). In the hands of an artist, the camera is only another tool; but a very powerful one that forced the rest of the art world to move over, and move on ... to their benefit in the long run."
Author/philosopher, Susan Sontag wrote in "On Photography" in 1977, "Today everything exists to end in a photograph...Photography's ultra mobile gaze flatters the viewer, creating a false sense of ubiquity, a deceptive mastery of experience."
Whether called "photography as art" or documentation, the camera's pictures are increasingly part of our shared experiences. Our memory banks are filled with images that have a profound effect on us.
Think of the naked, little girl running from the Vietnamese village with napalm burning her skin. Think of the early 20th century pictures by Lewis Hine of young boys with coal dust all over their faces. These go way beyond the merely historical and documentary, touching the human psyche in poignant ways and helping to change the course of history. These empathetic works are fine art photography.
Impressionism and AbstractionWhen photography exploded onto the scene, it forced painters out of their comfort zones. As a response, many painters began working in the more fanciful "impressionism" and later in "abstraction" - in part reacting to the camera's perceived ability to create more truthful looking images. As painting changed, so did art photography. One hundred ten years ago, photographers also created impressionistic images. Some scratched negatives and un-focused lenses to create prints with dissolving aspects, similar to paintings by Monet and Cezanne. Later, they manipulated images in the darkroom, creating works sometimes perceived as paintings - even as abstract paintings.
In 1973, Chamberlain and partner Jerry Burchfield opened BC Space Gallery in Laguna Beach, California. "Perhaps the longest-running fine art photography gallery in the country!" says Chamberlain. While critics and curators were still debating photography as art, Jerry and Mark set out to prove that the debate was over.
Photographic art was experiencing a Renaissance in the seventies, yet few galleries were ready to exhibit this medium. As one of a small number of venues showing these images, BC Space attracted nationwide attention - particularly from people wanting to hang their pictures there.
Early on, BC exhibited innovative works, often displaying images with socially conscious messages. From 1987, when Chamberlain assumed sole ownership, the gallery expanded its perspectives - exhibiting, along with still photography, painting, sculpture, installations, video, film, music, theatrical performances and dance.
He addressed and continues to explore a variety of issues, including: art as an expression of our deepest yearnings; the shamelessness of healthy sexuality; societal evolution; the defamation of native peoples; and the hell and hypocrisy of war.
Combining Art Forms
The legacy of photography as art is filled with many more stories of combining still and moving images with music, dance, painting, sculpture – even with architecture.
Louis Daguerre, famous for inventing the daguerreotype, was also a painter, theater designer and inventor of the diorama – a three-dimensional moving device that displays action scenes (a precursor to motion pictures) He combined all mediums with photography, even adding still pictures to his dioramas.
Another example of combining pictures with other art forms is the 1951 movie, "An American in Paris." Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron dance through classical architecture and settings, inspired by impressionist paintings. They leap alongside performers attired in 19th century Parisian costumes, to jazz-inspired sounds of George Gershwin.
Interpretive Picture Taking
Photographers have always known that picture taking is interpretive and more about what they perceive than about what is actually in front of them. They control what the viewer sees just as painters do.
War PhotographyAs fine art photography developed steadily, documentary photography was more visible to the public - as with Civil War images. Today war images are often considered artful, as in the popular PBS film, "The Civil War" by Ken Burns and with the photo, "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima," from World War II. Philip Jones Griffiths, a renowned photojournalist, shot numerous scenes from Vietnam and other wars. He said, "Am I a news photographer? A press photographer? A photojournalist? An artist? I deplore the latter moniker because the word is so misused. For me, art is the melding of form and content, and as that is what I strive to do, then perhaps 'artist' is correct."
Photographer Doug McCulloh does just that in his exhibition, "Dream Street." He lived near a proposed housing development when he entered a contest to name a street there. His winning entry, "Dream Street," inspired his odyssey photographing the rough-hewn residents of the former farming community, the poorly paid workers, the construction in progress, and the nearly finished almost identical houses.
Doug shoots sequential black and white images from odd, askew angles, with obscured lighting, resulting in artworks with surreal aspects. His images show how the camera and light are basically artists' tools - just as brushes and paints are.
(Photograph means writing with light. "Photo" translates to light, "graph" to writing, in Latin.)
Doug also combines photographs with poetry, providing each picture with a rhythmical description. "New fences had fingered out into the neighborhood, three boards to the foot, four nails to the board," he wrote.
The Debate is Over
Part of the power of the image is the presumption by the viewer that it is taken directly from reality. But photographers have always known that on either side of the frame, or behind it, the setting could be totally different.
With the digital era, our belief in that realism is suspended because of new tools that alter images. Today, photographs can be challenged as evidence in court, as they can be manipulated almost seamlessly.
As we move further into the digital age, photography has secured its role as a viable art form on its own.
The debate is over!
(Please see BC Space)
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