Is photography art? The fact that we still pose the question
testifies to the continuing debate. The answers have varied with
the changing definition and understanding of art. In itself, of
course, photography is simply a medium, like oil paint or pastel, used
to make art but having no inherent claim to being art. After all, what
distinguishes an art from a craft is why, not how, it is done. But
photography shares creativity with art because, by its very nature, its
performance necessarily involves the imagination. Any photograph, even a
casual snapshot, represents both an organization of experience and the
record of a mental image. The subject and style of a photograph thus
tell us about the photographer's inner and outer worlds. Furthermore,
like painting and sculpture, photography participates in aspects of the
same process of seek-and-find. Photographers may not realize what they
respond to until after they see the image that has been printed.
Like woodcut, etching, engraving, and lithography, photography is a
form of printmaking that is dependent on mechanical processes. But in
contrast to the other graphic mediums, photography has always been
tainted as the product of a new technology. Apart from pushing a button
or lever, or setting up special effects, no active intervention is
required of the artist's hand to guide an idea. For this reason, the
camera has usually been considered to be little more than a recording
device. Photography, however, is by no means a neutral medium; its
reproduction of reality is never completely faithful. Whether we realize
it or not, the camera alters appearances. Photographs reinterpret the
world around us, making us literally see it in new terms.
Photography and painting represent parallel responses to their times
and have generally expressed the same world view. Sometimes the camera's
power to extend our way of seeing has been realized first by the
painter's creative vision. The two mediums nevertheless differ
fundamentally in their approach and temperament. Painters communicate
their understanding through techniques that represent their cumulative
response over time, whereas photographers recognize the moment when the subject before them corresponds to the mental image they
have formed of it.
It is hardly surprising that photography and art have enjoyed an
uneasy relationship from the start. Artists have generally treated the
photograph as something like a preliminary sketch, as a convenient
source of ideas or record of motifs to be fleshed out and incorporated
into a finished work. Academic painters found the detail provided by
photographs to be in keeping with their own precise naturalism. Many
other kinds of artists resorted to photographs, though not always
admitting it. Photography has in turn been heavily influenced throughout
its history by the painter's mediums, and photographs may still be
judged according to how well they imitate paintings and drawings. To
understand photography's place in the history of art, we must recognize
the medium's particular strengths and inherent limitations.
The Founders of Photography
a French inventor named
(1765-1833) succeeded, at
the age of 57, in making
the first permanent photographic image, although his earliest surviving
example (fig. 937) dates
from four years later. He then joined forces with a younger man,
Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre (1789-1851),
who had devised an improved camera. After ten more years
of chemical and mechanical research, the daguerreotype, using positive
exposures, was unveiled publicly in 1839,
and the age of photography was born. The announcement
spurred the Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot
(1800-1877) to complete his own photographic
process, involving a paper negative from which positives could be made,
that he had been pursuing independently since
NIEPCE. View from His Window at Le Gras.
1826. Heliograph, Gernsheim
University of Texas at Austin
View from the Study Window, 1827
What motivated the earliest photographers? They were searching for an
artistic medium, not for a device of practical utility. Though Niepce
was a research chemist rather than an artist, his achievement was an outgrowth of his efforts to improve
the lithographic process. Daguerre was a skilled painter, and he
probably turned to the camera to heighten the illusionism in his huge
painted dioramas, which were the sensation of Paris during the 1820s and
1830s. Fox Talbot saw in photography a substitute for drawing, as well
as a means of reproduction, after using a camera obscura as a tool to
sketch landscapes while on a vacation. The interest that all of the
founders had in the artistic potential of the medium they had created is
reflected in their photographs. Daguerre's first picture (fig.
938) imitates a type of still
life originated by Chardin while Fox Talbot's Sailing Craft (fig.
939) looks like the
English marine paintings of his day.
DAGUERRE Louis JACQUES MANDE.
Daguerreotype. Societe Francaise de Photographic Paris
Boulevard du Temple, 1838
WILLIAM HENRY FOX TALBOT.
Sailing Craft. ñ. 1845.
Calotype. Science Museum, London
That the new medium should have a mechanical aspect was particularly
appropriate. It was as if the Industrial Revolution, having forever
altered civilization's way of life, now had to invent its own method for
recording itself, although the transience of modern existence was not
captured by "stopping the action" until the 1870s. Photography underwent
a rapid series of improvements, including inventions for better lenses,
glass-plate negatives, and new chemical processes, which provided faster
emulsions and more stable images. Since many of the initial limitations
of photography were overcome around midcentury, it would be misleading
to tell the early history of the medium in terms of technological
developments, important though they were.
The basic mechanics and chemistry of photography, moreover, had been
known for a long time. The camera obscura, a box with a small hole in
one end, dates back to antiquity. In the sixteenth century it was widely
used for visual demonstrations. The camera was fitted with a mirror and
then a lens in the Baroque period, which saw major advances in optical
science culminating in Newtonian physics. By the 1720s it had become an
aid in drawing architectural scenes. At the same time, silver salts were
discovered to be light-sensitive.
Why, then, did it take another hundred years for someone to put this
knowledge together? Much of the answer lies in the nature of scientific
revolutions, which as a rule combine old technologies and concepts with new ones. (They do this in response to
changing world views that they, in turn, influence.) Photography was
neither inevitable in the history of technology, nor necessary to the
history of art; yet it was an idea whose time had clearly come. If we
try for a moment to imagine that photography was invented a hundred
years earlier, we will find this to be impossible simply on artistic,
apart from technological, grounds: the eighteenth century was too
devoted to fantasy to be interested in the literalness of photography.
Rococo portraiture, for example, was more concerned with providing a
flattering image than an accurate likeness, so that the camera's
straightforward record would have been totally out of place. Even in
architectural painting, extreme liberties were willingly taken with
The invention of photography was a response to the artistic urges and
historical forces that underlie Romanticism. Much of the impulse came
from a quest for the True and the Natural. The desire for "images made
by Nature" can already be seen, on the one hand, in Cozens' ink-blot
compositions (see fig. 864),
which were "natural" because they were made by chance;
and, on the other, in the late-eighteenth-century vogue for silhouette
portraits (traced from the shadow of the sitter's profile), which led to
attempts to record such shadows on light-sensitive materials. David's
harsh realism in The Death of Marat (fig.
859) had already proclaimed the cause of
unvarnished truth. So did Ingres' Louis Berlin (fig.
886), which established the
standards of physical reality and character portrayal that photographers
Like lithography, which was invented in
photography met the growing middle-class demand for
images of all kinds. By 1850,
large numbers of the
bourgeoisie were having their likenesses painted, and it was in
portraiture that photography found its readiest acceptance. Soon after
the daguerreotype was introduced, photographic studios sprang up
everywhere, especially in America, and multi-image cartes de visiles,
1854 by Adolphe-Eugene Disderi, became
ubiquitous. Anyone could have a portrait taken cheaply and easily. In
the process, the average person became memorable. Photography thus
became an outgrowth of the democratic values fostered by the American
and French revolutions. There was also keen competition among
photographers to get the famous to pose for portraits.
better known as
Nadar, managed to attract most of
France's leading personalities to his studio. Fike many early
photographers, he started out as an artist but came to prefer the lens
to the brush. He initially used the camera to capture the likenesses of
the 280 sitters whom he
caricatured in an enormous lithograph, Le Pantheon Nadar. The
actress Sarah Bernhardt posed for him several times, and his photographs
of her (fig. 940) are the
direct ancestors of modern glamour photography (compare fig.
1225). With her romantic pose and
expression, she is a counterpart to the soulful maidens who inhabit much
of nineteenth-century painting. Nadar has treated her in remarkably
sculptural terms. Indeed, the play of light and sweep of drapery are
reminiscent of the sculptured portrait busts that were so popular with
collectors at the time.
Gaspard Felix Tournachon
NADAR. Sarab Bernhardt.
Eastman House, Rochester, New York
Nadar. Sarah Bernhardt, ca. 1864
The Restless Spirit
Early photography reflected the outlook and temperament of
Romanticism, and indeed the entire nineteenth century had a pervasive
curiosity and an abiding belief that everything could be discovered.
While this fascination sometimes manifested a serious interest in science—witness
Darwin's voyage on the Beagle from 1831
more typically took the form of a restless quest for new experiences and
places. Photography had a remarkable impact on the imagination of the
period by making the rest of the world widely available, or by simply
revealing it in a new way. Sometimes the search for new subjects was
close to home. Nadar, for example, took aerial photographs of Paris from
a hot-air balloon. This feat was wittily parodied by Daumier (fig.
whose caption, "Nadar Elevating
Photography to the Height of Art," expresses the prevailing skepticism
about the aesthetics of the new medium.
941. HONORE DAUMIER.
to the Height of Art.
Lithograph. George Eastman House,
Rochester, New York
A love of the exotic was fundamental to Romantic escapism, and by
photographers had begun to cart their equipment to
faraway places. The same restless spirit that we saw in George Caleb
Bingham's Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (see fig.
914) also drew photographers to
the frontier, where they documented the westward expansion of the United
States, often for the U.S. Geological Survey, with pictures that have
primarily historical interest today.
who often preferred scenery that contemporary painters
had overlooked. Fie practically invented his own aesthetic in
photographing the Canon de Chelle (fig.
942), for it conforms to no established pictorial
type. The view fills the entire photograph, allowing no visual relief
and lending it awesome force. The composition is held together by the
play of lines of the displaced strata of the rock, which creates a
striking abstract design. O'Sullivan's control of tonal relations is so
masterful that even color photographs taken since then of the same site
have far less impact.
An exception is the landscape photography of Timothy
Ancient Ruins in the
Canon de Chelle, N.M.,
a Niche 50
Feet Above the Present Canon Bed
(now Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona).
Albumen print. George Eastman House, Rochester, New York
The unquenchable thirst for vicarious experiences accounts for the
expanding popularity of stereoscopic daguerreotypes. Invented in
the two-lens camera produced two photographs that
correspond to the slightly different images perceived by our two eyes.
When seen through a special viewer called a stereoscope, the stereoptic
photographs fuse to create a remarkable illusion of three-dimensional
depth. Two years later, stereoscopes became the rage at the Crystal
Palace exposition in London (see fig. 977).
Countless thousands of double views were taken,
such as that in figure 943.
Virtually every corner of
the earth became accessible to practically any household, with a
vividness second only to being there.
Stereophotography was an important breakthrough, for its binocular
vision marked a distinct departure from perspective in the pictorial
tradition and demonstrated for the first time photography's potential to
enlarge vision. Curiously enough,
this success waned, except for special uses. People were simply too
habituated to viewing pictures as if with one eye. Later on, when the
halftone plate was invented in the 1880s for reproducing pictures on a
printed page, stereophotographs revealed another drawback. As our
illustration shows, they were unsuitable for this process of
reproduction. From then on, single-lens photography was inextricably
linked with the mass media of the day.
943. Tsar Cannon Outside the
Spassky Gate, Moscow
(cast 1586; world's largest caliber, 890 mm; presently inside Kremlin).
Second half of 19th century.
Stereophotograph (courtesy Culver Photos)
Fundamental to the rise of photography was the pervasive
nineteenth-century sense that the present was already history in the
making. Only with the advent of the Romantic hero did great acts other
than martyrdom become popular subjects for contemporary painters and
sculptors, and it can hardly be surprising
that photography was invented a year after the death of Napoleon, who
had been the subject of more paintings than any secular leader ever
before. At about the same time, Gericault's The Raft of
the "Medusa" (fig.
883) and Delacroix's
The Massacre at Chios (fig. 888)
signaled a decisive shift in the Romantic attitude
toward representing contemporary events. This outlook brought with it a
new kind of photography-photojournalism.
(1823-1896), who covered the Civil
War in the United States. Other wars had already been photographed, but
Brady and his 20
assistants (including Timothy O'Sullivan), using cameras too slow and
cumbersome to show actual combat, nevertheless were able to bring home
the horrors of that war with unprecedented directness.
Its first great representative was
War , 1865
(1821-1882), who left Brady to
form his own photographic team in 1863,
is a landmark in the history of art. Never before had
both the grim reality and the significance of death on the battlefield
been conveyed so inexorably in a single image. Compared with the heroic
act celebrated by Benjamin West (see fig.
this tragedy is as anonymous as the slain soldier
himself. The photograph is all the more persuasive for having the same
harsh realism found in David's The Death of Marat (see fig.
859), and the limp figure,
hardly visible between the rocks framing the scene, is no less poignant.
In contrast, the paintings and engravings by the artists—notably
illustrated the Civil War for magazines and newspapers were mostly genre
scenes that kept the reality of combat safely at arm's length.
Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg (fig.
Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg.
photograph. Chicago Historical Society