When Photography is Art - A Battle Fought and Won in Art History

Modern photography is generally agreed to have begun with the invention of the Daguerrotype in 1839. At that time art served a dual purpose, that of providing an aesthetic experience and that of accurately documenting people, places and historical events for posterity. The camera was very soon capable of a far greater degree of accuracy than the human hand and at far greater speed and, equally quickly, it was regarded as a mechanical threat to the role and livelihood of the artist.


Ironically, it had the reverse effect. Photography freed artists to express their own, internal visions without being tethered to the requirements of representational art. It’s no coincidence that the Impressionists, the Fauves, the post-Impressionists and Expressionists all burst onto the world stage with the arrival of the camera. The whole world owes photography at least one huge debt of gratitude. Without it there would have been no Renoir, no Seurat or Degas, Monet, Van Gogh or Picasso!


But something else happened early in the history of photography. And photography gave us another debt that has been far slower to be recognised and slower still to be repaid.


American photographer Alfred Steiglitz, (1864 -1946), saw the potential of photography as art and not simply as a permanent record. The images he captured testify to the truth of this; a century and a half later, they shine out across the years, as powerful and arresting, (sometimes breathtaking), as the artist originally intended.


At the time, few others agreed with him. And with the advent of commercially available cameras which put the medium firmly and widely into the hands of the masses, the dividing line seemed clear. There were ‘snaps’, no matter how good, and there was art.


Photography is not always art. Let’s face it, those holiday pics are unlikely ever to feature on the cover of Time magazine. But sometimes it is. Unmistakably and unquestionably powerful, timeless art. One look at a Steiglitz will tell you that. Or Nader. Or Cartier-Besson, the father of modern photojournalism. And there is the luminous and breathtaking Salgado and so many others there would not be space to mention them all.


The greatest struggle of the photographic medium has been to be seen and understood as an art form in its own right. It is a battle which it has finally, and only recently won. The modern man’s encyclopedia, Wikipedia says this about art photography (or ‘fine art photography’):


(it is) created in accordance with the vision of the artist as photographer. Fine art photography stands in contrast to representational photography, such as photojournalism, which provides a documentary visual account of specific subjects and events, literally re-presenting objective reality rather than the subjective intent of the photographer; and commercial photography, the primary focus of which is to advertise products or services.


The debt we owe to art photography has been chronicled on the covers of National Geographic, Time magazine and even the front pages of newspapers, in iconic images that speak more about human dignity or cruelty, tragedy or suffering in the face of momentous events than any number of words. Sometimes, they are images which simply record moments, faces, the human condition or environmental treasures or disasters, in a way that nothing else can do.


Perhaps the debate about whether photography can be really be considered art has never completely gone away. But, here in the UK, the final verdict may be said to have been delivered when the National Gallery held its first major exhibition of photographic art in 2012 and titled it: Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present. (Unless it was when photographs began selling for millions at auction!)


For anyone who has been mesmerised by a Steiglitz or a Solgado, of course, there was never any debate in the first place. And as we welcome our first photographic artist and the first photographic exhibits here at the gallery it is gives us a warm glow of satisfaction to stand on what we know to be the ‘right’ side of art history!