Is Photography an Art?

On August 19, 1839, Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre’s photographic process was officially announced at a joint public meeting of the French Academies of Science and Fine Arts. Shortly after that meeting, Susse Freres published a brochure, The History and Description of the Technique of Daguerreotypy, which went into 26 editions in five months. Would-be photographers bought or made equipment and began taking pictures of their chimneys and counting the bricks.About the time they were becoming tired of brick-counting, someone said, “Chimney pictures are interesting, but is photography really art?” Some people are still asking the question.Well, that’s not exactly fair. Most people made up their mind pretty quickly. A camera was, to them, a machine that was to be used to record information, and photographers were machine operators. Early photography shows reinforced this belief. The exhibitions were associated with industry and not art, and photographs were judged on their technical, not their artistic, merits. The daguerreotype competition at the world’s fair of 1851 was won by M. M. Lawrence. His pictures were judged “remarkable for clear definition and general excellence of execution. … Notwithstanding their large size, they are, throughout, perfectly in focus, and are beautifully finished in all details.”Most photographers were content to see themselves as technicians. But there are always a few people who don’t get the word. To this minority, photography was definitely an art form, and they set out to convince the general public of this fact. But how?A few pioneers reasoned that if photography was to be accepted as an art form, it had to look like other accepted art forms. In short, it had to look like painting. And, unfortunately for these well-intentioned pioneers, the prevalent type of painting – the one they had to imitate – was Romanticism. So photographs had to become emotionally intense, mystical, melodramatic, brooding, somber, and exotic. It would also help if they were theatrical.As far as technique, Romanticism was just the opposite of photography. Photographs showed great detail. They allowed people to count the bricks. But Romantics believed that so much detail didn’t allow viewers to fantasize. Photographs left no room for imagination. In Romantic works, on the other hand, boundaries between shapes were blurred. Detail was avoided. Forms were only suggested. Brush strokes were evident.In other words, for photography to be accepted as an art form, it had to stop looking like photography. So photographers found ways to destroy what was photographic about their photography in the hope that their altered pictures would pass for some form of art. And these are some of the things they did.They found that they could manipulate a picture either mechanically, when it was being made, or chemically, when it was being developed or printed.Mechanically they could:* change the focus during exposure (exposure times were very long), thereby changing the depth of field* soften the picture by use of a special lens* use a pinhole instead of a lens* suspend a weighted rope from the center of the tripod and create vibrations by running a violin bow over the rope* place a flame below the lens so that heat rising from the flame would cause visible wavesIn the darkroom, the photographer could:* scrape, paint, or draw directly onto the negative* place a special sheet of glass between the negative and printing paper to diffuse the light* use either glossy or rough printing paper* coat the printing paper, or selected parts of the printing paper, with layers of gum-based, toned emulsions, producing painterly effects* use gum bichromate to rinse away details or even entire sections of a print. This process allowed the artist to create deep, textured shadows and a grainy moodiness. As the outcome of the gum-bichromate treatment differed with each print, the photographer could claim that each print was unique.This attempt to make photos look like paintings was termed Pictorialism. The debate and the style continued into the early 20th century.

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