The other day I again watched the PBS’ American Masters Special about Alfred Stieglitz and I realized that was being said about Mr. Stieglitz’s struggle to have photography accepted as an art form is still true today, for photography or to take it a little further, for digital photography.
In “The Salon of 1859”, first published in the Révue Francaise, Charles Baudelaire argued that “Photography has become the refuge of every would-be painter too ill-endowed and too lazy to complete his studies … By invading the territory of art, photography has become art’s most mortal enemy.” An uncredited critic wrote: “The photographer has discovered a machine to make his masterpiece of art for him, by sticking his head into a black box and letting the machine do everything.”
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the dominating style in photography was pictorialism. Those images were somehow manipulated by the photographer, so they were not just recorded, but created and interpreted. Which in itself wouldn’t be a bad thing, but the editing was more often than not meant to make the image look more like a painting, drawing or etching as in those times only paintings were really considered art and a straightforward photograph would be nothing more than a representation of reality.
In 1888, George Eastman introduced the first handheld amateur camera, the Kodak camera. From then on, millions of images would be produced every year by professional photographers and amateurs alike.
So isn’t the situation pretty much the same as today? The Kodak camera is gone, but the phone camera has the quality of pro or prosumer cameras of not so many years ago and is only limited by size. These cameras can now also take RAW images. And again, millions and millions of images are taken with these devices every year.
And we as photographers and digital artists are doing the same as pictorialists back then — we edit our images, sometimes to the point that they don’t look like photographs anymore. A certain amount of editing is necessary as the RAW photo straight out of camera are not mostly not considered usable. But how are the reasons for editing now and then different? And why do I have to have that discussion about art again and again when I am telling someone the price of my prints and they go “Anyone could have taken that picture!”?
Why is everyone accepting that a painted picture is art although they didn’t see how it was done and yet there is still doubt that digital prints can be art although they also didn’t see me take the image, edit it in Photoshop etcetera and print it, meaning they have no idea how much effort and knowledge goes into that?
Is it all about what was in the Kodak-Eastman ads at the end of the 19th century: “Anybody can use it. No knowledge of photography is necessary.”?
The English photographer Henry Peach Robinson wrote in 1869 about a technique he had been using for some 20 years by then combining individual elements from separate images into a new single image (not unlike blending multiple images in Photoshop) and considered the final outcome “art through photography” as the final image had only come about by him working on the images.
Other artists and critics shared the belief that straight photography was only representational and had no artistic interpretation whatsoever and that the “usually accepted limitations of photography had to be overcome if an equality of status was to be achieved”.
Photography as an art form has sure come a long way, but with all the above in mind, I think there is still a lot to do for that “equality of status” to really happen. Still, the painters and sculptors are considered to be the somewhat more serious artists. With the tools (camera and software) being very affordable today, the flood of images is enormous and especially the up and coming artist has to prove himself time and time again. But the fact that this art form is a very young one is also reason to rejoice — there are so many things that haven’t been tried or done and with technology developing at a breathtaking pace the possibilities seem endless. You just want to find your place in this development of digital art.