Originally, photographs were not intended as ‘Art’, they were documents, records, momentos, press images, family pictures etc. Still today, a large number of photographs are used for these purposes, but an image that invokes emotion the same way that an artwork does can surely be regarded as art.
Writer, Peter Marshall, sums up this concept very well:
“Photography is not art any more than oil paint is art. Some photographers used it to create art.”
This shows that a photograph can be interpreted as art when the photographer intended for it to be so, but still raises the issue of whether a photograph can be regarded as art when the photographer did not intend for it to be regarded as such, or the issue did not even come up in the photographer’s mind.
Firstly, I will deal with photographers who intended for their work to be interpreted as art. The best person to start with is Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), the man who fought for most of his life for photography to be accepted by the masses as a valid art form.
Stieglitz can be regarded as one of the most influential American photographers in the early 20th Century. In 1923, he was asked if he would give the Museum of Fine Arts some of his photographs. This was significant because it was the first time that a major American Art Museum included photographs or even considered them for display. This could be regarded as the biggest turning point since the introduction of photography in terms of photography being regarded as art.
Stieglitz pushed the limits of photography. When he first started, he was told that photographs could only be taken in daylight. He challenged this by making the first 24 hour indoor exposure, which resulted in a perfect negative. He made the first rainy day, snowstorm and night photographs.
In Stieglitz’ day, photography was regarded as a ‘scientific curiosity’ and nothing else. Stieglitz made it his job to ensure that photography became widely regarded as an art form. This battle lasted his whole life.
Stieglitz believed the best way to get his message across was to use his talent. He tried to win as many exhibitions as possible, and by the time he died had won over 150 awards from all over the world for photography only.
Stieglitz went to Germany in 1881, and he found that Europeans respected photography as an art form much more readily than the Americans. Upon returning to America he found that many regarded the craze simply as a ‘fad’ or hobby, with no real status in the art world.
Stieglitz was so determined that photography be regarded as an art form, that he founded his own society in 1905 with that purpose. The ‘Photo-Secession Movement’ (better known as ‘291’) fought to have photography recognised in the art world.
The Photo-Secessionist were a group of photographers headed by Stieglitz who believed that it was necessary to differentiate between the photograph as visual reporting and the photograph as visual expression.
Here is a list of their ‘objectives’, as described in a leaflet in 1902:
– To advance photography as applied to pictorial expression
– To draw together those Americans practicing or otherwise interested in the art
– To hold from time to time, at varying places, exhibitions not necessarily limited to the productions of the Photo-Secessionists or to American work.
This Movement not only helped photography to be interpreted better by the masses, but the techniques that developed as a result of photographers ‘looking’ for a good picture changed the way that many people viewed life as a whole. This extended to Literature, where writers found themselves exploring everyday situations and objects in much more detail, thanks to photography. Two such writers who admitted to photography influencing their work included Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams. Through photography these writers became aware of the enormous possibilities that the objective world offered for verbal expression. The very presence of the ‘trivial’ detail found in photography forced these writers into symbolic rather than narrative presentations. They forced the reader to look at trivial details which he had never before seen, whereupon the ‘insignificant’ and ‘inconsequential’ became significant.
This raises the question of whether or not literature can be regarded as an art form (but I’ll save that for another dissertation!).
This proves that photography was not just a revolution in it’s own right, but it also revolutionised the art world, literary world and the way that people viewed themselves and their surroundings.
Before his death, Stieglitz said:
“My whole life, has been really dedicated to the fight for all those in whatever field, who insist on doing their work supremely well, and on giving those who are ready to give all of themselves to whatever they may wish to do, a full chance to do whatever they may be fitted to do, and to let them live.”
Thanks to Stieglitz, the impression that the general public had of Photography in America was changed – it was now widely accepted as a valid art form, however the views of many stubborn artists remained unchanged – they simply refused to accept that this medium could be called ‘art’; many still do.