Looking at where it stands today, the debate on photography’s classification as an art form may seem arbitrary. At first glance, it’s presence in museums and in higher education institutions leave no doubt on it’s classification as art. However, the paths it crossed on this journey are essential for understanding the medium itself and its current place in the art scene; but even more importantly, as we see in the Photographic Evangels chapter from Sontag’s famous book “On Photography” and Jay’s text “Photography and the Mirror of Art”, how it changed the very category it is situated in.
To begin with, both Jay and Sontag describe photography's initial struggle for legitimization as an art form in itself and against painting. It comes as no surprise that photography was compared to painting; for the era that mimicry and realism in a painting were qualities that would be appreciated, photography seemed like an enemy to the painters of the era. The “hasty French painter’s prediction” that the “painting is dead” which Sontag mentions (p. 80) seems like no other than Delaroche, whom Jay names in his text, stating the tone of melodrama in his prediction (p. 15). Painting obviously did not vanish from the face of earth with photography’s introduction. It is worth mentioning that photography’s introduction was not a surprise for painters. Gelassi states, “No one has proposed that the invention of photography was a mistake or an isolated flash of genius.” (page 12) The camera obscura of the era was an important aid to painters of the time, helping them record details by tracing the photographic image that was projected on a surface. It was the camera obscura that technically evolved into the photo-camera; therefore we can say that photography is an offspring of painting, or as Gelassi puts it “photography was not a bastard left by science on the doorstep of art, but a legitimate child of the Western pictorial tradition.” (Gelassi, p. 12) It should be seen more as an extension of painting. In additon, Jay mentions (p. 16) the possibility of seeing a reciprocal relationship between painting and photography, rather than a one-way relationship, and this is true to an extent with examples of framing, or capturing a movement; the only important fact is that this relationship started before the naissance of photography when the camera obscura became a common tool amongst painters. One could say photography is nothing more than a camera obscura that is able to fix the images to a surface.
When it comes to the concept of “aura” in a photograph, Sontag states "no photograph is an original in the sense that a painting always is, there is a large qualitative difference between what could be called originals” (p. 110) as Jay mentions (p. 16) that the reproducibility of a photograph with Fox-Talbot’s negative positive process has not destroyed the aura, but shifted to what we see as “originals” that possess the aura. Prints made out of the negatives were at times considered as “originals” and therefore seen as art objects. Another way of having this aura could be realized by the consideration of a photographic master, the auteur status of the photograph’s creator. A photograph that is exhibited in a museum possesses the aura of being an original artwork. Sontag also adds an interesting remark in relation to painting, saying that “The real difference between the aura that a photograph can have and that of a painting lies in the different relation to time… Given enough time, many photographs do acquire an aura.” (p. 110) A painting could fade, a text might seem out of date and therefore useless, but all photographs would seem interesting as they would be perceived as a scene from ancient times that we no longer have access to.
The increasing presence of photography in museums was another helping hand in its legitimization as an art form. Jay mentions the formalist approach that was taken towards the photographic image, while naming Alfred Stieglitz and John Szarkowski (p. 17). Especially Szarkowski is a seminal figure. As “curator of photography” working in MoMA, his decisions were influential. As Jay quotes Krauss, “photography has increasingly become the operative model for abstraction.” (quoted in Jay, 1989, p.20). The evolution both painting and photography had in terms of a formalist approach, and becoming a method of abstraction, is an interesting one. Sontag states, “It could be argued, however, that the very situation which is now determinative of taste in photography, its exhibition in museums and galleries, has revealed that photographs do possess a kind of authenticity.” (p. 109)
This authenticity is what Jay names as the hybrid status of photography, which leads us to the main idea of how photography changed art itself. For Jay a photograph “rarely stands alone as a pure image. It often conveys meaning in conjunction with an accompanying text” (p.19) A photographic image can be related to its surroundings. For example an image that is taken at a certain point in time and space can be related to all other images that were not taken at that time or that space.
Let’s remind ourselves of what Magritte said about the mystery of images: “Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.” (1965) A photographer has an autonomous choice while capturing a moment; the image finds itself a context regarding all else that rests. Photography finds meaning through the outside forces. Sontag quotes Walter Benjamin: “thought that a photograph, being a mechanically reproduced object, could not have genuine presence.” (quoted in Sontag, 1973, p. 109) On the previous chapter “The Heroism of Vision” of the same book, she mentions him once again “…Benjamin thought that the right caption beneath a picture could “rescue it from the ravages of modishness and confer upon it a revolutionary use value.” (Sontag, p. 83)
Photography’s hybrid status did not just change the role of painting, or for that matter, any other art, but it succeeded in destroying the limits between high art and low art, between the professional and the amateur, concluding what avant-garde aimed to do. It supported the contemporary way of thinking when it comes to art. Gelassi states (p.29) “That we now deeply value photography's disruptive character is perhaps the best measure of the degree to which the medium has shaped our conception of modern art.”
1. Sontag, S (2005) On Photography, New York RosettaBooks LLC (electronic edition); first edition published in 1973
2. Jay, M (1989) ‘Photography and the Mirror of Art’ in Salmagundi No. 84, (pp. 14-23)
3. Gelassi, P (1981) “Before photography: painting and the invention of photography ”