Mia/Second synopsis and comparative essay

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2. Second Synopsis - Martin Jay: Photography and the Mirror of Art (1989)

Since its invention, photography was strongly appealing to the masses due to its capability of accurate mimetic representation. But it was far from being accepted as an art form, being highly criticized by painters and literates as to be merely imitative and non-expressive. After 1850’s certain innovations in film speed, lenses and experiments with retouching, composing and multiple exposures suggested that photography practice can and does include an artist’s mark as a subjective intervention. Hereby photography came very close to painting of the time, for instance techniques of softening the focus in pictorialism and hand colouring of pictures brought the two languages closer to each other. In that sense photography could gain aesthetic credibility due to its painterly rather than technological context, but these attempts did not elevate photography to the realm of art yet. Later on, the discourse emerged that the influence between photography and painting is rather mutual than one-directional. Photography influenced visual imagination of painters as well, especially by flattening of the space and interest in ephemeral moments. Besides, photography acquired what Benjamin calls an aura of an artwork. Firstly, ‘’original prints’’ produced from negatives gained a fetishist value and the secondly presenting photographer’s works in a manner of artistic oeuvre led to the glorification of ‘’masters’’ of photography. The democratization of photographic technology could seemingly ‘’make everyone an artist’’ and it also blurs to a certain extent the distinction between high and low art.

Photograph has a highly mixed status and has thus subverted the modernist idea of an autonomous artwork. It rarely stands alone as a pure image and it often conveys meaning in combination with the text, title or juxtaposition in a sequence or space. Photography achieved its exalted status and moreover contributed to reassessment of the category of aesthetic by subverting its own tradition.

3. Comparative essay - FIRST DRAFT

Photography encapsulates art itself. (Working title)

“Nothing is more acceptable today than the photographic recycling of reality, acceptable as an everyday activity and as a branch of high art.” However, there seems to be something particularly intriguing and contradictory about photography that causes its position to be questioned over and over again. The comparison between Susan Sontag’s text Photographic Evangels and that of Martin Jay titled Photography and the Mirror of Art suggests a statement on why photography is valuable in the context of art.

Since its invention in the early 19 century, photography has undergone a struggle to attain the position of aesthetically legitimate genre of art. Both Jay and Sontag explain early photography being attacked as non-expressive and mechanical plagiarism as opposed to painting, an established fine art of the time. But Jay gives an example of the discourse in defense of photography which emphasized that the relationship between painting and photography was not one-directional but reciprocal. This approach analysed how painting influenced photography, and furthermore, how existence of the camera shaped visual imagination and language of painters (for instance flattening of space, capturing ephemeral moment, chance-like framing etc.). According to Martin Jay photography therefore gradually developed its recognition. Yet Susan Sontag stresses that throughout history photography itself encompassed even conflicting standpoints on whether its products are art or not and why. She presents a set of examples ranging from Julia Margaret Cameron’s claim that photography qualifies as art because it seeks beauty to the very opposite Henry Peach Robinson’s statement that it is art because it can lie. Furthermore there were artists who rejected the question in the first place, such as Duchamp with the statement that whether camera’s “results come under the category of Art is irrelevant”. Sontag’s text stresses that there is no unambiguous answer to the question whether photography is art or not or at least it is not to be found within the multifarious voices of its creators.

Next phase of photography’s integration in arts according to Jay is the moment when the notion of aura was attached to it. This ‘’auratic nimbus’’ of a photograph has been seemingly stripped away by the infinite reproducibility by negative-positive process. But the cult status of a unique artwork was restored firstly by attaching strong value to ‘original’ prints in limited editions, and secondly by glorifying ‘masters’ of photography, whose work was exhibited in major art museums. Sontag states that there is no coincidence that photography’s institutionalisation corresponded with it being acclaimed to the realm of art by the general public. Hereby the tone of both writers is critical – Jay explains that aura meant granting a fetishist value to the original prints and Sontag claims that photographers seem to always have a necessity to remystify what they do. Even though with the entry in the museum photographs regained an aura as a constitutive ingredient of any artwork, Susan Sontag observes that this very adoption made photography itself seem problematic. Because “photography’s career in the museums does not reward any particular style” but rather presents photography as an eclectic collection of simultaneous and heterogeneous intentions that reveal arbitrariness and subjectivity of all photographs.

Despite this reauratisation that granted photography a prestige position in Arts, the very essence of photography is in bridging life and art or even blurring the line between high and low art. Museum’s naturalisation of photography revealed it as a continuous tradition that not only encompasses both primitive and sophisticated, but where the line between the two has very little meaning. Martin Jay explains that blurred distinction between expert and amateurpractitioner has been achieved by mass commercial production and therefore democratisation of photographic technology. He emphasizes that no need for special skills in order to produce artworks is an illusion but that the sentiment of the remark “photography makes everyone an artist”, remains. This raises a question about how to evaluate photographs, where Sontag goes even further in stating that there actually is “no such thing as a bad photograph, only less interesting, less relevant, less mysterious ones”.

We could say that the essence of photography is duality. In relation to Sontag’s statement above, it manifests on the level of evaluation - attempts to draw a line between good and bad subjects, techniques or styles in photography, end up in only binding them even more tightly in one eclectic formation. She says that it is in photography’s nature to be a conglomerate form of seeing and a foolproof medium of creation. Jay explains photography’s mixed status in a sense that no photograph exists alone as a pure image, but its meaning is always generated in conjunction with text and other images in the sequence or space. Even though the same goes for all visual art, where Jay sees the power of photography is that it embraced its hybrid status and made it obvious. Photography’s two-faced nature is witnessed by its relation to the notion of art. The prestige it acquired as an art form derives from its very ambivalence towards being an art. Photography has, at the same time it gained its status, caused the reassessment of the category of aesthetic. According to Jay, what makes it so crucial a phenomenon is the subversion of the very same tradition it became a part of. Sontag indicates another aspect of how photography changed the way we perceive artworks – a photographic reproduction. As most works of art are nowadays known from photographic copies, photography has irreversibly changed fine arts and the very idea of an artwork.

While Jay’s point of view on the potential of photography is rather optimistic, Susan Sontag observes that behind the discourse about its position she senses a fear that photography is already a senile art and that only capacity left is historiography and curatorship. But she also claims that the true extent of “photography’s triumph as art, and over art,” has not yet been understood. Hereby her views approach those of Jay, both attaching specific power to the notion of photography. Jay concludes with the statement that photography has truly become of age and gained the deserved position among arts, whereas Susan Sontag is much more precise. She stresses that the question whether photography is art or not is essentially misleading. She emphasizes that photography “is not an art form at all”. It is, in the first place, a medium (in the same way as language is) and as such sometimes generates works that can be called art.

Both Sontag and Jay regard photography as most intriguing and crucial, and find its power in relation towards the notion of art. Sontag makes a distinction between two opposite understandings of art. Traditionally it is understood as an activity of exceptional individuals producing precious objects – works of art with all their authenticity and value. On the other side, there is a notion that claims art itself being obsolete. Sontag sees the power of photography is that it confirms both ideas of art. Similarly, Jay concludes that what makes it so critical a phenomenon, is photography’s essentially hybrid condition and the subversion of the very tradition it has been inscribed in.

Furthermore, they both conclude with the parallel to the condition of music that was the standard to which all the arts were to aspire. Sontag says: “It is inevitable that more and more art will be designed to end as photographs.” They are nearly praising photography to the skies by saying it will overtake music’s position as a standard and laying a bet on photography’s exemplary role in the future. Yet finally, it is important to take into account that Photographic Evangels is from 1973 and Photography and the Mirror of Art was written in 1989 meaning that photography had more than another 30 years to evolve bringing the supremacy of the digital image-making. Therefore the question arises, to what extent photography has indeed met Martin Jay’s and Susan Sontag’s aspirations.