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.