Today’s topic is one that I’ve been mulling over for quite some time. There are a number of factors that lead to this week’s topic including my prep work for the start of a new semester teaching the History of Photography class at Washington State University.
Photography was introduced to the world in 1839 but there were efforts to create a permanent image with a camera leading up to that time. The above image was made by focusing light onto a pewter plate covered in what you can basically think of as asphalt (Bitumen of Judea). As the light hit the plate, it essentially hardened the asphalt in a way that was directly related to the amount of light that it received (more light, harder bitumen) so that when the exposure was complete (we think it was at least 8 hours but maybe days), the bitumen in the shadow areas could be washed off leaving a permanent image. This image is believed to be the first permanent image ever made. This achievement sparked the research that lead to two competing photographic technologies being introduced to the world in 1839. But here’s the thing – they didn’t consider these earliest ‘photographs’ art but rather viewed them as scientific advances.
Except that might not be entirely true. See, even from the start, there were people pushing for photography as art and others that pushed for photography as a technique for recreating a scene – and they both kind of had a point. Fast forward to today (which skips some pretty important photographic history) where we are decades into the post-modernist art movement (where the concept can be the art) so you’d think any question of whether or not a photograph is art would be long dead, but guess what, there are still naysayers claiming that photography is not art. Could their arguments have any merit?
First, I’ll pose a few questions to you to get you thinking. Do you think every image made by a photographer is art? If no, does it depend on the intent? If yes, can we expand that to include any image made by a camera? How about automated exposures (like those made from infamous red light cameras)?
Personally, I think it is fair to make the claim that a certain amount of intent is needed for a photograph to automatically be deemed a work of art. I’d even go so far as to say that not every photograph that an artist makes would qualify as art. After all, I use my cameras to create images solely for the sake of documentation and I think it would devalue the idea of what art is (even if that is tricky to define) by saying that every image I create is photographic art. Maybe a photographic equivalent to King Midas exists in the world but I’ve not been introduced to their gift yet.
I think I’ll leave it at that. Give some thought to these questions and let me know what you decide. Next week I want to pick up where we left off and discuss the topic in the context of the work of master photographer Peter Lik. If that name sounds familiar, that’s because you’ve probably seen him (on the Weather Channel) or recently saw that his work was in the headlines because of a recent sale of his work. Check back for details next Friday.