The Integration of Photography and Art.

An Essay in Historical Retrospect
by Miguel Gómez

"French Chris On The Convertible, NYC" © 1979 Nan Goldin.

Out of the many successful means of human communication, there seems to be a particular one that is subject to continuous judgement or questioning. Photography, a relatively new medium amongst the classically accepted branches of art, permanently passes through the spying glass of our modern day culture. Although it has been present in human life for a couple of hundred years now, and however common our encounters with it occur on an daily basis, it is inevitable for the curious mind to be wondered, amused or even doubtful about the thoughts that a strong photographic image brings to the consciousness of its spectators.

Everyone has been thrilled at one point or another by the power of images. This inherent capacity to amaze individuals is still present no matter how much time has passed since we first saw (or took) that initial photograph.

The desire to investigate the qualities and capacities of the medium is by no means irrelevant. Efforts in this matter, of course, can be overlooked, and the reason is quite simple: Photography is virtually everywhere and the unaware passer-by can underestimate it, or be oblivious to its influence. In other words, its own visibility may make it unrecognisable as Art.

People may like it or dislike it, but the presence of photographic images seems to have replaced words in many aspects. The fact that we can stumble upon photographs in almost any context of our daily lives therefore raises a question: How can something so seemingly common and omnipresent be classified as Art?

Intrinsically present in all human beings, Art is a tool for expression and communication of emotion, beauty (ugliness at times) and stands as the representation of thoughts, feelings and ideas. Only limited groups of people have the capacity to embrace this inner resource and actually do something with it. It is commonly accepted that Architecture, Painting, Sculpture, Music, Dance, Literature, and Cinema are the classic group of arts, (“The Seven Arts”) and that it is necessary to have a formal training in them while also having a continuous or relevant production of works in each particular chosen field to be considered an artist.

Yet again, most people do not practice photography as art. Photographers (dedicated ones), go one step beyond when the camera is in their hands. When a “real” photographer is about to take a picture, a set of intentions further from the basic ones before mentioned, comes to fruition. If the result, that is, the photograph, brings together the author’s emotions and the action of thought, but more especially, if it conjugates these two within a certain concept (chosen and deliberate), it can be considered as something truly artistic. Sometimes, the product of chance may also bring about artistic results. This occurs when a photographer’s view has been polished to such a degree that makes the action of shooting seem effortless. However, it took some time before these processes were recognized as meritory, or even worthy of praise and admiration.

Photography gained recognition as an Art form thanks to the effort of masters and pioneers such as Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. Stieglitz particularly, was very determined on establishing the recognition of photography as an art form in the United States. Believing photography could only be regarded as art if it was put side by side with important paintings and sculptures, Stieglitz formed the “The Photo-Secession”, various exhibition spaces like “291”, and journals like “Camera Work”, ventures that contributed enormously to the expansion of photography in the art world. Many years later, in 1955, Steichen organized a massive project: “The Family of Man” exhibition, which could be categorised today as a reportage collection that nevertheless classified images according to an artistic standard.

"The Steerage" © 1907 Alfred Stieglitz.

Imogen Cunningham, Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, in turn (amongst others), continued working with exceptional skill throughout the 20th Century. The quality and craftsmanship that characterised their work proved their degree of commitment, which was also embraced by Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, and later on by William Eggleston (who pursued colour photography). As a human form of expression, opposed to the simple result of the handling of a machine (which was one of the major stances against it being considered an art), photography had finally earned a position in the list of the fine arts. This position however, was not yet as preponderant as it is nowadays.

"Nude" © 1936 Edward Weston.

It seems surprising that even up to the 1970’s it was not very common to see a photography show in the world’s most important galleries and museums. Today, the situation is quite the opposite. The art world is embracing photography with great interest, and more importantly, many photographers are considering galleries, museums and publications as the ideal platforms to showcase their work. Group and retrospective individual photography exhibitions, twenty years ago were not considered as significant as they are today.

"Untiltled" © 1973 William Eggleston.

The historical development of photography as an art form seems to resemble the never-ending growth of branches on a climbing plant. Even though there is no definitive connection between the works of classic and contemporary creators of the medium, many new names in photography seem to compile previous efforts of their predecessors. Some of them instead, revise with poignant attitude the purpose of being a photographer, disregarding basic traditional principles, namely technique, in favour of achieving a particular style or “look and feel”. The output they produce is continuously being acknowledged as Art as well. So how does this occur?

Photography is brought to the Art scenario today in many different ways. One particular method in which contemporary photographers gained credibility as producers of Art was by documenting happenings, performances or installations that were registered with the camera. Initially, the results of photographing modern expressions like “Land Art” might have proved sufficiently inspirational or justified for many photographers as they could now name the photograph “the work of art”. The result (and the proof) of the preconceived work could be now exhibited and sold. (The actual physical piece was impossible to transport or even move from its location). This strategy then moved towards other types of works done in a minor scale which involved the creation of a piece and the resulting photographing of it. The work of the Spanish photographer Chema Madoz can easily be placed under this category.

Other approaches include staged photography (also called Tableau photography), which has gained recognition in the art world too. It involves storytelling through images in which a set is constructed and a story is recreated by means of characterisation, and the use of props. In a way this type of photography seems to match the intention that traditional painting had for centuries. Jeff Wall’s work is certainly classifiable within this genre.

"Insomnia" © 1994 Jeff Wall.

Opposed to this very formal methodology of constructing images, there is a rather emotionally detached approach to the creation of photographs. A large percentage of contemporary photography is constructed without a dramatic or hyperbolic meaning and it is based on a deadpan aesthetic. This vision is principally present in architectural and landscape photography (it may also involve portraiture or other subjects, but the result of these images is always very stark and uninvolved). This type of register requires a large printing format since it involves the sudden appearance of many different details, which can only be seen through magnification. Patterns and unexpected elements in the image suddenly become noticeable in the enlarged print and these patterns point out both a particular element of intrinsic order (or chaos) in things, and also signal a way of seeing those things. Andreas Gursky’s work is easily recognisable under this category. But what makes this type of photography artistic? It is a difficult topic to deal with, but most critics would agree that it has to do with its political observations: the identification of a hidden pattern or behaviour both in human conduct and in the structure of things. There is also a similar approach in the so called “Aftermath” photography, in which the photographer does a reportage of an already finished event and documents the remains of it, making references to abandonment and desolation in an unemotional manner.

"99 Cent" © 1999 Andreas Gursky.

Photography has also arrived to a point where the documentation of irrelevant subjects gains aesthetic value. Everything all of a sudden is worthy of being photographed, including rubbish. Ordinary things become extraordinary when they are photographed. This process is artistic in itself, as things can be appreciated in a different perspective, with a different light, and become empowered with a fresh new character. Gabriel Orozco’s and Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s work are representative of this trend. The detachment from the objects is still present as in the deadpan approach, but since the subject matter is closer to the photographer, a certain degree of involvement is noticeable.

Which brings us to the documenting of personal and intimate life through photography. Nan Goldin is characteristically loyal to this method. The value in this aesthetic relies in the revealing nature and almost “confessional attribute” present in this method of work. The degree of involvement in this kind of photography points out the hidden: The dark side of human relationships: something that could be considered too much of a private affair to be put in a family album, which generally portrays representations of happiness. The genuineness present in this kind of work increases the regard of these images as Art.

Another way of making the work of a photographer gain credibility and a significant amount of recognition has been through the observation of his or her commercial work. Photography of this kind (and not only photography purely regarded as Fine Art) can also represent in many cases, artistic standards, and it can be classified eventually as museum material. Earlier works by the likes of Avedon or Penn, who worked in fashion and commercial photography throughout a big portion of their careers, proved to the public that as long as a photographic image was capable of representing and generating emotions, the gap between the two seemingly different photographic practices was no longer existent. Helmut Newton’s work has been elevated primarily to this category. The barrier had been broken. Images of commercial impact were now regarded as valid as any traditional artistic work like painting or sculpture.

It can be said without hesitation that photography has evolved from its infancy as a novelty and then as an apparently second-class competitor of painting, into a highly appreciated form of art. The massive popularity the camera initially had, made the Art world somewhat skeptical of its capacity to convey real artistry, regardless of the beauty it might capture. The public itself, who had the same opportunity as any professional artist to work with this medium, also nourished this widespread perception of photography as a technique rather than an art form.

The main difference between the intentions of Fine Art photographers and the general public’s usage of photography resides in the fact that the capacity of portraying ideas, concepts, emotion and skill is completely different in nature when done with artistry.

One of the main intentions of art has been to mirror life, and in a very deliberate way, photographers through their efforts, have been mirroring life and art. As a newcomer, photography had to struggle with legitimising itself while art never had a problem in being recognised as such.

Photography has had to live with the rise and fall of its own movements just like many other art forms. Some of the early movements in the medium like Pictorialism dealt with the desire to make photography be regarded as Art. Nowadays, this desire seems to be irrelevant; the virtue of photography has long been seen as sufficient within the very characteristics of the tools it employs. There is no longer any need for artifice. Movements have therefore spread out into trends that have given birth to new genres. In other words photography standards have undergone a metamorphosis in the last 50 years in which many established parameters are in constant revision, which means the medium is still alive even more so as an art form today.