Image by Tomasz Sroka

WHEN DID PHOTOGRAPHY BECOME ART?

BY   CAROLYN BRISSETT

Almost 200 years after Nicéphore Niépce shot his famous View from the Window at Le Gras in 1827, photography has eased and teased its way into every corner of our lives.

 

For the next few decades, photographers lugged their cumbersome equipment from boudoirs and ballrooms to battlefields all over the world, including the American Civil War. For the first time, ordinary families unable to pay for expensive portraits could record the highlights of their lives, while marveling at pictures of faraway places replacing hand-drawn illustrations in newspapers and magazines.

 

But in 1888 George Eastman invented a small and simple camera using innovative roll film and marketed it to the masses. Enter the Box Brownie and – the first time – casual family snapshots. This newly-popular technology was soon followed by moving pictures and 35mm film, reigning supreme for the rest of the XX century.

 

PARLORS TO PROSECUTIONS

However, it was pioneering landscape photographer Carleton Watkins who explored this maturing technology, extending its boundaries. After a brief stint in a portrait gallery, he travelled to Yosemite in 1861. Among the first photographs of this striking landscape, his mammoth-plates and stereoscopic negatives eventually led to the establishment of the US National Parks system.

 

Much admired for their detail, his photographs extended well beyond adorning walls and illustrating reports. In fact, his pictures of mining activities were presented as evidence in land claims and environmental lawsuits.

 

SCIENCE + CRAFT BECAME ART

Generally viewed as journeymen or – at best – artisans, early photographers were technicians rather than visionaries, producing commodities instead of artworks. It was not until the first decade of the XX century that photography finally came into focus for the art world. In New York, Alfred Stieglitz began to feature photographs (often his own work) in his Photo-Secession Gallery, displayed alongside sculptures and paintings. This was where photography found acceptance as a new art form, no longer merely an instant (and inferior) replacement for oils and watercolors.

 

SOCIAL REFORM AND ABSTRACT ART

As society twirled through the 1920s into the Great Depression, photographers like Arthur Rothstein and Dorothea Lange were recording social phenomena, including the desperation of dustbowl migrants. Cameras were powerful tools for social reform, particularly in the hands of left-leaning photographers like Paul Strand, who advocated art as a way of furthering political and social causes.

 

Moving away from gritty portraits of poverty, Eliot Porter and Ansel Adams (both Stieglitz protégés) turned to nature. Porter’s delicately-detailed work brought ‘too literal’ color photography firmly into the serious art world, while Adams preferred the ‘purity’ of classic silver prints in his landscapes.

DIGITAL DEMOCRACY

Today, photography has pushed its range beyond the boundaries of more traditional art forms: smartphones provide irrefutable coverage, with authenticity and immediacy outweighing inexperience. Far more than a once-elite reproduction technique turned art form, photography has developed into a powerful tool for protecting freedoms around the world.