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The Progression of Photography—How The Humble Photo Has Come Through A Rénaissance

If you’ve asked whether photography is art, you’ve probably compared photography to other forms of visual expression, such as painting, drawing or statuary. Jonathan Jones in an opinion piece for the Guardian explained that photography couldn’t possibly be art, and it never will be; the reason, he articulated, was that photography is a technology.

Jones’ article focused on Phantom by Peter Lik, a black-and-white photograph of a column of light filtering through a curvaceous rock formation in the Antelope Canyon in Arizona, the conclusion, he maintains: ‘beauty is cheap if you point a camera at a grand phenomenon of nature’. Whilst this particular appraisal is perhaps fitting for the Lik photograph, I believe the conclusions thus drawn and extrapolated to the entirety of photography slightly childish, however with opinion pieces this is often the point—to provoke discussion, and let others form their own, hopefully rational conclusions.

To take a slightly nuanced approach, it’s worth delving into the exact issues critics might have with photographs like Phantom. My personal problem with this image can be traced to the same problem I have with photorealistic art often the de rigeur go-to for technically brilliant mega-savants; technically brilliant, but not necessarily art as the developed world would have it. Why? Because the artist merely creates what they see, and does not project their own feeling or thoughts which we have come to expect should direct a particular piece.

But, if we accept this reasoning, does this then put us in a particular quandary? What of the realism taken by Rénaissance masters such as Michelangelo or da Vinci? Would we dismiss their work as trivial? The difference here lies in photorealism vs realism: clearly if Rénaissance artists painted or sculpted exactly what they saw, then we simply wouldn’t know since we have nothing else to compare those images to, say, such as a photograph.

Of course ignorance is a ridiculous route to take for an apologist of Rénaissance art; one must accept though that as style goes, realism was the school of thought of the day, and due to the technical brilliance coupled with (as an example) slightly outré gestures of the people concerned as the subject matter, then a modicum of interpretation is at least required i.e. a projection of emotion of some degree has occurred in the creation of the piece.

As an example, da Vinci’s Virgin on the Rocks shows some odd hand-movements of both Madonna and the angel  which one might not expect if real people were sitting for the painting; of course the distinction here between photorealism is two-fold—Rénaissance art is realism in that it depicts people as they are, however is distinct from photorealism in that da Vinci clearly wasn’t painting Madonna herself, or Jesus, or a young John the Baptist.

Michelangelo's Pietà Renaissance Sculpture St Peter's Basilica
Michelangelo’s Pietà, a Rénaissance sculpture, situated in San Pietro (St Peter’s Basilica) in Vatican City.

The reason for comparing Rénaissance art and photography might not be immediately obvious, however they both have realism as a core tenet. This tenet is not immutable in the case of photography insofar as photography is still a developing field, whereas Rénaissance art will, clearly, always be in the past. I focus on Rénaissance art as being the first type of ‘all-encompassing’ artwork in human history, because it contains interpretive elements as well as technical brilliance; medieval art often lacked perspective, with 3D images often projected into rather amusing two-dimensional counterparts to strange effect. Going back further, one notices that Egyptian art often depicted people with two left hands—clearly the nuance of mirror-images wasn’t important to the followers of the Pharaoh.

Le Point de vue du Gras First Photograph Nicéphore Niépce
‘Le Point de Vue du Gras’ or ‘View from the Window at Le Gras’, was a 1826 photograph by Nicéphore Niépce, posited to be the first ever photograph, or at least the first to survive to the present day.

When Nicéphore Niépce created his method of heliography in 1822, you can be sure that when he put it to first use, he wasn’t worrying about interpretive elements, and whether subsequent generations would find his photographic work derivative of nature. Once a technique has been discovered and then honed, whether it be the preparation of a photographic plate, or the change from using sticks to using paintbrushes, realism has often been the first starting point of application, and so it has been with photography.

Photogravure of Victor Hugo
Late 19th century photogravure of French novelist and artist Victor Hugo

In the space of several decades, photography had been taken from producing the primitive and grainy view of Le Gras to creating handsome fine images of French author Victor Hugo; a level of technological precision which then allowed a more flexible application of the photograph, especially as a new medium to explore new ideas, or in other words taking the explicit nature of photorealism and introducing implicit elements to turn it into an art form.

Claude Cahun Clown Self-Portrait Surrealism 1927
‘I am in training, don’t kiss me’: a self-portrait of Claude Cahun taken in about 1927. Cahun was a core member of the Surrealist movement.

Throughout the 1920s, photography was used to good effect within the Surrealist movement, with the likes of Man Ray and Claude Cahun noticeable for their use of startling imagery to evoke emotions surrounding gender. Marcel Duchamp, a leader in the Dada movement, was known for the photographs of his female alter-ego ‘Rrose Sélavy’, however Cahun’s works (including her literary activities) suggest that she considered herself to be gender-neutral, with this theme being fairly typical in her work; the full academic impact of this has only recently been realised, commensurate with additional due attention having been given to LGBT issues and equal rights.

Comparing a photograph to a painting of exactly the same subject, It is undoubtedly true that photography is different from other art forms in that less technical ability is required to achieve the same image with a camera—this is by no means a belittling statement, for it can lend photography a certain edge; in the case of transgender or gender neutral art, photography spells an important message in its human quality because of its reality. If the above image of Cahun were a painting, would its message still be as powerful? I would argue not, because there may be a tendency to reduce a painting to an idea, or a flight-of-fancy, whereas a photograph of an actual person speaks of ecce homo (for want of a better, common Latin genderless expression), or ‘behold, I am a person’.

Thomas Hopeker's Controversial 9/11 Photograph
A family look on, supposedly indifferently to the scenario behind them, in Thomas Hoepker’s famous yet haunting photograph of the September 11th terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York.

The artistic merit of photography need not be limited to scenes which have been contrived, or set-up, by a person with a particular vision in mind; indeed, a photographer in the right place and at the right time can create art based on luck, yet informed by experience. Take German photographer Thomas Hoepker’s controversial yet lauded photograph of the attack on the World Trade Centre complex. Hoepker’s powerful skills as a photographer coupled with the viscissitudes of the 11th of September, 2001 and where he found himself on that particular day led to the creation of this forever haunting photograph: a family nonchalantly bypassing the events which are unravelling behind them; by, I imagine, continuing with whatever they were doing prior to the attack.

Hoepker couldn’t possibly have planned this shoot in advance, and yet I find it striking in that despite the lack of planning it still contains a message which screams of self parody. Again, the very medium of the photograph lends to the important message: the detachment of human emotion from very-real, supposedly disturbing images. That we are often said to be desensitized towards television advertisement from various charities, or from video footage of war-torn regions, makes this an incredibly poignant photograph, reflecting irony.

We’ve seen within the ‘pre-planned’ photography of Claude Cahun that the imagery therein contained can conform to a certain aesthetic whilst portraying a certain message however the above photograph of Hoepker’s achieves this same aim; photography can still contain powerful messages even if it is a ‘spur-of-the-moment’ shot.

Photography: where transient moments are forever twisted into powerful messages. Is this not enough to reason that the use of a technology is an art form?

All photographs are understood to have been available under fair use for educational purposes. Copyright is still held by the respective holders where applicable. 




  1. I definitely think that photography is an art form, and for it to be dismissed as such is ignorance I feel. When you look at what some people do consider as art forms such as condensation cubes and totally way out conceptual things, photography can’t be discounted. I guess in the end it is just a matter of opinion but for me as an avid fan of art (especially realism and the Renaissance ere) and practising artist in the contemporary age; I look at Tracey Emin’s “Bed” and then at any photograph by Tom Hunter or one of Steven Miesel’s narrative pieces and there’s no question in which appeals to my senses more so as art.

    • I’m always especially cautious of describing something as ‘not-art’; even if it is something that I personally wouldn’t consider art, I’m loathe to admit it. One can have internal dialogues all day about what constitutes art, and if one can’t come to a reasonable argument where there’s a strong counter, then it probably shouldn’t be admitted publicly—especially if your job is as critic. That said, I’m especially skeptical of conceptual art, but note in our case that Man Ray launched a career out of conceptual art and photography, so what does that mean!

      Cheers for providing your perspective on this too.

      • I agree with you on that, and conceptual art certainly is an area to be skeptical but as you say, there are people who can relate to it and are attracted to it, different strokes for different folks as they say.

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