Photographic Art

Though art appears to defy exact definition, paraphrasing from several definitions I have read give suggests a working definition–art is the “production of what is beautiful, appealing or of more than ordinary significance.” There are many ways in which others have defined art, what it is for, what it does, and what the function of art is. While nearly all of these considerations are valuable in some respect, it does lead us toward some uncertainty about how to answer questions about whether a possible new art form that comes on the scene is actually “art.”

Most of us would agree that photography is both art and science. Photographs express both feelings and emotions but photography also has a highly technical side to it which continues to get more and more complex in one sense, but is simplified also in that less and less complex activity is required from the photographer.

As long ago as the 15th century, artists used optical devices to enhance reflected and far away images onto their flat canvases in order to more effectively transform what they “saw” into a beautiful painting. Later around 1840 the Daguerreotype and Calotype produced two early types of photographic images. Gradually technical processing of photographs improved as chemical development and enhancement strategies advanced. Photography then struggled through a century or more to establish itself as much as an art as a science.

Through the early part of the 20th century photography and photographers, in particular, addressed the same issues as painters: content, viewpoint, texture, and composition. Photography became a medium for exploration of the real world and paralleled the activity of the painter: what to photograph or paint, how to light it, how to convey the beauty inherent in the scene, and how to share the experience with viewers.

It is interesting that as photography evolved and was under increasing improvement as a way to reproduce what we see in the real world, painters and drawers increasingly moved into a world or abstraction, first into Cubism, then into Surrealism and finally into Abstract Expressionism. In a way this opened up the real world increasingly to the photographic portrait.

Gradually photographers evolved as “fine art photography,” or as “photojournalism” or as “commercial photography.” However, even the latter two forms sometimes aspired to create art. Some photographers were clearly more skilled than others. It also helped that at times photographs were taken for political purposes. For example, some of the photographs of Ansel Adams of  Yosemite and Yellowstone helped develop political support among Americans for the protection of these areas as national parks. Also, photographic exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art and elsewhere has also helped moved photography to the forefront of the fine arts.

More recently the careful staging and lighting of photographic art and also new digital photography has allowed full spectrum photography, allowing ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light photographs. This has led to some stunning photographs of deep space by the Hubble Space Telescope. In addition, photograph printing technologies continue to improve, allowing a collectors market for photographs to develop.


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