Photographs have long been seen as objective images and truthful documentation. But are they? If photography is not an impartial record of the world, is photography art? Must photography be classified as either documentation or art?
How do you look at a photograph?
Check out the Duke University’s Writing Studio handout on Visual Rhetoric / Visual Literacy:
Writing about Photography
Want to know more?
A Brief History
When Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre announced the invention of the daguerreotype (an early form of photography that produces an image directly on a copper plates covered with iodized silver) in 1839, the public was fascinated by the precise details that photography could capture. Artists, especially painters, initially saw photography as competition.
By the 1850s, photography was becoming a booming commercial enterprise, and taking a photograph was becoming faster and easier. It was also possible to produce multiple prints from the same photographic negative (the image captured on the film). Photographs advertised products, documented and commemorated people and events, promoted nationalist sentiments, educated the masses, functioned as souvenirs for tourists, and served as models for artists and designers.
In the midst of the commercial photography boom, some painters in France began to experiment with photography as an artistic medium, emphasizing pictorial expression over simply capturing likenesses. Interested in the play of atmospheric light and shadow, they manipulated the film in the darkroom (literally a darkened room where negatives are printed to create the positive images known as photographs). The artists eliminated (or “masked out”) parts of the images they did not want and enhanced others with chemicals. Art photographers wanted to elevate photography to the status of “high art,” and they produced compositions that were in dialogue with painting.
In 1888, George Eastman’s Kodak box camera was released. The portable, hand-held camera came pre-loaded with a roll of film. Suddenly photography was something that anyone, in theory, could do. Just as painters had worried that photography would take over painting, art photographers now worried that amateurs would take over photography, so they began to establish aesthetic guidelines. One of the most influential promoters of photography as an art form was Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), who founded journals and gallery spaces in the early 1900s dedicated to art photography.
Still, the tension between photography as art or as documentation persisted. Art museums in the U.S. did not really start collecting and incorporating photography into their exhibitions until the years between WWI and WWII, the same period in which photojournalism emerged. Only in the middle of the 20th century did institutions of higher education begin teaching photography as an artistic medium in the U.S.
Today, digital photography has made it even easier to take (and manipulate) photographs. But, as digital technology continues to advance, some photographers have chosen to return to photography’s roots and the craftsmanship of working with film and photochemicals, rather than a grid of pixels and a computer screen.
Black and White vs. Color Photography
Although color film had been introduced in the 1930s, the art world generally did not take art photographers who used color film seriously until the 1970s. In fact, it was not until the 1990s that color photography became standard. Before this time, color film was associated with commercial and amateur photography. Now, it is not unusual to see colored art photographs hanging in art museums and art galleries. Does this mean that you see and interpret color and black and white photographs in the same way?
Before the digital age, photography required film. Developed in the early 19th century, photography involved adjusting the camera’s focus and aperture (the hole that regulates how much light enters the camera lens and strikes the film), and then opening the shutter (the “door” that opens and closes to control how long the film is exposed to light). Light reflecting off the objects entered the camera, hit the film, and produced a negative image on it, with the paler objects appearing darker. Positive prints (the photographs) were created in a darkroom by shining light through the negative onto light-sensitive paper. The image was then fixed and made permanent with chemicals. Today, digital photography uses a grid of pixels and computers rather than film and chemicals for producing images.
See J. P. Ward, updated and revised by Gerald W. R. Ward, “Photography,” in Grove Art Online, Oxford Art Online (Nov. 9, 2009), http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T067117 NOTE: You must be connected to Duke’s internet for the link to work.
Works in the Nasher’s Collection
Upcoming: Light Sensitive: Photographic Works from North Carolina Collections (Feb. 14-May 12, 2013)
Previous: Becoming: Photographs from the Wedge Collection (Aug. 11, 2011-Jan. 8, 2012)
The Jazz Loft Project: W. Eugene Smith in New York City, 1957-1965 (Feb. 3-July 10, 2011)
Big Shots: Andy Warhol Polaroids (Nov. 12, 2009-Feb. 21, 2010)
Beyond Beauty: Photographs from the Duke University Special Collections Library (July 2-Oct. 18, 2009)
Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China (Oct. 26, 2006-Feb. 18, 2007)
Photography at Duke
Center for Documentary Studies: http://cds.aas.duke.edu/
Photography Collections, Archive of Documentary Arts in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library: http://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/documentaryarts/photography/index.html
Allen, Elizabeth, and Sophie Triantaphillidou, eds. The Manual of Photography. Oxford and Burlington: Focal Press, 2011.
Baldwin, Gordon. Looking at Photographs: A Guide to Technical Terms. Revised ed. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2009.
Cotton, Charlotte. The Photograph as Contemporary Art. Second ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2009.
Davis, Keith. An American Century of Photography: From Dry-Plate to Digital. Second ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999.
—. The Origins of American Photography, 1839-1885: From Daguerreotype to Dry-Plate. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
Edwards, Steve. Photography: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Frizot, Michel, ed. The New History of Photography. Cologne: Könemann, 1998.
Havinga, Anne E., Karen E. Haas, and Nancy Keeler. Photography. Edited by Sarah McGaughey Tremblay. MFA Highlights. Boston: MFA Publications, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2008.
Hayworth-Booth, Mark. Photography: An Independent Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.
Hulick, Diana Emery, ed. Photography, 1900 to the Present. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1998.
International Center of Photography. “Bibliographies.” http://www.icp.org/research-center/library/bibliographies. (for thematic bibliographies)
Jeffrey, Ian. How to Read a Photograph: Understanding, Interpreting and Enjoying the Great Photographers. London: Thames & Hudson, 2008.
Kracauer, Siegfried. “Photography.” In The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, translated and edited by Thomas Y. Levin, 47-64. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. (Originally written in 1927.)
Lenman, Robin. The Oxford Companion to the Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Marien, Mary Warner. Photography: A Cultural History. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2002.
Newhall, Beaumont. The History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present Day. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1982.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1977; New York: Anchor Books, 1990.
Szarkowski, John. Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973; New York: Bulfinch Press, 1999.
—. Photography, 1900 to the Present. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1998.
Wright, Terence. The Photography Handbook. New York: Routledge, 2004.
 For more information about Stieglitz, see Lisa Hostetler, “Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) and American Photography” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000 -), http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/stgp/hd_stgp.htm (October 2004).