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34 - Is Photography Art?

Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), as art critic, wrote about the "invasion" of the photography into art.

He described the photography industry as:

... the refuge of every would-be painter, every painter too ill-endowed or too lazy to complete his studies.1

Henri de la Blanchère (1821-1880), a French critic, wrote in 1859:

The less machine, the more art.2

Photography uses a machine.

At the time, during the Industrial Revolution, machine may have been as prominent in 19th-century minds as is Internet today.

Baudelaire writes how photography is soulless.

But if it [photography] be allowed to encroach on the domain of the impalpable and the imaginary [art], upon anything whose value depends solely upon the addition of something of a man's soul, then it will be so much the worse for us!

At the time, photography was seen as being part of art and science.

Baudelaire closes his essay by writing:

Are we to suppose that a people whose eyes are growing used to considering the results of a material science as though they were the products of the beautiful, will not in the course of time have singularly diminished its faculties of judging and feeling what are among the most ethereal and immaterial aspects of creation?

Paul Strand (1890-1976) responded to the criticisms of photography, of his day, succinctly.

... the twaddle about the limitations of photography has been answered by Stieglitz and a few others of us here in America, by work done.3

Edward Weston (1886-1958) quoted J. Nilsen Laurvik, director of the San Francisco Museum of Art.

The most valuable medium through which our present age can be portrayed—Photography—that wonderful extension of our own vision.4

Laurvik saw the camera as a conduit for the photographer's vision, just like the hand of an artist.

This artist's hand canard reappeared when Edward Weston (1886-1958) responded to the question of whether photography is art.

The controversy reminds me of one which took place in the 16th century: painting was on the defensive – the intelligentsia of the day had placed it among the mechanical arts because it was done with the hand, not the mind.

Ironically, a similar attitude is now held by the painters toward photography, – the hand, finally accepted as a means to an end, after a fight in which Leonardo da Vinci rose to defend painting, – the painters now assume the hand omnipotent, and label photography mechanical because it is done with a machine.5

More of the Weston Quote

Years later, Walker Evans responded to a question in which the interviewer compared photography, a "medium that is basically a mechanism," to the hand of the artist and the mind of the writer.

The secret of photography is, the camera takes on the character and the personality of the handler.

The mind works on the machine—through it, rather.6

It's odd how the minds of the artist or photographer are not discussed, instead of the artist's hand and the photographer's camera.

Edward Weston wrote:

Perhaps if singers banded together in sufficient numbers, they could convince musicians that the sounds they produced through their machines could not be art because of the essentially mechanical nature of their instruments.7

Today, the question of whether photography is art has receded.

Far fewer art critics and historians write essays about the question today.

But, you'll bump into the question occasionally.

When looking at an outstanding photograph, a common response from a non-photographer is, "You must have a great camera."

When looking at a painting, the same person would never say, "You must have a great brush."

Not long ago, I was at an open house for prospective students at the 92nd St. Y in New York City.

A fellow faculty member was impolite enough, and ignorant enough, to bring up the old canard that photographs are machine made with no hand of an artist.

I mentioned that I often ask my students to photograph a green pepper.

And, if photographs were made by a machine, then all of their photographs would look the same.

Why, the photographs should all look like Edward Weston's Pepper, 1930.

Nope. They don't.

A camera is a brush, nothing more, nothing less.

What's before the lens is just paint.

We live in the garden and in the machine.8

1 Originally published in 1859. Baudelaire, C. (1955). Charles Baudelaire: The mirror of art. (J. Mayne, Trans.). London: Phaidon Press Limited. Also Baudelaire, C. (1980). Oeuvres complètes. Paris: Robert Laffont. Reprinted in Newhall, B. (1980). Photography: Essays & images. New York: Museum of Modern Art.

2 De la Blanchère, Henri. (1859). L'Art du photographe. Paris: Amyot Editeur. Reprinted in Marien, M. W. (2002). Photography: A cultural history. New York: Harry M. Abrams.

3 Strand, P. (1922, April). Photography and the new god.

Broom: An International Magazine of the Arts, 3.

4 Newhall, N. (1973). The daybooks of Edward Weston, vol. 1, Mexico. Millerton, NY: Aperture. Reprinted in Newhall, B. (1980). Photography: Essays & images. New York: Museum of Modern Art.

5 Source not identified.

6 Katz, L. (1971, March-April). An interview with Walker Evans. Art in America. Reprinted in Goldberg, V. (1981). Photography in print: Essays from 1816 to present. New York: Simon and Schuster.

7 Weston, E. (1943). Seeing photographically. The Complete Photographer, 9(49), 3200-3206.

8 Marx, L. (2000, 1964). Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. (rev. ed.) New York: Oxford University Press. See Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden by Jeffrey L. Meikle.