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Photography, Fine Art Photography, and the Visual Arts: 1900–2001

photographers photographs painting images

The Cleveland Institute of Art

This essay represents the relationships between photography, fine art photography, and the visual arts as they developed in the United States between 1900 and 2001. Though photography had come to be acknowledged as a legitimate form of artistic pursuit by the early part of the 20th century, it was considered a minor one. This was regardless of the fact that photography’s introduction had had a significant impact on our perception and our visual culture. Instead, this evaluation was premised on the fact that photography as a medium had no historical precedent, and if any parallel was to be drawn it would be with that of printmaking, whose conventions of editioning it would eventually adopt. From the point of view of the “Academy,” “art” was fixed in concept and form, because it reflected values that were eternal. While this position allowed for the emergence of new styles, which were historically contingent on one another, it did not readily allow for new forms and media. Consequently, abstract art or the material experimentation of the early avant-garde would become integrated into art’s history after much critical debate and adjustment. By contrast, for most of the 20th century, photography would exist in a world of parallel institutions, circumscribed by their own history.

In relation to art, photography did not gain a significant position until the 1960s when conceptual artists such as Mel Bochner, Robert Morris, Hans Haacke, Doug Huebler, Dan Graham, Bruce Nauman, Dennis Oppenhiem, Robert Smithson, Gordon Matta-Clark, Michael Asher, et al., were developing non-media-specific, post-studio practices appropriated photography. The effect of this conceptual turn resulted in an end to the hierarchy so cherished by traditionalists, which set photography and film into a category of its own. Today art rather than being media specific constitutes a definitive economy of concepts given representation by those media that best serve them.

During the first half of the 20th century, photography’s lack of an historical connection with traditional art making gave rise to a constellation of issues that informed the debate concerning its status. Therefore, while artists and photographers could equally represent their work as the products of their personal struggle to express their individual (subjective) vision, photography during the late 19th and early 20th centuries also represented a challenge to the conventions underpinning the traditional Western arts. This stemmed from the fact that photography was the product of a chemical process that captured and fixed the light reflected off an object into an image of that object, and seemingly required only minimal skills. Photography, consequently, was judged to be no more than a means to mechanically reproduce appearances and as such was most suitable for scientific and documentary (evidentiary) use rather than creative ends.

During this period as photographers explored the mechanics of their new media to determine its capabilities beyond mere transcription, painters were grappling with its effects on their own practices. Since the middle of the 19th century, painters used photography as an optical aid the way previous generations had used the camera obscura and other such devices. While photography’s very ability to reproduce appearances more accurately, more realistically, and more objectively served the artist, these qualities also threatened painting’s supremacy in the same manner that digital imaging does today. To counter photography’s effect and to sustain painting’s relevancy in the modern world, painters set about extricating themselves from the limitation imposed upon them by traditional approaches to representation. They did this by initially accentuating color and abandoning perspective to emphasize the literal flatness of the canvas and painterly process. These were all qualities that were beyond the photographic process, which produced mostly black and white images of the external world.

The emerging influence of photography can be found in Edouard Manet’s use of a shallow, layered space and flattened color, while his mixture of paint handling and differing degrees of finish announces photography’s limitations. Meanwhile, painters such as Claude Monet, and later George Seurat, applied the latest knowledge of optics and light to painting to challenge photography’s claim on science by placing dabs or dots of primary and complementary colors in close proximity to one another so that they would blend in the eye of the viewer. In this manner, they could claim painting to be more scientific and superior to photography. The effect of photography can also be found in the manner that Edgar Degas uses the framing edge to cut through a figure. This notion of the picture as a fragment of a continuum that extended beyond the framing edge challenged the classical conception of the painting as a self-contained whole has its origins in photography.

Subsequently, post-impressionist painters such as Utrillo abandoned direct observation altogether and painted his views of Paris’ suburbs, from photographs, which offered him ready-made views and compositions that he executed with heavy strokes. Yet, the effect of new medium on the visual arts actually was more profound then as a source of new imagery, optical effects, or even as a means of reproduction. Photography is a contributing factor in the causal chain of cultural, political, and technological events that resulted in emergence of an avant-garde that in the name of “modernity” rejected not only traditional representations, but also the very conventions of art.

The successive schools of impressionism, post-impressionism, cubism, futurism, etc., incrementally moved art to seek new models in the primitive and the industrial. This resulted in artists committed to pictorial issues, as well as focusing materially on the industrial and scientific perspectives that were altering “everyday life.” This questioning of the traditional forms of artistic production not only made it possible to stylistically give expression to the iconography of modern life, but it also led to the inclusion of actual bits and pieces of the real world.

Cutting up bits of colored paper and magazines, photographs, old prints, wallpaper, and other materials; lining teacups with fur; or having sculptures and paintings industrially fabricated obviously does not require the same types of technical skills that a naturalistic rendering of an apple glistening with condensation does. This move toward using the real as a means of expression became the foundation for the most important innovation of 20th-century art—the development of collage by Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, and George Braque. Collage led to the development of photomontages by the Dadaists, Russian Constructivists, and the Bauhaus, which was informed by an ideological vision of an art that could be integrated into and transform everyday life as common things, rather than specialized forms. In this manner, photography significantly contributes to the modernist conception of art in terms of how and what can be represented, by challenging its historical means.

Against the backdrop of modernism’s emergent practices, the photographer, gallerist, and progressive thinker, Alfred Stieglitz became a tireless advocate for photography as an aesthetic medium. Stieglitz was a talented “amateur” at a time when the world of fine art photography was made up of amateur photography societies and clubs. Professional photographers were those who maintained portrait studios, produced landscape, created documentary photographs or sentimental scenes for commercial consumption. Consequently, Stieglitz set about to establish the criteria by which photography could be practiced as an art form. He envisioned photography as a pictorial art, premised on the unadulterated image of what the photographer observed through the camera lens, rather than as something to be subjected to manipulation. As such, he opposed the practice of many fine art photographers who altered the photographic image by hand or chemically to make them painterly. Photography and painting in Stieglitz’ view were distinctive art forms and each must follow their own course. Due to the new practices of abstraction, Stieglitz came to predict that photography would not be able to continue to follow painting. Yet, this was not true. While staying true to a purist camera approach, Paul Outerbridge, Jr., Edward Weston, Charles Scheeler, Edward Steichen, Imogen Cunningham, and Paul Strand created pictorial strategies that turned real-world things, such as barn siding, the patterns formed by leaves, or the simple geometry of industrial forms into abstract or semiabstract images.

Just as painters continued to abandon the conventional point of view associated with traditional perspective, photographers began to explore the use of disconcerting viewpoints, taking photographs from above, from below, and at oblique angles to their subject. This produced distortions, deformations, and foreshortening, which called attention both to the optic system of the camera—which is not at all eye-like—and to the photographic image as something potentially unnatural. The sources of many of these effects were aerial photography and scientific studies of motion. The resulting disorientation, along with an emphasis on tonality, pattern, and shape, forestalled the conventional associations with objectivity and narrative, which had become photography’s mainstay. It was by these means that photographers liberated themselves from the idea that the photograph was an unbiased image of the objective world. Photographers who had grown bored with conventional photographs used these means to create new visual experiences by creating unexpected visual effects.

As early as 1913 Alvin Langdon Coburn, a member of the Photo-Secession, used a pinhole camera to produce nearly abstract images. Exploiting photography’s divided nature, these images presented the world from unexpected perspectives and orientations. Their downward views and distorted perspectives turned streets, squares, and buildings into abstract patterns, which he likened to cubist painting. These photographs took advantage of the fact that when a camera is not held level the building seems to be falling over because the parallelogram of the façade becomes a trapezoid. Although this effect is quite accurate in terms of academic perspective, photography manuals advised amateurs that if the world was to be accurately photographed it was to be photographed head on. Nevertheless, by the 1920s, this new perspective of angled shots and extreme close-ups had become synonymous with modernism and expressionism, which offered the photographer a vast array of compositional possibilities.

Extreme composition, light patterns, and obtuse perspectives and viewpoints were used by the Russian Constructivists and Bauhaus photographers as a way to reinvigorate documentary photography. These effects, all of which could be done in the camera, were used to create an image world that celebrated engineering, mass production, commerce, and fashion. Antithetical to the residual naturalism of these photographers were photographers who, in the first half of the 20th century, scorned the world of appearances by producing images whose artificiality and strangeness were apparent. From the perspective of those who were engaged in such experimentation, both the darkroom and the optical effects produced a truthfulness that was equal if not superior to that of the unadulterated photographic image. In this, they sought to be true to their medium.

Alvin Langdon Coburn also produced a portfolio of abstract photographs in 1917. He called these Vortographs and they were produced by constructing a kaleidoscope-like device consisting of three mirrors clamped together, through which he photographed still-life-like arrangements of crystal and wood. These produced prismatic images without any recognizable reference to the objects photographed. Coburn eventually abandoned this line of inquiry, though other photographers would take up various other approaches to making abstract images. By 1918 Christian Schad, a member of the Zurich Dadaist group, was making camera-less photographs using a technique borrowed from the founder of photography, H. Fox Talbot. By these means Schad produced images that closely resembled cubist collages by laying cut out pieces of paper and flat objects onto light-sensitive paper.

By 1921, painters Man Ray and Maholy-Nagy were exploring similar territory to that of Schad. The main difference between their work and his was that these artists/photographers made their camera-less photographs by placing three-dimensional objects, rather than cut up paper on light-sensitive paper. These objects produced complex images, which consisted of cast shadows and textures in the case of transparent or translucent objects. Although their processes were similar, their goals and imagery were significantly different. The Maholy-Nagy aesthetic was related to that of the Russian Constructivists. He considered his works an exercise in “light modulation” and was concerned with producing architectonic compositions rather than images of the objects he employed. The resulting images he called “photograms,” while Man Ray, who was associated with both Dadaists and Surrealists, on the other hand, chose objects such as a pistol, a spinning gyroscope, and an electric fan because these would cast evocative shadows and provoke associations to produce his “Rayographs.”

In the same time period photographers and artists also began to experiment with a number of chemical effects. The best known is solarization or Sabattier in which a photograph that has been developed, but not fixed, is exposed to light and then continues to be developed. The image shows a reversal of tones and wherever there is a sharp edge and its contours are rimmed in black. Photographers also experimented with different ways of developing photographs such as subjecting the prints to rapid temperature changes, which produces an over all web-like texture. Many other effects mimicked X-ray exposures, astronomical photography, and photomicrography.

This process of transforming art into all manners of idiosyncratic things by the avant-garde artists and photographers of the 1910s and 1920s coincides with and is supported by the developing technologies of mass reproduction that were making traditional skills redundant. Walter Benjamin, the German philosopher and critic, in his 1937 essay “Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility” describes how the advent of photography and the eventual making of moving pictures revealed how “aura had become a fetter on art’s conceptual and political development.” For Benjamin the mass production and distribution of images and texts held out the potential of ushering in a progressive political culture that held the promise of producing a democratic culture in which everyone would be a potential producer. Consequently, beyond the development of camera-less photography, the creation of photomontage and collage by artists such as Hannah Hoch, John Heartfield, and Georg Grosz, which is paralleled in the Soviet Union by Alexander Rodchenko and Gustav Klutsis, represents both the influence of cubism and the growing importance that mechanical reproduction played in the circulation of photographic images.

Mass culture supplied both photographers and artists with new sources of imagery as well as new types of visual experiences. Modern life was increasingly fractured along the lines of the public and private as well as the increased tempo of industrial society. Photomontage and photo collage, with their mixing of typography and photographic images, gives expression to these conditions while extending photography beyond what had become fine art photography’s limitations and conventions. Though thought of as revolutionary, these innovations were premised on the tricks of the trade of the late 19th century work of commercial photographers, which included double-exposure, timed exposures, and darkroom techniques such as masking, burning, and dodging. The significant difference between the early manipulation of images and those of the 20th century avant-garde photographers and artists is that the latter emphasizes its fracture making it apparent that the photographic image is always a construct.

Coinciding with the formal drive to de-skill and re-orientate art, another vision of art as an expression of irrationality, the libinal and the abject was developing out of Dada’s anti-art and anti-aesthetic. Surrealists sought to give representation to the irrationality of our inner world and the power of imagination, unlike the Dadaist who wanted to expose the madness of the world around us. To this end, the surrealist, while embracing all that was new, also sought to subvert art’s traditional forms. Consequently, in the case of photography, there is a connection between surrealism and the documentary tradition. For the surrealist, the truth of photography was its ability to create an illusionary image of the unconsciousness that circumscribes our reality. As such, the French photographer Atget bridges the ideal of photography as an objective record of what is seen, and the surrealist fascination with the strangeness of the chance occurrences of everyday life.

Atget pioneered the cleansing of photography of all acts of aesthetization meant to make photography look like art. Today his views of Paris, due to the patina of time, look poetic. They can also be viewed in the context of the ability of the photograph to defamiliarize its object. Atget used the part to represent the whole to reorder the familiar genres of landscape and the candid photograph. His pictures are full of the common things that are forever present and therefore tend to be overlooked or forgotten. By the standards of the day, these pictures would have been considered empty in that they are eerily unpopulated. A similar move toward objectification appears in the work of August Sander who, rather than making portraits, photographed types. This distanced view of the strangeness of chance occurrences of everyday life and representing people as objects bridges the ideal of the photograph as an objective record of what is seen with that of the psychology of the photographer inversely.

Hans Bellmer used photography in his Poupee Project to create strangely disturbing images that are disquietingly hallucinatory invoking trauma and mutilation. Bellmer sometimes took straight photographs of dolls; at other times he would exploit multiple exposures and super impositions of his poupees posed in familiar space. For these photographs, Bellmer created dolls that consisted of differing combinations of female parts, symmetrical pairs of legs joined at the hips, or at times nothing more than provocative bulges and swells. Other photographers such as Raoul Urbac explored the photographic process itself by submitting the photographic negative to heat to produce what he came to call Brulages. The deformed liquefied image on the negative constituted an attack on form, difference, and identity. Other states of formlessness were the result of the blurring of genres, for instance, when Man Ray photographs a female torso in such a manner as to produce an image in which her arms and chest can be read as a bull’s head (Minataur, 1934). Likewise, a photo-work by Salvador Dali executed in collaboration with Brassai also crosses categorical boundaries invoking the found montage of bulletin boards where images of everyday life are juxtaposed, implying a narrative.

While the results of this intense period of experimentation and exploration of the photographic medium with its emphasis on process, phenomena, materiality, and mechanical reproduction became an important part of art’s discourse, its most immediate and long-lasting effects were on the experimental films of artists such as Hans Richter, Viking Eggling, and Leopold Souvage who was interested in synathesia. In the 1950s and early 1960s, in the wake of abstract expressionism, Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, Joyce Weiland, and Paul Sharits among others began to again explore film as an expressive medium. Their films construct abstract narratives by means of rhythmic editing, montaging of found footage, hand-drawn animation, and non-traditional processing. With the emergence of video in the 1970s, this analytic manipulation of the medium was employed by such artists as Joan Jonas, Keith Sonnier, and Frank Gillette and continues to be the basis for the video works of artists such as Bill Viola, Stan Douglas, Douglas Gordon, and Tacita Dean. Conversely, photo collage, with its political associations, came to be tamed by graphic designers and continues to play a significant role through the works of painter Robert Rauschenberg. Most notably this tradition within the context of post-modernism is exploited by Barbara Kruger and the Starn Twins who turned the history of experimental photography into a series of devices meant to self-reflexively expose themselves.

As we move into the 21st century, the discourse between critical culture and mass culture, the mechanical and the interpretive, the commercial and the creative continue to circumscribe photography’s relation to the visual arts. This continues to be predominantly expressed through its relationship with its other: painting. Photography’s influence on both abstract and figurative painting actually intensified during the last decade of the 20th century as both began to be imperiled by digital technologies. During the 1980s and 1990s painters such as Eric Fischl, David Salle, Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstien, Elizabeth Peyton, Richard Philips, and Luc Tuymanns made paintings that used photographs as their source, while photographers such as Hanno Otten, Penny Umbrico, and Thomas Shrutte explored photography’s relationship to abstract painting. Their work is a critical extension of Pop Art and Photo-Realism, which flourished in the late 1960s and 1970s. Andy Warhol’s work is an exemplary model. Unlike Rauschenberg or Rosenquist, Warhol’s work explicitly acknowledges the sheer repetitiveness of the image world of photography and reproduction. Warhol’s work is not only a depiction of the spectacle of mass culture, but his adaptation of the grid and his hands-off processes wed high art to popular culture by merging abstract painting in the form of ground to the photographic image as figure. The relation between photo silk screen images and its painted ground announces the interdependency of their alterity.

There are also insightful connotations in Warhol’s work, as to the nature of photography and its relation to painting. This lies in the most obvious aspect of Warhol’s work in that if the order of ground and photographic image were reversed, the painted ground would obliterate the silk-screened image. To paint over the silk screen the way that Rauschenberg does would unhinge the visual equilibrium that this “natural” ordering makes explicit, which is that the photograph as a picture of something or someone is always already transparent. So we can either see the transparency of “representation” and the opacity of the painting (the ground) or their unity that produces a synthesis in which each element loses part of its identity while acquiring some part of its others. By these means, Warhol establishes the economy of the real (color and process) and the mimetic (image and temporality) by privileging neither. Warhol’s use of photo silk screen comes to play a similar role to Picasso’s use of collage in the progressive discarding of painting’s tradition-laden baggage, while preserving its form.

On the heels of Pop Art, painters used photographs as subject matter to create an inclusive and discursive formalism, one in which issues of composition, opticality, and process would compliment rather than subjugate the image’s contents. By these means, they set about recording the changing state of representation as it goes from observation to reproduction to replication. In doing this, these painters absorbed photography’s simulacra back into painting. They did this by exploiting the knowledge that within the image world art had already come to exist as something most viewers believed could be known through reproduction. This condition was the central theme of Andrea Malraux’s book Museum Without Walls . Consequently, the movement referred to alternately as Photo-Realism, or Sharp Focus Realism embraced and subverted the course of reproduction by turning the seamless information of photographs into the fractured information painting. This can be seen in Richard Estes and Ben Shonziet’s paintings of urban street scenes and store windows, which when reproduced look as if they were color photographs. Another example of this use of the photographic look in painting would be Chuck Close’s large-scale black and white airbrush mug shot-like portraits of friends from the 1970s and 1980s. Though the subject appears casual, Close works from photographs done by a studio photographer.

Another artist who has investigated the relationship between photography and painting, within the context of both Pop Art (as a source of imagery) and post-modernism (focusing on the look of the photographic image) is the German artist Gerhard Richter, who works both in figurative and abstract styles. The reference to photography, in Richter’s case is indexed particularly to the idea of the focal plane and the photographic blur. He uses this effect not only in his figural works but also in his abstract paintings. The irony underlying this practice is that unlike photography, painting can never be out of focus, nor is their subject ever in motion, especially when the painting is an abstract one. With such practices painters not only explore how photography orders our perceptions but also our expectations. While many painters continue to work from photographs, others such as Gwen Thomas, Fabian Marcaccio, and Frank Stella either print digital images onto canvas, or incorporate them into their paintings where they are reworked to produce a hybrid form comparable to collage.

While artists in the 20th century were adapting to photography (and motion-picture) influences, photographers who aspired to develop photography into a creative medium used painting as their model. They appropriated art’s traditional subjects, photographing tableaux vivants that mimicked neoclassical paintings, pastorals, and picturesque scenes replete with peasants. It is common for new forms during the period of their gestation to imitate (mimic) the traditional forms, which they will either eventually replace or significantly transform. Out of this process, given its tendency to be both commercial and more often then not kitschy, two countertrends arose that would come to define fine art photography—one was interpretative and expressive, and its predominant aesthetic models were that of impressionism. This tendency is best represented by the works of Mary Devons. The other counter-trend, the documentary tradition, grew out early use of photography to record the world of people places and event. Photographers such as William H. Rau were committed to the idea that though the photograph is authored, it should in the main constitute an unmodified document of what is portrayed.

Given these formative practices and despite the periods of intense experimentation in which the aesthetic, structural, and conceptual concerns of artists and photographers often coincided, fine art photographer’s concerns have remained decidedly different than those of the Modern artist. In part, this is because beyond the legitimating debates concerning the role of the photographer’s authorial role, the respective truthfulness of the photograph, and aesthetic issues, photography’s broad-based popularity and accessibility had to be addressed both in theory and practice. In the pursuit of freeing themselves from being viewed as mechanical and scientific fine art photographers had to also overcome the fact that social and cultural location diminished its acceptability as an artistic medium. Its novel verity pleased the newly emergent middle classes, which embraced photography both as enthusiasts as well as consumers.

With the development of commercially produced film, processing, and mass produced cameras, amateur photographers came to dominate the field producing souvenir photographs of all types of events and occasions. Amateur photo clubs and societies became the mainstay of photography in the absence of any other institutional support and sprang up everywhere. The middle classes economically secure enough to have cultural aspirations having one’s self photographed (from birth to death) first professionally and then as a constant stream of snapshots remains the fashion. The fact that anyone could take photographs without much skill or effort further diminished its acceptability as an art form (at least until the 1970s).

Photography in the 20th Century [next] [back] Photography and Society in the 20th Century - Introduction, Background, Amateur Photography, The Kodak, The new miniature cameras, Polaroid, Photography without film, Advertising Photography

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