The massive social and cultural changes of the previous century challenged many of the established traditions, including the perception of art. The introduction of innovative tools such as photography further complicated the matters and initiated a debate on its artistic merits. The current paper analyzes a chapter from the book by Freund (1980) in order to identify its main points and determine its historical and practical value.
The chapter in question details the emergence of photography as a new phenomenon and the interpretation of its artistic value by both artists and the society in general. The precision and relative ease characteristic of the technology, as well as its resemblance to the well-established art form of painting, has led to an inevitable conflict of attitudes and served as a basis for heated debates within the artistic community throughout the twentieth century. The author illustrates the said debate by summarizing the stance of the representatives of the movement of realism and providing the comments of the notable artists of the era.
According to Freund (1980), the first major development that contributed to the recognition of photography as an art form was the shift towards the new perception of reality caused by the technological and industrial advancement. Both the artists and, eventually, the general public showed a growing appreciation of nature. Simultaneously, the objectification of reality grew in importance in the process of its presence in art, and, by extension, the precision of depiction became one of the necessary conditions.
Obviously, photography became a perfectly suitable candidate in terms of technical properties of the medium, which led to its wide adoption in artistic circles. The emergence of realism, a movement that favored impartiality and precision and despised subjectivity and interpretation as a source of falsification, further strengthened the position of photography in the domain of art. Consequently, the proponents of the movement emphasized the diminished role of imagination in their works and distanced themselves from artists in the traditional sense, preferring the term “craftsmen” (Freund, 1980).
Such strong adherence to naturalism raised concerns among many artists who perceived it as a threat to art. For instance, Lamartine pointed to the accuracy of depiction offered by the technology and the lack of artist’s involvement and suggested that photography can only be considered an act of “plagiarism of nature through a lens” (Freund, 1980, p. 77). Baudelaire argued that the simple appeal and accessibility of the new medium made it more attractive for the uneducated masses and thus compromised its true artistic value. This effect was unacceptable as it damaged the reputation of both the movement as a whole and the art of the actor (Freund, 1980).
Some critics, such as Ingres, condemned photography on the grounds of tradition, which necessarily differentiated the sacred nature of art from the mechanistic creation facilitated by the industry. Thus, the fact of the technological agency was sufficient to render photography worthless from the artistic perspective. However, some of the critics considered it a valuable tool for assisting, rather than priming, the artistic process. For example, Delacroix pointed to the fact that the works copied from a photograph could be spotted by the characteristic lifelessness conveyed from the source print.
Finally, the mass-production factor introduced a discouraging possibility of the devaluation of traditional art pieces, as was illustrated by the case of Yvon, who was concerned about the possible drop in the value of his painting had the source photograph become widely available (Freund ,1980). Such diversity of factors inevitably complicated the recognition of photography as an art form and expanded the boundaries of the criteria of art in general.
The summary of the chapter reveals several distinct motives exhibited by the critics. The motives can be roughly categorized into three groups. The first group includes the advocates of photography as a medium that has artistic value based on its scientific accuracy and impartiality. This aspect of photography aligns it with the values and goals of the movement of realism and, to some extent, can be considered one of the influences responsible for its formation. From this perspective, the ability of a photographer to copy the nature is its main strength. The second group includes the critics that emphasize the lack of artist’s agency in the process.
While they appeal to different elements of the artistic process, it is evident that the interpretation of the artist is a key component. From this perspective, the act of plagiarizing the environment cannot be considered art unless the human agency is present. However, such viewpoint does not necessarily render photography “non-art” since it is debatable whether such agency is allowed by the technology in question.
This allegation is best illustrated by the change in attitude displayed by Lamartine after getting familiarized with prints that utilized illumination to enhance the visual aspect of the print. Initially a vehement opponent of the artistic value of photography, Lamartine later admitted that the photographer’s impact on the process (e.g. the manipulation with illumination of the scene) was doubtless and thus he could “no longer call it a trade; it is an art” and “a solar phenomenon” (Freund, 1980, p. 77).
A similar stance was displayed by the positivist, who specified the role of the photographer as responsible for the choice of the appropriate subject, the assessment of the most appropriate framing for the scene, and the determination of the light and shadow that could best convey the intended meaning. On the other hand, some artists found such role insufficient for the creation of the new meaning and argued that the mechanistic nature of the process devaluated the outcome to the status of a lifeless copy.
Interestingly, some of them tended to dismiss it as a minor issue if the photography was used to assist the process of painting but cautioned against overreliance on it in the process of creation. Finally, the third group included the artists that appealed to tradition and rejected photography as incompatible with the established norms. The first basis for the rejection was the photography’s industrial origin that was incompatible with the “divine at of Romans” and the “school of Apollo” in general (Freund, 1980, p. 77).
The second aspect was its evident appeal to the wide masses both in terms of comprehension and financial threshold. This shift was seriously disquieting for the aristocracy who viewed a loss of monopoly on the perception of art a sign of its devaluation.
It is important to note that the author of the chapter did not argue in favor of any of the identified perspectives. Instead, her goal was to provide a historical snapshot of the debate and supply all aspects of the discussion with the relevant examples from the prominent figures of the era.
Thus, Freund (1980) chose neither to comment upon the cited viewpoints nor to arrive at any conclusions regarding the issue. With this in mind, it would be reasonable to consider the chapter an accurate account of the controversy that accompanied the introduction of the photograph. In this light, the diversity of perspectives presented by the author is undoubtedly its strongest point. While the systematic approach to the presentation could improve the understanding of the piece, it is a minor weakness and is acceptable for the narrative format chosen by the author.
The insights offered by the chapter allow us to systematize the available knowledge on the history of the photography’s introduction to the art scene. Interestingly, it also puts into perspective the other ideas from the course. For instance, it becomes clear that the definition of aura provided by Benjamin (1939) in his essay on photography aligns both with the artist’s agency and the rejection of the mechanistic component of the phenomenon as incompatible with the nature of art.
On the other hand, the decreasing cost and increasing fidelity of the produced imagery can be viewed not only as a cause of but as a response to the changing requirements of the modern society, as suggested by Tagg (1988). From this perspective, the alleged shift from art towards the accessible and affordable form of evidence is not only expected but in a certain sense, inevitable. In this regard, the mechanistic nature of the process, as well as the possibility to mass-produce the images, is an improvement over the initial authoritative status of art since it offers the opportunity to utilize it for the needs of the society.
Finally, the surge of photography’s popularity in the money-conscious social class confirms the concept of art as property introduced by Berger (1968). Specifically, the dominance of portraits and the changes in their size is consistent with the idea of monetary value as one of the driving forces behind the piece’s status.
It is worth noting that the main points identified by Freund (1980) have not lost their relevance today. The emergence of the digital photography has reignited the debate, with some organizations adopting strict definitions according to which the absence of chemical processes as well as the degree of automatization of the process make it impossible to consider digital photography either art or craft due to the lack of artistic input (Newcomer, 2016).
Upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that the arguments used in this case are mirroring those highlighted by Freund (1980) with one important difference – namely, the adjustment of the criteria to the point where only some of the novel elements can qualify as art. At the same time, the growing number of tools for image manipulation creates a situation where the resulting product bears more signs of the author’s interpretation than the source of the print. Finally, the nature of digital copying makes it harder to assign value based on the originality of the work (Thein, 2014). In this regard, the piece by Freund is both a valuable historical insight and a primer for further insight into the artistic merit of the phenomenon.
The work by Freund (1980) provides an overview of the debate on the artistic value of photography in the early phase of its development. Admittedly, the broad scope chosen by the author does not allow arriving at a definitive conclusion or even determining the strengths of any given standpoint. Nevertheless, it can serve as a basis for the identification of the components that would likely strengthen or undermine the status of innovative tools in visual arts.
Benjamin, W. (1939). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. In W. Benjamin, Illuminations (pp. 219-253). New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.
Berger, J. (1968). Understanding a photograph. In G. Dyer (Ed.), John Berger selected essays (pp. 215-218). New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
Freund, G.. (1980). Attitudes towards photography. In G. Freund, Photography and society (pp. 69-82). Boston, MA: David R. Godine, Publisher.
Newcomer, J. (2016). Is photography Art ? Is it a craft? Web.
Tagg, J. (1988). Evidence, truth and order: Photographic records and the growth of the state. In J. Tagg, The burden of representation: Essays on photographies and histories (pp. 61-66). New York, NY: Macmillan Education.
Thein, M. (2014). The line between art and photography. Web.