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Photography VS Traditional Arts. A peculiar case

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The greatest struggle in the history of photography is probably the attempt by its supporters to be taken as a form of art. From the middle of 19th century, photography has gone through many stages. Although in the last decades photography has earned significant recognition, this old debate amongst supporters and opponents still remains and feeds the public discourse between art critics and the world of art in general. The purpose of this article is not to reproduce the debate above, but mainly to enlighten certain characteristics and peculiarities of photography compared to other traditional forms of art.

Execution and creation

'Do I "take", or do I "make" a photograph?'

There are many who argue that unlike what happens on other forms of art, the creation of a photographic work relies more on the photographic means and equipment used, than on photographer’s skills. Maybe that is why people usually say ‘take’ and not ‘make’ a photograph. In that sense, it can be partly explained why photography is often considered as subordinate to other forms of art. The use of sophisticated equipment and intelligent software appears to alienate it from traditional artistry. Indeed, due to facilitations provided by technical means, expectations upon a photographic work are comparatively higher. After all, photography per se is at least an accurate reproduction of what is seen through a lens. Hence, the uniqueness, the originality or the conception of an idea, should firstly surpass the inevitable representation of what already exists.

The process and the substance

‘How and where do photographs exist?’

Based on the previous remark, it becomes evident that a work of art, for example a painting or a sculpture, involves a concrete and solid creation procedure where the artwork and the artist are interacting during the whole process. For the artist, the process of creation appears to be as important as the final result. In the case of photography, and especially during its earliest historical steps up to recently, this process started by placing a film in a mechanical camera and ended with the development of films by means of proper chemicals and finally, in a darkroom, by printing a picture on photographic paper. This process had a sort of similarity to the way other artists were working. However, in our days, we witness the extinction of this traditional procedure. Instead, a new process of digital image manipulation has prevailed, where image capturing, post processing, storage and printing, are being implemented by computers, software and other electronic equipment. As a photography critic from the Guardian argues:

« is a world in which all that once was solid is becoming immaterial...»

(Sean O’ Hagan, 2012)

Therefore, a picture may never obtain material properties. It may remain captured, inside a memory card or a hard drive, without ever being printed on paper, without ever existing in terms of material reality...

Repeatability and access

‘Would you like more copies, or should I email it to you?’

Have you ever noticed that photographs –even those made by great photographers- are being exhibited upon a gallery’s or a museum’s wall, without any severe security measures, without bulletproof glass (!) and without any million dollar insurance? (Thein, 2013). This is happening because photography ensures a kind of repeatability and access feature. As Suzan Sontag (1977) argues, a work of traditional art's value depends, besides other criteria, on the distinction between authentic and fake, original and copy. In photography though, the capability of creating an exact copy of the original, vicariously cancels the uniqueness of the artwork and the exclusiveness of its possession. On the other hand, the ability to easily access a photograph through electronic means (online galleries, email etc.) decreases the value of its exposition in a gallery or a museum. The law of ‘supply and demand’ takes effect and the photographic works usually fall short of value, compared to those of traditional forms of art (paintings, sculptures etc.). Ultimately, repeatability and process work at the expense of photography itself regarding its valuation and evaluation in the art market.

Massification and technology

«...a sea of uploaded images whose sheer quantity mediates against their meaning...»

During the last century, the proliferation of photography and its technical means, provided the ability to people (talented or not) to make photographs. In addition, the world wide web enabled the access to and the spread of photography throughout the globe. Whilst inside this sea of photographers and photographs one would believe that real art would stand out clearly, in fact we witness the opposite result: the massification of photography has created greater confusion in the emergence of work that could be considered to belong in the sphere of art. But, as Sean O’ Hagan (2012) aptly observes:

«...Whatever upheavals it has witnessed, photography has endured. It continues to do so, even as we drown in a sea of uploaded images whose sheer quantity mediates against their meaning...»

The diversity of photography’s functions

‘the identity of photography’

Last but not least comes the issue of the diversity of photography’s functions. The photographic image is not an exclusive privilege of the world of art, rather the opposite. Photography today, encompasses a variety of functions and purposes (advertisement, documentary, art, entertainment, fashion etc.). Through this abundance of applications and commercial functions, it is difficult to discern what can be considered as art photography. Indeed, the lines between the diverse types of photography’s implementations are blurry and elusive and they often overlap one another. If we argue that photography is passing through a crisis nowadays, then we definitely do not refer to its role to represent the world around us, but mainly to its function, to its deeper meaning and identity.

Final thoughts

Naturally, all the characteristics and differences mentioned above, are not being discussed for the purpose of underplaying the status of photography as a form of art. Even if we are unable to accurately determine the very nature and functions of art, we may agree that photography arises a peculiar affinity with the world of arts. Maybe, this attempt to explore certain photography’s peculiarities can lead us closer to realizing its identity. Maybe, it can help to understand photography deeper and to ‘deliver it from evil’. Besides, as we have mentioned in our previous article ‘The Nature of Art Through the Lens of in[+]frame’, what seems to be of importance when reviewing a work of art, is the content, the unique perspective, the discussed idea, the revealed internal forms, the shared inspiration, the emotions roused.

Finally, if we consider that photography has a history of less than two hundred years old, while other forms of art count thousands of years already, then we understand that we probably need to wait much longer until we can clarify its role in the world of arts.



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