How Photography Fought to Become an Art

Despite transforming the world, photography has always had to prove itself worthy of being called art

Photography was struck upon by a collection of inventors across Europe, almost simultaneously. However, it is most commonly attributed to Louis Daguerre. The French government acquired the rights to his creation in 1839 and gave them away to the world.

Since then, photography has struggled to be considered equal to painting and sculpture. While the world rushed to get their photo taken, the art world turned its nose up at the technology, refusing to accept that a camera could facilitate artistic expression.

Watch the video below to learn how artists, innovators, journalists, and business people won photography the status it deserves, and how a science that changed the world in a flash, had to change art before art accepted it.

A threat to art

From the outset, the art world was resistant to the very idea photography could be art. Painters argued that photography removed the human touch from the image making process and thus could never be art. It also threatened to do what they had spent their lives training for in a matter of seconds. This resistance to photography was especially apparent in America, where museums neglected to hang photos until the 20th century.

Power to the people

Photography’s success was unstoppable however. It offered people an affordable way of creating portraits of themselves and their loves that were more detailed than what any artist could produce. At a time when people’s life expectancy was short, the chance to immortalise a relative on paper was irresistible and people rushed to studios to get a family photo while people were alive.

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Photojournalism and war

Photography was embraced far more quickly by journalists for its ostensible capacity to capture the truth of a scene quickly. This meant that journalists could show people scenes they had never seen before, of foreign lands, new cultures, and war.

The first photos of war were taken by Carol Szathmari in the Crimea in 1853. Not long after, Alexander Gardner’s photos of the American Civil War and its casualties transformed many people’s opinion.

Social change

Photography’s power to change society was not restricted to war either. John Thompson’s photos of poverty in the streets of London and Jacob Riis’s photos of the slums of New York catalysed social change.

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Kodak revolution

Improvements in technology meant cameras could get smaller, sharper, and into new environments. Riis would have been unable to document what he saw in New York without the invention of flash powder lighting up the dark rooms of his subjects. However, it was Kodak that put the camera in the hands of the common man in 1888.

The rise of the artistic photographer

Now that cameras were accessible, artistic photographers had to distinguish themselves from the average “snapshooter” with expensive techniques, theoretical development, and creative additions.

The Pictorialists, as they were known, claimed they were not taking pictures, but making them and in 1905, Alfred Stieglitz, perhaps the most influential person in the bid to earn photography its place among the arts, opened the iconic 291 gallery. Inside, photos, paintings, and sculptures were exhibited together as equals.

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Art evolves

As photography established its own artistic language that built on the classical art that came before it, classical artists began to question their role in society. Photographic realism pushed painters closer to abstraction, spawning a host of artistic movements such as symbolism, tonalism, impressionism and postimpressionism.

World War I and II

War changed photography as it changed society: those who had sought to capture the truth of it, were left scarred and hungry for humanity.

In 1947, four of the world's most celebrated photographers founded Magnum: a photography collective that would look for the humanity of their subjects, instead of trying to exploit them.

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Women rising

As with many artistic disciplines, women were often denied public acclaim. Magnum was no exception. Much of the war photography taken by Robert Capa, considered by many to be the best in history, was in fact taken by his partner Gerda Taro.

Ironically, it was a self-portrait by Cindy Sherman that would go on to become the most expensive photo ever sold at auction in 2014. As the New York Times put it, Sherman’s would finally put photography on the same “fine-art footing as painting and sculpture.”

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