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Photography as Art

In: English and Literature

Submitted By bpberg
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“Is photography art?” may appear to be a seemingly irrelevant question today. In our culture we are not only surrounded by media and marketing images for consumers. Camera images also function as decoration, provide spiritual enrichment, and give us insight into the past and present. In the years following the discovery of photography, however, this medium was criticized and critiqued while trying to be recognized as a form of artistic expression in a period dominated by painting. Similar to painters, photographers can approach their photographs in a variety of ways, transforming them from mere “careless snapshots” into beautiful, original pieces of work.
The Seven Last Words, by F. Holland day is considered one of the most important images in the history of photography. This piece contains iconic religious and spiritual importance which influenced subsequent artists significantly. The monumental self-portrait depicts Day as Christ in a series of seven platinum prints set in a frame designed by the artist. In order to prepare for his self-portraits Day starved himself, grew out his beard, and imported cloth and a cross from Syria. It is without question that Day’s depiction of Christ is unsettling and full of emotion as he portrays Jesus speaking out his last words. His images are soft and painterly-like, blurring the visible line between painting and photography. Many individuals may have difficulty distinguishing the two. His dramatic use of lighting can also be compared to many Impressionist paintings and enhance the emotional and spirituality of the piece. In addition, Day created his own frames for his photographs thus adding to the originality and personal touch to his art. Robert Demachy was the leading French Pictorialist in the early 20th century. He produced and promoted a type of photography that is quite similar to drawing and painting in an effort to differentiate himself from amateur snap shooters and commercial photographers. Demachy’s interest in nonstandard photographic processes led to his use of gum bichromate which allowed introduction of color and brushwork into the image itself. His piece titled Struggle which was completed in 1904 and was composed of orange pigment meant to imitate the reddish chalk often used in life drawings. This particular medium allows for artistic expression through a layering and exposure process. This dramatic image portrays a nude female viewed from behind in an emotive pose. The image is full of movement which is further emphasized by the scratchy background. Demachy is asking the viewer to question the image and its relationship to the title. Could this image possible portray the struggle between the art world and photography? Nonetheless, the viewer is forced to question the image and impose their own impression upon it. Another influential photographer of the twentieth century was Alfred Stieglitz and his Equivalent Series created in 1925. His series of cloud images play upon the simplicity of realism found in everyday life. While these images may be seen as mere photographic images of clouds, they force the viewer to appreciate the shapes, colors, and lines formed without human intervention. Thus, these images become increasingly abstract equivalents of the viewer’s own experiences, thoughts, and emotions. Many argue that little talent or skill is required to take a picture of clouds and place them in an art gallery. Stieglitz, however, has portrayed photography simply as it is without distortion. Is he honoring this medium as a form of art all on its own? While some individuals may not see his art as impressive, these pieces were created in a time when photography was battling for its right as an artistic medium. While simple on the outside, they provoke abstract images and emotions within. In the same time period, Edward Steichen also began using simplistic objects in some of his photography. Steichen was a well-known American fashion photographer but also became famous in the art realm. In his photograph Ad for Gorham Sterling, New York published in 1930, Steichen utilizes otherwise mundane objects to create stunning visual patterns. He cleverly places sterling silverware facing in different directions to create a complex linear pattern. In addition, a lot of interest is created by harsh, low light thus creating a more dynamic photograph. The reflection of light off of the metallic surfaces of the silverware immediately draws in the eye of the viewer. While this was used as an ad for a company, the artist has shown his ability to capture the interest of the audience. The vertical zig-zag composition guides the eye of the viewer from the top of the image to the bottom in a seamless transition. Steichen shows the viewer how to look at the world differently by taking a simple object and creating an intricate and beautiful design. His clever arrangement of silverware is reminiscent of fabric design patterns which relate to his passion for fashion. Photography also became extremely important in the political movement. Art and politics have intertwined and become historical treasures. John Heartfield’s piece, Adolf the Superman; He Swallows Gold and Spouts Tin depicts an image of Adolf Hitler with an x-ray view of his chest. Within his chest the viewer can see coins of gold falling into his stomach. His seamless integration of different images to develop a cohesive photograph is not only technically impressive, but emotion driven. The strap crossing over the chest of Hitler creates depth within his image. In addition, the swastika symbol is placed over his heart and is a prominent part of the photograph. This propaganda image was intended to provoke strong emotions within the viewer. There is no doubt of Heartfield’s intentions of portraying a greedy, power hungry tyrant. The use of photography as the media of choice allows us to see the real subject and not just a painting or drawing of his face thus creating a stronger connection and emotion. In a time when television was not invented and many individuals got their information from radio and newspaper, photographic images created a realistic image than drawings could especially in an overseas battle. Therefore, this multi-photographic image can create strong feelings of disdain and actuality. One of the most successful approaches at convincing viewers that photography should be taken seriously as art is Holland’s The Seven Last Words. He has created an image that may be easily be fooled for a traditional oil painting from a previous era. This may prove that it is our own pre-formed biases rather than the depiction itself that prevents us from acceptance. Holland’s composition and magnified image of the face of Christ allows us to feel the emotions and movements of the subject. In addition, the softness he created in the image resembles that of a painting and prevents the viewer from becoming distracted by the minute details often captured in a photograph.
Edward Steichen’s Ad for Gorham Sterling, New York, is another representation of the successfulness of photography as art. He, unlike Holland’s, did not distort his photographs in any way. Steichen relied on his artistic design and use of pattern to create dynamic and vivid images that mesmerizes the eye of the viewer.
Photography should, without a doubt, be seen as equally as important a media as any other. When asking, “What is photography?” you should simultaneously ask, “What is art?”. There is much debate over some pieces of work in all mediums. An image that a viewer reacts to may be considered art to that viewer. Art is subjective, whether or not society attempts to apply constraints and limitations on it.
I am personally connected to realistic photographs which contain dramatic lighting, unusual compositions, and unlikely subject matter. This is why I was most attracted to Holland and Steichen as revolutionary photographers. They pushed the boundaries of a relatively new media during their time and allowed photography to be taken seriously as an art form which rival the master artists of previous eras.

History of Photography. Part 2: Photography as an Art Form I. Retrieved from:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Collection Online: Struggle. Retrieved from:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Collection Online: The Seven Words. Retrieved from: The Phillips Collection. Alfred Stieglitz: Equivalent (Series). Retrieved from:

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