When Does It Stop Being a Photograph? Part 2

458-4599 was originally captured on 35mm color negative film.

Again, travel back in history after the invention of photography to a time where it was possible, but very difficult, to take equipment into the wild, or worse still, into war zones.

The main strength of photography is its ability to capture in great clarity and detail, an instant of reality, at least a snip of an event or person. The only boundary is the frame, which includes and excludes what the photographer observes before him/her.

The Crimean War in 1853 was the first conflict where photography was used to record armed conflict. Take a look at the photographs here. They are certainly different than the photographs from the World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam. They had an artistic style it appears, but I think that was because the emulsions were so very slow that the scenes had to be action free. Just 10 years later photography found its way to the battlefield, and more shocking images of the horrors of war were published. See these of the Battle of Gettysburg. Again, dead men need no encouragement to remain still for a picture.

Photography was seen as a means to graphically report events and people in a more realistic way than having an artist sketch. The photographer is artistic in the sense that he beholds the object, he composes the image, but his rendering is dependent on fairly complicated technology derived from the sciences. See the work of W. Eugene Smith (World War II) and Larry Burrows (Vietnam).

To be artistic requires heart, eye, brain, visual sense, and artistic sensitivity. To be photographic requires knowledge of chemistry, physics, and an understanding of light. Sensitometry is a relatively new science upon which photography is built. It will consistently predict how photographic emulsions respond; that is, by chemistry and physics. Here is the photographer’s aching dissonance: Am I artist or craftsman? I say who the hell cares?

Toward the end of the 1800s into the early 1900s, the bona fide art world did not consider photography serious. No photographer could produce a Van Gogh or Monet from little silver grains cooked in soup. The photographer’s hands did not brush or sketch, they merely aimed an apparatus. The chemistry was just more brew. They forgot that painters would create their palette from flowers and ground stone.

So a movement arose among photography. It was called Pictorialism. Pay attention to this word, because I’m about to land this plane. Pictorialism sought to justify photography as an art by applying ways of seeing and interpreting our world within accepted artistic practice. Check out these artists: David Octavias Hill, Julia Margaret Cameron, and others on this page. The Pictorialist period of greatest influence was from about 1850 to about 1915. Check out the history.

I have taken way too long. I hope you’re still with me.

When you take a photograph with your smartphone or camera and you apply filters and effects that are beyond those available with just the lens itself, or you apply enhancements to a photograph that are “way beyond” what natural law presents, but they are what you perceived and visualized, then you have applied Pictorialism. Add blur. Pictorialism. Saturate colors beyond the spectrum. Pictorialism. Van Gogh saw yellow at night. You see magenta at sunset.

If the original image is nothing more than the starting point in the process, and your vision extends beyond it, you are probably applying Pictorialism. The photograph is the raw material, and the final image is your art, your rendering, perception, and your idea about reality.

“Well”, you might say, “Ansel Adams photographed in black and white. That’s not reality either.”

In April, 1927, Ansel Adams ascended near Half Dome, the iconic symbol of Yosemite National Park. He created “Monolith, the Face of Half Dome” and that really started the whole photo-realistic school of photography, what we normally apply to family snapshots and even our artistic endeavors.

In 1935, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and six other San Francisco photographers founded the F64 Group. Their stated purpose was to create artistic photographs using available photographic technology as they thought it was intended; that is, to render whatever the subject in absolute clarity. Adams created structure around the process so it was no longer accidental. He called it his Zone System of exposure and printing. For decades, photography more or less followed suite, whether photojournalism, landscape, nature, whatever.

The antithesis to F64 is Pictorialism. The F64 photographers essentially said, let the painters, sketch artists, and others have their place and let photography do what it does best and let us create art from the result, and please call it art. F64 were the independent thinkers, wanting recognition on their art’s unique merits. Pictorialists perhaps wanted acceptance in established circles. It’s a different aesthetic anyway. I don’t know, I’m just spouting off.

But, I think we have come full circle. Our digital cameras and phones can create remarkable clarity and sharpness. What do we do with the photographs? In Pictorialist style, we add blur, balloons, hearts, garish, gaudy color, extremes of exposure with highlights washed out and shadow detail in the coal bin, etc. If you hear, “That looks just like a painting” about your photograph, congratulations you may be following the fine tradition of Pictorialism. Learning the tools to do that is very much art even if the final image is derivative.

If you like your photographs tack sharp and in color, then you may be a realistic disciple of F64 without even being aware of it. If you like black and white, then you may be on the abstract side of ideas. Go forth and set thy tripod in Ansel’s tripod holes.

I think the point of all this is, I can take frequent detours along my road to photographic discovery, and I can go to school wherever I like. I can call it art, hang it on a wall, and spout off in a blog about it. That is just fun.

The carousel horse was found in an abandoned amusement park.

When did it stop being a photograph?


~ by Bill on December 10, 2019.

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