On Photography: History, Art and Digital Age.

On Photography: History, Art and Digital Age.

Towards the identification of the medium.

Why and how?

I’m always interested in learning more about the beginning of photography.

I establish a stronger connection and deeper respect for the discipline when I study it, which often ends up revealing unexpected findings. By going through this research, it just so happened I have found one. It’s been right under my nose for a long time, only I didn’t connect the dots.

A recent trip to Italy took me to my old favorite bookstore in Bologna, laFeltrinelli. I noticed a small book, “L’immagine Infedele _ La Falsa Rivoluzione della Fotografia Digitale” by Claudio Marra (roughly “The Unfaithful Image _ The Fake Revolution of Digital Photography”) which I immediately bought. In his book, Marra quotes the French essayist Jean Clair. That quote alone, it’s a eureka moment for me. The puzzle is finally complete.

Besides that, a few months ago, I read a very good anthology that I would recommend to anyone who is interested in this topic: “Classic Essays on Photography”.
In the following analysis, along with my understanding of art, I’ll refer quite often to the Classic Essays with the hope to trace a philological route of how photography evolved throughout time.
Be prepared: it’s a long read.


That’s the year when photography was officially born. Many attempted in the quest, some with similar results, but it was only on July 3, 1839, that Mr. Dominique François Arago gave his famous speech about the Daguerreotype to the chamber of deputies.

What caught my attention in this early part of the book is the way Arago presented the new invention. The speech is worth reading as it’s a masterpiece of praise and excitement (and rightly so), but what I find intriguing are the reasons Arago used to persuade the deputies:

To copy the millions of hieroglyphics which cover even the exterior of the great monuments of Thebes, Memphis, Karnak, and others would require decades of time and legions of draughtsmen. By daguerreotype one person would suffice to accomplish this immense work successfully. Equip the Egyptian Institute with two or three of Daguerre’s apparatus, and before long on several of the large tablets of the celebrated work, which had its inception in the expedition to Egypt, innumerable hieroglyphics as they are in reality will replace those which now are invented or designed by approximation. These designs will excel the works of the most accomplished painters, in fidelity of detail and true reproduction of the local atmosphere.

Hieroglyphic at Karnak.

And about art:

If, finally, the question arises whether art in itself may expect further progress from the study of these images drawn by nature’s most subtle pencil, the light ray, M. Paul Delaroche will answer us.

[…] What he stresses most about photographic images is their ‘unimaginable precision’ of detail

What stands out is the eulogy of the technical achievement the new invention reached, which is understandable. But even when it comes to art, the relevance is given to technical aspects (the unimaginable precision). Don’t expect profound arguments regarding what the Daguerreotype meant from an artistic standpoint, as there are none in the speech. The way Arago goes on doesn’t depart from the inception of the speech, so I’ll just omit further quotes.

It’s worth noting that all those men who strove to come up with a solution that would allow them to capture the light and impress the image of nature onto a surface were inventors, mathematicians, and scientists. They were obsessed with the idea of copying nature and transferring it as quickly as possible onto the surface. Their limited drawing skills were a further reason to persevere on the quest. If we compare that reality to ours, I can’t help but notice how most of the time the photographic scene is filled with technical topics about cameras, sensors, resolution, lenses, editing techniques, etc. It doesn’t seem so different after all.


Baudelaire was appalled that the popular definition of fine art as the accurate representation of some external reality had led men to desire mechanically produced replicas of the visual world. He defined artistic realism not in the popular sense, as a mirror of the physical, visible world, but as the reflection of the mental world of imagination, dreams, and fantasy. He feared that the public’s attraction to photographic images could only drive them further toward the popular conception of realism and away from his notion of artistic truth.

[…] But what is the good of losing oneself in speculation? The simple truth is that titles such as these are a perfidious and sterile means of creating an impact of surprise. And what is particularly deplorable is that the picture may be good, however strange that may sound. This applies to Amour et Gibelotte too.

[…] If photography is allowed to deputize for art in some of art’s activities, it will not be long before it has supplanted or corrupted art altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the masses, its natural ally.

There are three different aspects Baudelaire brings to the table.

First, the definition of Fine Art. Baudelaire considered the mechanical reproduction of reality as a limit to fine art, which for him had to live in the world of imagination. In other words, the obstacle photography faced was what separated it from a painting, where the artist can truly be free and create anything with his capacity for abstraction. This position is rather pertinent compared to the current idea of photography, at least the most common one. It is probably the most used argument among photographers: copying reality as is, it’s just a mere reproduction although, for some (often addressed as the “purists”), it’s the only way a photographer should operate.

On the other hand, intervening after the fact by manipulating the photograph is for others the only possible method to free the photographers from the limits that prevent them from truly creating something genuine that springs from their inner artistic nature (their imagination). This contradiction is what caught Baudelaire’s attention, and is the very reason that steered his consideration of photography towards a refusal of it.

The second aspect concerns the titles. Baudelaire criticized the habit of using pretentious titles. This habit is still in use nowadays, but do photographs need a title? If so, what’s the reason for the title? Is it perhaps to describe what the photograph represents, thus becoming rather redundant at that point? Or to stray from it and wander into abstract territories that would wind up being pretentious or, worse, a counterfeit of what the nature of the photograph itself stands for?

The third and last aspect is again about the relationship between photography and art. Baudelaire understood that photography was a medium for the masses as it was becoming easy to get access to it, and it was a fascinating tool. Therefore, by following Baudelaire’s thought, if photography wasn’t the proper way to express anything artistic, whilst it was gaining popularity among the masses that didn’t have a deep understanding of what art is, the conclusion could only have been that photography would dominate, spreading the illusion of art. And by doing so, it would end up misrepresenting the art altogether.

One of the first popular cameras for the masses is the Kodak Brownie.

Paul Strand

There’s this intelligent essay by Paul Strand: “Photography and Photography and the New God”.
What I’ve found relevant about Paul Strand’s essay is his capacity to read social changes. He sees very clearly how technological achievements are going to have serious consequences in the direction society could (and will) go through.

With this change in the direction of thought, the scientist became indispensable, he began to function in society. For when it became apparent that craftsmanship as a means to trade growth was insufficient, that quantity and not quality of production was the essential problem in the acquisition of wealth, it was the scientist and his interpreter, the inventor who jumped into the breach.

Out of wood and metals he made hands that could do the work of a thousand men; he made backs that could carry the burden of a thousand beasts and chained the power which was in the earth and waters to make them work. Through him, men consummated a new creative act, a new Trinity: God the Machine, Materialistic Empiricism the Son, and Science the Holy Ghost

The issue of quantity vs. quality is extremely pertinent to our culture. In philosophy, this concept is also called the Heterogony of Ends. When the means to achieve an objective becomes more important than the objective itself, the means take over, becoming the new objective. A simple example is money. We need money to buy things, but eventually, money becomes more important than the things themselves.

In our time moving to a more pertinent topic, we have social media. For many, the quantity of followers is more important than the photographs they post. The number of followers can open the doors to business opportunities, sponsors, etc. Lastly, quantity is an intrinsic part of the photographic medium itself as the chances of production are enormous (the digital age has only pushed those chances to new limits, but the principle isn’t new). And it’s the repetition through quantity that can help to establish a so-called “style” and assert the reliability of the photographer.

The Simulacra of Painting

The intent of photographers to imitate painting is a crucial aspect throughout the entire history of photography. In fact, it is still critical nowadays.
Edward Weston wrote in 1930:

[…] the early photographers who sought to produce creative work had no tradition to guide them, they soon began to borrow a ready-made one from the painters. The conviction grew that photography was just a new kind of painting, and its exponents attempted by every means possible to make the camera produce painter-like results. This misconception was responsible for a great many horrors perpetrated in the name of art, from allegorical costume pieces to dizzying out-of-focus blurs.

[…] Those who should have been most concerned with discovering and exploiting the new pictorial resources were ignoring them entirely and, in their preoccupation with producing pseudo-paintings, departing more and more radically from all photographic values.

Weston points out that photography is being interpreted as a new form of painting. That’s not the only point of view about photography in those years. Baudelaire’s critique leaned more towards the creative possibilities offered by the new medium, or better their lack of it. Photography, as opposed to painting, didn’t give the artist the freedom to draw from the world of imagination, as photography was for Baudelaire a simple mirror of reality.

These two points of view may appear in contrast to each other but they are only two sides of the same coin. In other words, since photography was conceived as a means to mechanically copy reality it needed something more to fully become a true artistic discipline like painting was. Therefore photographers worked on the negatives, lingered on the printing process, and worked extensively in the darkroom as only the hand intervention was considered truly artistic.
This point is particularly interesting and resonates with contemporary habits. Indeed it’s a common concept that post-processing or even image manipulation can truly free the photographer and open the door to his/her most creative potential. It’s also curious to note that when the photographer adopts this approach the results are mostly images that might be strong on the surface but lack content. It is no coincidence that Weston wrote:

It need not be added that the imitation was of bad painting because it had to be bad, dealing largely or wholly with the sentimental, the trite and pretty, the picturesque. Thus photography was torn from its moorings, the whole essence of which is realism.

Much of this was due to a terrible plague, imported from England in the form of Henry Peach Robinson. He became the shining light of photography, charged large prices, took ribbon after ribbon. He lifted composition bodily from painting, but the ones he chose were probably some of the worst examples in history. Greatest disaster of all, he wrote a book in 1869 entitled Pictorial Photography. His system was to flatter everything. He sought to correct what the camera saw. The inherent genius and dignity of the human subject was denied. Typical of his sentimental pictures were his titles, and titles of other photographers of the period: “Poor Joe,” “Hard Times,” “Intimate Friends,” “Fading Away,” “Here Comes Father,” “Romantic Landscape,” “By the Stream,” “End of a Winter’s Day,” “Kiss of Dew,” “Fingers of Morning.”

“The Black Bowl”, by George Seeley, circa 1907. An example of Pictorialism.
Henry Peach Robinson, Fading Away (1858)

Critique of realism

Before I move forward it’s worth stepping back for a moment and considering the circumstances of the time.
Realism was one of the most important artistic movements in the mid-19th century. It was a natural consequence of Classicism and Romanticism and, of course, after becoming largely accepted it’s been itself a reason for critique, which historically it’s what triggered the birth of Impressionism. There were actions and reactions going on, imagination vs. reality vs. imagination, and so on. The necessity to part from the tangible and resort to the imagination to conceive something new spread throughout the 20th century. The critique of realism in the 19th century is curiously not too dissimilar to the attacks done in the first half of the 20th.

This is what Henry Peach Robinson writes in his book “The Elements of a Pictorial Photograph” (1896):

The author of a book on Velasquez calls that great artist a realist, on which his reviewer says: “It is difficult indeed to understand how the term could ever be applied to the supreme master of suppression and selection. There are some words which have lost all significance from the hard work put upon them. And realist is of the number. It has been asked to mean so much that it has ceased to mean anything at all. In fiction, realism is the glorification of the Unessential: it is that sacrifice of proportion which would exaggerate into a tragedy the drawing-on of a pair of boots; in painting it is the patient amassing of conflicting details, which exist, maybe, in nature, but which can only be observed by an eye of ever-shifting focus. And in painting, as in fiction, the single result of realism is falsity. When the novelist sets forth with his note-book you know that he will bring home a bundle of untruths. When he sticks to his fireside, he has a chance at least of inventing a probability: whereas, confronting the world with a hungry eye, he sees all things in a wrong relation, and the result is not truth but ‘copy’.

[…] although the ‘foundation’ of all great work must be laid upon what is real and true, the further development must be mentally and intellectually conceived.

Las Meninas, by Diego Velázquez. 1656, Oil on Canvas

While André Breton in 1924 with the first manifest of Surrealism, writes:

They spare me not a single one of their issues of characterization: will he be fair-haired, what will he be called, will we encounter him in summer? So many questions, resolved once and for all, haphazardly; the only power of choice I am left with is to close the book, which I take care to do at about the first page. And the descriptions! Nothing can be compared to their vacuity; it is nothing but the superimposition of images from a catalog, the author employs them more and more readily, he seizes the opportunity to slip me postcards, he tries to make me fall in step with him in public places:

The critique of realism and the need for abstraction is crucial to understanding under what circumstances photography made his appearance.

On the one hand, there’s always the artistic need to go beyond what’s considered established, stereotypical, and ordinary. It’s in our nature and it’s what keeps us pushing and looking for new solutions. On the other hand, we need to take into account our limits: our ideas are and will always be hindered by the boundaries of our knowledge. And that’s what all those photographers who sought artistic freedom failed to understand by intervening in the photo with any technique and means at their disposal to overcome reality. They simply didn’t know where to look and thus they ended up comparing themselves with the past. In doing so they denied the very nature of the tool they were using. They overlooked the quintessential element of the problem: photography is not painting. The need to manipulate a photograph was, and still is, mainly due to the misconception that the only way to be an artist is by doing what a painter does, which is to create by following his/her imagination. A painter doesn’t have to stick to reality, so why should a photographer? Of course, this issue is particularly relevant to photography due to the similarities it shares with painting. It’s probably wiser to focus on how photography differs from painting, or from any other discipline for that matter.

Apart from the foregoing gripes, what then makes a picture a creative piece of work? We know it cannot be just technique. Is it content — and if so, what is content? These are basic questions that enlightened photographers must answer for themselves.

Let us first say what photography is not. A photograph is not a painting, a poem, a symphony, a dance. It is not just a pretty picture, not an exercise in contortionist techniques and sheer print quality. It is or should be a significant document, a penetrating statement, which can be described in a very simple term — selectivity.

— Berenice Abbot in Photography at the Crossroads, 1951

Before I wrap this part up I want to mention another aspect of the critique which is deeply tied to photography.
Garry Winogrand, one of my favorite photographers, used to say that a photograph is a lie since when we capture something with the camera the thing captured lives in a 2D world, within the boundaries of the frame: in other words, it’s an illusion. We don’t know what happened before or after the shooting. It’s just a snapshot of what happened at a given time.

A still photograph is the illusion of a literal description of how a camera saw a piece of time and space. […] there’s no way a photograph has to look (beyond being an illusion of a literal description).

— Garry Winogrand

The relationship between the thing photographed and the thing itself has been the reason for long discussions and debates between critics and theorists. If we follow Winogrand’s interpretation the photograph renders something different from the thing photographed. It becomes something new entirely. But we can’t also deny the strong connection with the thing itself otherwise we have to refuse its documentarist nature or any factual, empirical proof that a photograph can carry with it. The obvious conclusion is that there are different applications and different ways of reading a photograph. Winogrand’s approach comes from an artistic standpoint, which is what concerns this brief excursus.1

Although a photograph can be specular to an event, it can also carry a meta-value, which is what makes captions necessary or not. A photograph of people running in the street doesn’t necessarily have to mean anything in particular, and yet it can convey an artistic value. On the other hand, the same photograph with a caption that says “fugitives being chased” has a completely different implication.

Art is therefore used as a form of maximum and an indisputable guarantee for the fortunes of the digital, placed in this way emphatically under the protective wing of painting. The icon/index clash thus returns to be resolved once again in favor of the first, as a type of sign that coincides with the logic of the painting. The digital image can, in fact, boast, according to this interpretation, the same characteristics and the same “advantages” of painting. First of all, to employ subjects without a direct relationship with the real, as instead “unfortunately” happens in the indical signs and, coming to what concerns our interest, in analog photography.

— Claudio Marra, L’immagine Infedele, 2006

The last piece of the puzzle

I don’t like the idea of manipulating a photograph. There are plenty of discussions on blogs and forums about what image manipulation is, what a photographer should or should not be allowed to do, and why simply tweaking the contrast of a photograph already is, for many, a form of manipulation.

It was difficult for me to explain why image manipulation has nothing to do with photography, and I had a hard time explaining why moderately tweaking the contrast or the saturation of a photograph is not image manipulation. Reading the essays helped me a lot to better understand these differences. Adding, removing, and manipulating elements of a photograph has more to do with a painting than a photograph.

Paul Strand in 1922 wrote:

“[…] with this period begins that curious misconception of the inherent qualities of a new medium, on the part of almost everyone who has attempted to express himself through it. Without the slightest realization that in this machine, the camera, a new and unique instrument had been placed in their hands, photographers have in almost every instance, been trying to use it as a short cut to an accepted medium, painting. This misconception still persists today throughout Europe and to a large degree even here in America.

At every turn the attempt is made to turn the camera into a brush, to make a photograph look like a painting, an etching, a charcoal drawing or whatnot, like anything but a photograph; and always in imitation of the work of inferior painters.”

Peter Henry Emerson back in 1889 was even less subtle in his critique:

When charlatans talk of improving photographs for the illustrated press know that they merely take a photograph and daub it with unmeaning patches of paint to hide the work of the camera, and then they advertise their dishonest fumbling as ‘artistic works done by hand.’

Now, that’s not always the case. Not always does the photographer want to alter the photo because the picture itself is lacking quality. Sometimes, has more to do with a misunderstanding of the nature of the tool itself.
But then, if photography has little to do with painting what it is about? After all, painting is the closest thing to photography, and if we discard that option there isn’t much left to relate to.
As I mentioned at the beginning a book by Claudio Marra has finally given me the answer to that question. Here’s the quote in his book from Jean Clair’s essay “Duchamp et la Photographie”:

The condemnation of photography by Baudelaire could have been word by word taken by those who were indignant that a bottle rack or a urinal were presented in an art exhibition.

And this is the point! The relation to painting has always been wrong altogether. What those photographers couldn’t see at first (simply because Duchamp had yet to come up with his work, although the same mistake has been repeated by the photographers even after Duchamp) is that the evolution of Art, at some point in history, gave us the ready-made. That’s the connection that photographers can relate to. The ready-made is something we have found and selectively parted from its context to give it a new meaning. It is also something that overturns the orthodox principle of manual skills. The ready-made doesn’t show off the craftsmanship of its creator but rather his idea.

As Claudio Marra writes in his book:

Wondering at this point why, within such a technologically advanced perspective, a relationship with a historical subject such as painting is still implied, it is necessary to stress again the inadequacy of a thought that considers the painting the only idea of art with which to compare.2

Why indeed?
Perhaps it’s an educational issue. Nonetheless, it’s rather odd that when people talk of abandoning stagnant theories the same people resort to an antiquated idea of art, overlooking altogether the evolution that happened in the last century. Indeed, what is ironic is that the spirit of being “modern” and “contemporary” ends up approaching photography with some of the most conventional, obsolete ideas of art.

And yet, digital hasn’t brought anything new. All we could do today was possible at the beginning of photography as well. Granted, digital gives everyone the chance to do what in the past required particular skills and knowledge, but the principle remains the same. And that’s what most people fail to understand today: since it was done about 160 years ago, why shouldn’t we be doing it today, now that we have more advanced tools?
The question is misleading. The real question is: why did those photographers back in those days need to relate to painting? And above all, is this still true nowadays? It is obvious that these people ignore something fundamental about the history of art, and even more so, it is clear there’s a profound misunderstanding of the medium itself.

In other words, the new is defended by using the old, that is by involving an idea of art practically vanished in the first two or three decades of the twentieth century. […] the impression is that among the many supporters of digital there is no real knowledge of what has happened in the artistic field in the last hundred years and therefore we continue to insist on the exaltation of features not only useless, but even penalizing, as it aims to rehabilitate an aesthetic system that is widely questioned and in any case no longer dominant.

— Claudio Marra, L’immagine Infedele, 2006

So, there’s obvious confusion about what’s the relationship between photography and painting, and on top of that a limited view of the painting itself.

A painting that – and here lies the serious misunderstanding – ends up representing not a possible model of art but rather the art tout court, the only aesthetic form to which relate, mainly because no other alternatives are provided, and also because it completely ignores what happened in this area during the twentieth century. In short, to put it clearly, following the logic of these thoughts, the digital/analogical clash would seem to resolve in the opposition art/non-art.

— Claudio Marra, L’immagine Infedele, 2006

A common ground

Among the essays, there’s one that really struck me with its sharp analysis. There’s no indication of the time this essay was written nor the identity of the author. The whole essay is a demonstration of a clever dissection of the different arts, their similarities, and their differences.

[…] the personal touch is necessary in the fine arts […]. What is, and has always been wrong, is the conception photographers attach to the term personal touch. There are two meanings of the word: the first is the kind we have been speaking of, of which the orator has the most; the sculptor, very little, and the architect, none — the corporeal touch. The second is the true and philosophic meaning, namely, to create with the brain, and bring into concrete existence, through one or other of the physical organs, as by the hand. But to give life by the touch of the hand does not at all imply that, afterlife has been given, any evidence of how it was produced shall remain — in architecture, as we have seen, it is eliminated, and whole schools of even the graphic arts, as the Asiatic, demand that the personality of the creator shall be suppressed as much as possible.

And what does creation by the brain, and bringing into existence by the hands, mean? It means only one thing — composing.

Man cannot truly create, but he can stick things together in such a way as to illude into the belief that he has created, and it is this aesthetic quality of composition which all the fine arts must possess, but is the only one which they must possess in common.

[…] Any and every transcription of nature to canvas or paper will not make a composition; it is essential that such elements should be present that some particular idea is conveyed to the mind of the spectator. Further, it is equally essential that no more elements than necessary shall be present, for the superfluous both contradicts and detracts from the particular idea. And it is also equally important that the composing elements be so disposed that their contours shall naturally lead the eye over the picture in such a way that there be presented an esthetically logical sequence of facts. A composition is in fact like an American anecdote. If the raconteur places the different parts of his anecdote in a wrong sequence, the point is either entirely lost or marred; if he omits or adds, the result is likewise incomplete.

[…] The conclusion, then, that we have come to is that photography is one of the fine arts, but no more allied to painting than to architecture and quite as independent in the series as any of the other arts. As a necessary corollary, photography cannot be pictorial, any more than can music or oratory. Photography is photography, neither more nor less.

— Anonymous
  1. Also, even in the case of a photograph used for factual scopes, for instance, as evidence from a crime scene, it can’t still validate itself without any dialectical construct. ↩︎


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