Photography as art: a journey to acceptance

Explore the transformation of photography from a mechanical technique to a recognized art form through history and artistic debate.

Author: Marco Crupi

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This article is part of our “History of Photography” section. Click here to explore.

The emergence of photography in 1826 by Niépce, and the subsequent evolution with the development of the daguerreotype in 1839, marked a turning point in the artistic landscape of the time. The daguerreotype was significantly more advanced compared to Niépce’s heliography process; it produced sharp and detailed images and required much shorter exposure times, opening up a world of unexplored possibilities. However, from the early shots, photography had to face a crucial question: could it be classified as an art form?

At the time, the concept of art was closely linked to manual skill and intrinsic creativity, mainly represented by sculpture and painting. Photography, with its mechanical and reproductive nature, was viewed with skepticism by part of the artistic world. Particularly in Europe, one of the first uses of the camera was portraiture, creating a sort of competition with realist painters. This new medium even led the painter Paul Delaroche to proclaim the death of painting, reflecting the anxiety that pervaded the traditional artistic community.

The central question concerned the mechanical nature of photography, which was often opposed to the manual intervention required in traditional art forms. The ability of a machine to capture reality accurately was both fascinating and concerning for artists and critics of the time. The latter, in fact, questioned whether a mechanical process could lead to the creation of artistic works as valid as those produced through painting or sculpture.

Alfred Stieglitz - The Hand of Man, 1902

Alfred Stieglitz, a pioneer in the field of photography, was one of the first to fight for the recognition of photography as a legitimate art form. Through his initiatives, a path began to outline that would see photography gain a prominent place in the art world. Simultaneously, the emergence of photographic societies in the mid-19th century, made up of both professionals and amateurs attracted by the improved image quality offered by the collodion process, represented a further push towards considering photography as an aesthetic medium. These societies, formed in many cities, organized exhibitions based on the salon style, providing a platform for photographers to share their work, gain recognition, and engage in discussions about the artistic and technical aspects of photography.

His passion for photography developed in Germany. Upon his return to New York in 1890, he joined the Society of Amateur Photographers and ran his own printing business. In 1902, Stieglitz founded a gallery dedicated to the Photo-Secession movement, through which he promoted fine art photography, exhibiting examples of Pictorialist genre photography. The following year, he established Camera Work, a publication that featured the work of European and American photographers.

In France and England, discussions on the role of photography in the artistic domain were particularly heated. Three main streams of thought emerged from these discussions: one argued that photography, being a mechanical process, could not be compared to traditional art; another saw photography as useful to other artistic disciplines but not as an art form in itself; while a third group believed that photography could indeed create valid works of art, comparing it to etching or lithography.

The initial criticisms and perplexities towards photography reflected the tensions between mechanical reproduction and artistic creativity, themes that continued to pervade the artistic discourse even in the following decades. Despite these challenges, photography continued to evolve and enrich the artistic landscape, ultimately finding its place as a recognized and appreciated art form.

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