Marius De Zayas, a Mexican born illustrator and caricaturist, was closely associated with Alfred Stieglitz in the years between his arrival in New York on 1907 and the closure of Stielglitz’s gallery, “291”, in 1916. (i)
In 1913 Camera Work published an essay by De Zayas arguing that “Art has abandoned its original purpose, the substantiation of religious conception ….. The Soul of art has disappeared, the body only remaining with us. ” (1: p.126) He explored the status of art at the beginning of the twentieth century and then compared its attributes with photography; reaching the conclusion that ” Photography is not art, but photographs can be made to be art.” (1: p.130)
It is relevant to put this essay into the context of the then current trends in American art. 1913 was the year that Stieglitz first exhibited the works of Matisse, Picasso and Brancusi in New York in a show that included 1,600 European and American Modernist artworks (2: p.452), a show that had been partly scouted by De Zayas who had spent 1910 in Paris discovering “adventurous forms of modern art” (3) In photography Pictorialism had just about run its course and several new movements were already developing including Modernism which favoured sharp focus and the exploitation of the camera’s unique attributes and, which also heralded what we would now describe as documentary photography. In essence De Zayas was writing at a time when photography was on the cusp of great changes that would ripple down the decades and remain influential in the twenty first century.
We have already discussed the art versus science debate vis a vis photography (here) in the context of Rosalind Krauss’ much later essay but here we are seeing the debate in an earlier form when it was engaging a much wider audience than the academics of the 1970s and 80s. On the Monoskop website there is an intriguing document that records the responses Stieglitz received to an invitation sent to around forty artist and critics in 1922:
“It is conceded we believe that photography has achieved a new significance in the last few years. Would you like to say something on the subject?” (4)
To analyse the varied answers would take an extensive essay in its own right, the key point being that an educated and sophisticated group of Stielglitz’s contemporaries held views ranging from photography being the “refuge of incapables” (i) to an erudite essay by Georgia O’Keefe that includes an interesting analysis of Paul Strand’s work as art. The point being that there has never been an agreement on whether photography is an art at any point in its history, and the best explanation I can offer for this is that “photography” is far too wide a descriptive term to be analysed and discussed within such a narrow question.
Photography has two great strengths: firstly that it is now and has been for a hundred years a highly accessible medium, since the Box Brownie we have needed little or no training to use a camera and produce a picture, this has resulted in it becoming the most vernacular of the visual arts. And, secondly, because it is so very nearly all things to all men, from the passport photo to the family portrait, from advertising to propaganda, for reporting and recording news at every level from a private wedding to the most momentous global event, as documentary, topography, pornography and of course as an instrument of science and a medium of art. Easy to use and ready to be used for a myriad of radically different purposes.
The most interesting part of De Zayas’ essay, and the part most pertinent to the question asked by this exercise, is his analysis of photography versus artistic photography. He summarises photography as a purely objective medium, a form of knowledge where the photographer has approached their subject with no preconceived idea and with the intent to represent something that is outside of himself. The end result is that it achieves an “objectivity of form.”
Whereas the artistic photographer approaches their subject with a preconceived idea and uses that same objectivity of form to express that concept. Their process is subjective, systematic and personal as they represent something that is inside themselves. The end result “veils the object with the subject.”
One could pick holes in either side of this analysis, a more contemporary view would be that all photography is subjective and therefore all photographers are expressing something that is inside themselves but his general point is valid. A scientific approach would faithfully record an object and an artistic approach would be to express an idea. The problem is that the most hard nosed documentary photography is as often expressing an idea that is as significant and thought provoking as the work of the most conceptual photographic artist, the difference generally being that I understand one and am usually confused by the other.
The exercise asks where I stand on this issue? In over forty years of photography I have never once referred to myself as an artist. I am a photographer. In saying this I reference the whole history of photography and the width and breath of contemporary practice. I recognise and welcome the ambiguity of the description and whether what I do is art has absolutely no bearing on my practice. Don McCullin resists being called an artist and believes that photography has been hijacked by the art world, he summarises the medium thus:
“I’ve always thought photography is not so much of an art form but a way of communicating and passing on information.” (5)
I wish I could have said it so simply.
Notes on Text
(i) Stielglitz himself was one of the most influential figures of his time, not just as a photographer, but as gallery owner and curator; his interests went far beyond photography and he introduced many European modernist artists to an American audience as well as promoting the development of modernism in America. Stielglitz believed that photography should be recognised as a fine art, initially through Pictorialism which he promoted through his magazine Camera Work. The last issue of Camera Work in 1917 featured Paul Strand’s street portraits and highlight Stielglitz’s own move from Pictorialism to a more mechanical, straight style.
(ii) Joseph Pennell (1857 to 1926) – American artist and author.
(2) Graham-Dixon, Andrew (2008) Art: The Definitive Visual Guide. London: Dorling Kindersley
(1) de Zayas, Marius (1913) Photography and Artistic Photography (accessed at Camramirez 24.1.17) – http://www.camramirez.com/pdf/DI_Week6_PhotoAndArt.pdf
(3) Adams, Henry (2011) Marius De Zayas (accessed at Oxford Art Online 25.1.17) – http://www.oxfordartonline.com/public/page/GAO_free_article_DeZayas
(4) Various Artists (1922) Can a Photograph have the Significance of Art (accessed at Monoskop 25.1.17) – https://monoskop.org/images/c/c9/MSS_4_Dec_1922.pdf
(5) Brown, Mark (2015) Digital Images can’t be Trusted says War Photographer Don McCullin (accessed at The Guardian 26.1.17) – https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/nov/27/don-mccullin-war-photographer-digital-images