The Oxford English Dictionary describes the medium of photography to be, “the process or art of producing pictures by means of the chemical action of light on a sensitive film on a basis of paper, glass, metal, etc..” If we are to break apart photography and trace its roots back to their origins we would find that according to the OED, “graph,” when used as a noun means, “A kind of symbolic diagram (used in Chemistry, Mathematics, etc.) in which a system of connections is expressed by spots or circles, some pairs of which are colligated by one or more lines.” To trace “-graph” as a suffix, we find that its root is Greek and was used to form an adjective of the passive voice of “written.” “Photo-” as a prefix simply means light. The word, “photograph is a conjunction of Greek words and means ‘mark produced by light’.” ( Encyclopedia of Aesthetics , p.491) If we combine some of the elements of these roots we can see that photography has something to do with some form of writing with the use of light. The Grove Dictionary of art defines photography in relatively the same manner as a “term used to describe the technique of producing an image by the action of light on a chemically prepared material.” Here we see that the medium of photography as a process or technique. If we combine some of the elements of these definitions we can conclude that what is ultimately produced from this process or technique is either a picture or an image. (see representation)
In his book, Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes argues, “a photograph can be the object of three practices (or of three emotions, or of three intentions): to do, to undergo, to look.” (Barthes, p.9) He considers the photographer to be the operator, those of us who look at the photographs to be the spectators, and the person or object photographed, the target. It could be argued that all three (operator, spectator, and target) need to be present in the medium of photography. Photography, in its concrete form (the photograph) functions as a medium in which something is transmitted to a receiver. Photography, when used to describe all aspects of the medium (the photographer, the process, and then the photograph or image produced) can also function as a medium through which something is transmitted. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a medium to be, “An intermediate agency, means, instrument or channel. Also, intermediation instrumentality: in phrase by or through the medium of. (specific medium)” (OED) The image of the object photographed, the target is transmitted by the photographer (the operator) through the medium of photography (specifically in the photograph) to the spectators.
We could describe the medium of painting to produce pictures and images as well. However, painting is obviously a different medium than photography and uses highly different physical substances. The Oxford English Dictionary regards painting as “the representing of objects or figures by means of colours laid on a surface; the art of so depicting objects.” (OED) However, the objects and images represented in a painting induce very different effects than those in a photograph. “The subtle emanations from an object in a photograph are incomparable with anything in painting. Photography shares with film this exclusive and peculiar property–‘the sense of nearness involved in the thing.” ( The Art of Photography, p.8)
One of the debates over the medium of photography deals with the idea of the medium of drawing being nested within the medium of photography. In her Keyword Essay on drawing, Dawn Brennan argues, “drawing functions as a medium both to and through other forms of art.” We see drawing to be nested inside other mediums such as painting and architecture, yet is this really the case in photography? “What seems to be missing from any reasonably correct description of how a photograph is made is some account of how it is drawn. It seems right to think of photography as a kind of mechanical or automatic drawing, but there is no drawing in photography.” (Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, p.490) Yet, photography must be distinguished from other things which are mechanically produced for mass culture that take on no element of art, and are merely there for their functional value. To suggest that photography is in a way a form of drawing, is to suggest that its creation was on some level by an artist and not solely by a machine.
Photography, as compared to other mediums such as painting and drawing, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Its discovery was derived from what scientists already knew about the ability of light to change certain substances. It was during the 16th century that it became known that when exposed to light salts of silver would darken. Even modern day photographs possess a silver halide base. Louis-Jacques-Mande-Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot were the first to introduce two successful methods of generating photographic images; the daguerreotype and photogenic drawing. “Daguerreotypes were direct positive images on copper plates coated with a thin layer of silver.” ( Grove Dictionary of Art ) Both processes took awhile to be perfected. It was in 1840 that the daguerreotype process was improved so that it was now possible to photograph human beings due to a reduced exposure time. This process is known as calotype. In 1851 the waxed paper negative process was introduced which was an expansion of the calotype process. This allowed for the photographing of landscapes and architecture. Then came the emergence of wet collodion photography which was the ability to produce a negative on glass, this ended the production of daguerreotypes and photogenic drawing.
For Daguerre and Talbot, their invention was a means for replacing older forms of media. They “saw their pictures as continuous with the tradition of picture making preceding them; each viewed his new process as a replacement for drawing pictures by hand…” ( Encyclopedia of Aesthetics , p.489) However, when these early forms of photography were first introduced many were skeptical about the advantage of using photography over older media such as drawing. It seemed to them that it would serve the same purpose. Below we see one of Daguerre’s first daguerreotypes, Still Life, which was produced in 1837.
If we look at the history of the medium of photography we find that the first photograph was produced during the middle of the 19th century. The earliest photographs produced were, “portraits, topographical views, and renditions of architectural structures.” ( Grove Dictionary of Art ) Photography satisfied the desire of the middle to upper class individuals to be able to have an accurate representation of something. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes argues, “photography, moreover, began, historically, as an art of the Person: of identity, of civil status, of what we might call, in all senses of the term, the body’s formality.” (p.79) Before the daguerreotype process was transformed and perfected, many portraits were daguerreotypes. Below we have the earliest photographic portrait taken by Robert Cornelius in 1839. He titles it, Self Portrait.
Walter Benjamin posits that there are two different values to a work of art. The first is their cult value and the second is their exhibition value [see aura]. He argues that along with our ability to mechanically reproduce works of art, we have shifted the emphasis from the cult value of the work of art to the exhibition value. Their existence alone is no longer what is important, it is their display that allows them to derive any meaning. Benjamin argues that, “In photography, exhibition value begins to displace cult value all along the line.” (Benjamin, p.225) After the emergence of the portrait which offered a, “cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead,” (Benjamin, p.226) the cult value of photography seemed to become lost. Photography becomes incorporated into politics and is used for displaying evidence of a crime and recording historical events. “As man withdraws from the photographic image, the exhibition value for the first time shows its superiority to the ritual value.” (Benjamin, p.226) [see memory, (2) ]
One of the many questions consistently debated by theorists surrounding the medium of photography is, what is its “special” relation to reality? [See reality, hyperreality.] Edgar Allen Poe argues, “photographs are… ‘infinitely’ more precise than any human hand, and no skills of manual dexterity can compete with them.” ( Encyclopedia of Aesthetics , p.491) Photography as an art is by no means a precise representation of reality. “If in this sense the photograph is identical with actuality it is, of course, also a rhetorical construction of the photographer. This is why connoisseurs of the medium may treat it as an art object.” (The Art of Photography , p. 8) Many have also discussed the idea of the relation between photography and death. Friedrich Kittler in his book, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter argues that photographs and photograph albums, “establish a realm of the dead…” (Kittler, p.11) They guarantee the object photographed will be preserved. They induce in the spectator a feeling that the target of the photograph is real, and this reality we equate with being “alive.” Yet, Barthes argues we take this a step further, “because of that delusion which makes us attribute to reality an absolutely superior, somehow external value; but by shifting this reality to the past (“this-has-been”), the photograph suggests that it is already dead.” (Barthes, p.79)
The photograph was what allowed for the creation of film. It made possible the establishment of a whole new medium, cinema. In film, just as in photography, we are given this illusion of reality. He argues, “…the world of the movie that was prepared by the photograph has become synonymous with illusion and fantasy…” (McLuhan, p.192-193) McLuhan argues that the camera has the ability to objectify people. Celebrities become images that connote these elements of illusion and fantasy. He states that the camera can, “turn people into things, and the photograph extends and multiplies the human image to the proportions of mass-produced merchandise. The movie stars and matinee idols are put in the public domain by photography.” (McLuhan, p.189)
In the late 1800’s, photography was mainly classified as an industrial art rather than a fine art, due to its mechanical nature. “Many writers on the art of the period concentrated on what they took to be the crucial distinctions between photography and painting, elaborating the differences in terms of oppositions between materiality and ideality, between the technical skills of photographic manipulation and the artist’s practiced skills of hand, between the mindless machine and the mind of the painter.” ( Encyclopedia of Aesthetics , p.491) However, in 1889 a fine-art photography movement was founded by photographer Peter Henry Emerson. He called it “naturalistic” photography. His position was that, “a photograph could be a work of art, irrespective of its genetics, if it occasioned ‘aesthetic pleasure’ in the viewer… the artistic value of some photographs in the prints themselves and in the habits and expectations of viewers–not in the way photographs came into being.” ( Encyclopedia of Aesthetics , p. 491-492) Below we see an example of Emerson’s “fine-art” photography, entitled Gathering Water Lilies and taken in 1886.
In the 1930’s, Benjamin suggested that the question should not be whether or not photography is an art but, “whether the very invention of photography had not transformed the entire nature of art.” (Benjamin, p.227) Benjamin sees photography to be the great new revolutionary medium that due to its reproducibility changed how we value art. Art becomes art only when it is exhibited to the masses, which is only possible through its ability to be reproduced.
The medium of photography in the twenty-first century could be seen as having four primary estates: “fine art, advertising, amateur photography, and journalism.” (The Art of Photography , p.8) The function of photography differs greatly in each of these estates. However, it can be argued that, “In present photography, as the museum culture becomes ever more commercial (no longer the mere preserver but the active creator of culture), the relations between these once separate orders of photography become increasingly interdependent.” ( The Art of Photography , p.8) There is no longer a clear line between photography as a fine art and photography as a functional art. Today we can see many photographs that would be considered fine art in advertising and journalism. Both still place the emphasis on the exhibition value of the photograph. The images in the photographs take on new meanings with new connotations. Advertising uses these images to represent cultural fantasies and illusions. Journalism uses it to depict a historical event or to allow the world to travel to a new destination through observing photographs of it. It is the display if the image and the photograph that makes these four estates possible.
The medium of photography is known most for its reproducibility, its ability to communicate with the masses, its notion of reality that is induced in the spectators, and its ability to abolish time and space and allow for anyone to feel they have witnessed an historical act, been to a far away place, or communicated with the realm of the dead. Beaumont Newhall argues in his book, The History of Photography, that “the ability of the medium to render seemingly infinite detail, to record more than the photographer saw at the time of exposure, and to multiply these images in almost limitless number, made available to the public a wealth of pictorial records exceeding everything known before.” (Newhall, p.85) Yet, we must not forget the aesthetic and artistic value of photography. It is not merely a mechanically reproducible medium with many functional purposes and objectives, but it is also an art form created by a more modern and methodical type of artist (the photographer) who wants to depict the world in a different way than the painter or the sculptor. The artist gives us in a sense a kind of coated reality of his construction that can only be transmitted through a photograph.
The Art of Photography: 1839-1989. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Yale University Press, New Haven and London. 1989.
Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang. 1981.
Benjamin, Walter, Illuminations. Edited by Hannah Arendt. Scocken Books. 1969.
Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Edited by Michael Kelly. New York: Oxford University Press. 1998.
The Grove Dictionary of Art (online). New York, NY: Grove Dictionaries, Inc. 1999.
Kittler, Friedrich A., Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Edited by Timothy Lenior and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. Stanford University Press. 1986.
McLuhan, Marshall, Understanding Media. The MIT Press. 1964.
Newhall, Beaumont, The History of Photography. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Bulfinch Press / Little, Brown and Company. 1982.