Since when is photography a recognised form of art?

Photography was first recognised in magazines and periodicals as a creative, visual form of expression in the USA during the late 19th century.

This medium, which was new and very modern at the time, was seized by photographers and developed into a new art form. American photographers Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) and Edward Steichen (1879-1973) are regarded today as the pioneers who established photography as photographic art in museums and galleries, and therefore as a recognised form of art. For example, in 1905 Alfred Stieglitz founded the “291” gallery in New York, which exclusively displayed avant-garde artwork in the form of photography, paintings and sculptures.

With a focus on all things modern, after 1920 the spirit of the time developed into sharply reproduced images. For instance, the murky period of paintings and blurry pictures from the beginnings of photography were left behind and the trend turned towards landscape photography (e.g. that of Edward Westen, Ansel Adams etc.). Art forms such as cubism influenced photography greatly and were continued by people like Bernd and Hilla Becher.

In the early 20s, photography initially established itself in periodicals and magazines. Everybody recognises the image of photographers stood behind large and heavy plate cameras, releasing flashes of powder. With the introduction of the 35mm format, photography became substantially more mobile.

Photography went from portrait photographers’ studios and into outdoors, transforming into landscape and architectural photography. However, the far greater areas of application at the time were fashion photography and photojournalism.

Viewers of the photographs saw these new, sharp and objective reflections of reality as a pleasant form of documentation in magazines and periodicals.

Photography was consequently used by some photographers for purposes other than just reporting and documentation. It was being understood more and more as a visual instrument for expression.

Nevertheless, it would take several decades for photography to gain the recognition as an art form that it so deserved.

From 1930 after studying painting, French pioneer Henri Cartier-Bersson devoted himself to photography. As was common at the time, he began his career reporting numerous journeys.

Like many photographers, he focused on an image composition that was as perfect as possible. It is known that Cartier-Bersson always took advantage of the complete negative format and marginalised the associated loss of quality. His Leica camera was always used with the 50mm standard lens.

In 1947, Cartier-Bersson gave the Museum of Modern Art in New York a large retrospective that he himself had worked on.

It is not just this milestone in photography that can be considered art.

The modern age significantly valorises the photographs of that time. The well-archived negatives of previous master photographers are not publicly accessible and the few works on the market are rare and extremely expensive.

With all the possibilities of today’s digital photography, including digital image processing, however, there are many more possibilities for creative engagement in the field of photography.

The term “art” alone gives photographers today as much scope as they require. If we look, for example, at the globally recognised Düsseldorf School of Photography, it can be seen that the new objectivity shaped by Becher can be enhanced by today’s art of digital image processing.

However, the main talking point is what is allowed and what is not. Traditionalists see a danger in digital processing for perfectly created artisanal artwork, at least insofar as it exceeds the scope of digital picture development. Today’s avant-gardists work free from restrictions and combine all the creative and technical possibilities of photography that are available for their work, often producing results that have nothing or not as much in common with objectivity or reality.

Many viewers of today’s photographic art simply say: “I could have done that!” From an objective point of view, this is a very vague statement. Today, as no manual skills are necessary to create an image, it is possible for anybody to create artwork.

Where is the key to success now? True art is that which convinces the public that an image is a work of art. In this regard, just being a trained photographer is not a guarantee for success; this requires a network in the art scene and curators who can call an artist “an artist” and determine the value of their work. Of course, this also determines the demand.

In summary: Since the early 19th century, photography has developed into a recognised form of art. On this basis, the phrase “art comes from ability” is of the utmost importance when thinking about its what it contains.


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