"Taking photographs is easy." (Pontus Hulten, Pantheon der Fotografie, 1992) 

More than any other visual medium, photography has shaped our view of the world and altered our relationship with reality. It is an omnipresent medium. Both the technology and the products of photography are integral parts of our everyday life, and we tend to make use of them without a great deal of thought. And thus we find it surprising that photography now plays an increasingly important role in the world of contemporary art. Can a mass medium be art?

This question has been posed again and again ever since photography was invented - an achievement generally dated to 1839, the year in which the Daguerreotype process was made public. In the Industrial Age, photography was initially regarded as just another new technology. The photographer was looked upon as a skilled craftsman who knew how to operate the camera and develop pictures with the aid of chemical and physical processes. A number of arguments grounded in the prevailing concept of art were offered in opposition to recognition of photography as an art form: The photographer can do no more than create a mirror image of the world with his apparatus, whereas the painter or sculptor transcends reality in his work. Since multiple prints can be made from a single negative, there is no way to define an original in photography. Most important of all, however, is the question of creative intent and artistic authorship. What specific aspects imbue the photographic products of an author the character of a work of art? Is a photograph a work of art simply because Pablo Picasso pushed the shutter release?

Academic uncertainty with regard to photography blocked its entry into the great museums for many years. Even in the United States, where photography played an instrumental role in the process of emancipation from European traditions of art, departments of photography did not begin to emerge in significant numbers until the 1950s. The Museum of Modern Art in New York was the first institution to open with a photography section of its own (1929). Most European museums did not begin to build collections of photography until the 1960s and 1970s. By this time, the dissolution of traditional genre boundaries within the context of an "expanded concept of art" was in full swing, a tendency that favored recognition of photography as an art form in its own right. In 1978, the Musée d'Orsay in Paris became the first state museum in France, the birthplace of the Daguerreotype, to found a photography collection. Prices for works of photography began to rise appreciably in the 1980s, and the journal Capital began listing art photography in its "Art Compass" about the same time. Most photography collections were still in private hands, and many of these eventually formed the core of the photography departments that have been established only relatively recently at German museums. Today, photography shows are a standard feature in the programs of major exhibiting institutions. The question of photograph's artistic value has receded into the background, obscured by the diverse range of stylistic tendencies that have emerged in contemporary photography. Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of the photographic print on paper, expressed the opinion some 160 years ago that photography is "clearly a resource . . . that belongs in the hands of an inventive spirit and the realm of art."

Talbot's contemporaries were actually convinced that photography would succeed and eventually replace painting completely. Fortunately - for both painting and photography - things have turned out differently. When the first Kodak box camera appeared on the market in 1888, the technology lost its exclusive character, and taking "snapshots" became a kind of popular sport. Art photography strove to justify its status with painterly effects. The "Pictorialist" movement dominated German, English and American photography for decades. An essential characteristic of this approach to photographic art was the practice of retouching prints in order to emphasize the artist's individual style. Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen were among the most prominent exponents of Pictorialism.

Stieglitz was far-sighted enough, however, to recognize the significance of emerging tendencies. In 1917, he published photos by Paul Strand in the last issue of his journal Camera Works. Strand's pictures devoted to such themes as child labor, poverty and migration were documentary photographs with a political message. His prints were not retouched. Strand's work prompted the shift to "straight photography," which became known as "Reine Fotographie" (Pure Photography) in Germany. Stieglitz himself joined this movement, whose most important representatives are Edward Weston and Ansel Adams.

The artistic avant-garde in the U.S., Germany and the Soviet Union discovered photography as a new medium of expression in the 1920s. The experimental work of Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy had as strong impact on stylistic developments, as did the photo-collage technique used by Dadaist artists (John Heartfield, Hannah Höch). These methods were opposed in Germany by a tendency referred to in analogy to painting as "Neue Sachlichkeit" (New Objectivity). Technical perfection, precise description of objects and suppression of painterly effects were characteristic features of this style and the work of photographers Albert Renger-Patzsch, August Sander and Karl Blossfeldt. Encyclopedic in scope, Sander's famous project entitled Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts (People of the Twentieth Century) is also a precursor of conceptual photography. Eugène Atget's views of Paris appeared during the same period. His photographs document the disappearance of traditional historical structures in an era of rapid technological progress. Walker Evans characterized the style of the French photographer, with its balance of documentary and artistic elements, as poetic.

Walker Evans was the first photographer to whom the Museum of Modern Art dedicated an exclusive exhibition (1938). Evans combined his photographs of everyday American life into photo-essays. Published as an exhibition catalogue, his American Photographs was the first artist's book in the history of photography. Museums in North America presented photography exhibitions quite frequently in the following years, shows in which a purist style emphasizing technical perfection, rigorous composition and a meaningful message were heavily favored. This view of art was questioned in the 1950s by Robert Frank, whose images of American society revealed a radically subjective perspective. Such photographers as Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander pursued this documentary, yet highly personal style during the 1960s. The use of individual perspective in documentary photography became a pioneering stylistic device, although it was still frowned upon by many. In the late 1970s, viewers were appalled by William Eggleston's snapshot-style photos, taking issue less with their glaring colors than with their trivial subjects.

Many painters who turned to photography within the context of Conceptual Art in the 1970s attempted to underscore their artistic intent by dispensing with the presentation of photographs as autonomous images and combining them instead with complementary texts, selecting extreme formats or arranging them in sequences. Unparalleled is the work of Bern and Hilla Becher, who concentrated on typological photographs of industrial architecture for four decades. Based upon arrangements of technically and artistically perfect individual images in typological series, their oeuvre bridges the gap between documentary and abstract form. A comparable approach emphasizing the personal detachment and objectivity of documentary photographs is found in the work of such artists as Robert Adams and Stephen Shore.

Since the 1980s, a number of photographers have dealt with the theme of photography as a consumable commodity by employing large formats and confronting viewers with the sheer physical presence of photography. Jeff Wall used large slide projections to achieve the same end, and Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff and Axel Hütte also presented large formats. The subjects of these photographs are often astonishingly traditional, featuring primarily such classical painting genres as portrait, landscape, interior and cityscape.

Important themes in contemporary photography are the self-reflective character of the medium, its history and how it is perceived. Although belief in the supposed objectivity of photographic images has since been permanently shaken - less by photography itself than by television - we still tend to regard photographs as mirror images of reality. Our visual habits are strongly influenced by formal criteria which enable us to recognize a picture as, say, a fashion photograph, a news shot, a portrait or an ad photo. Experimentation with the blurring of boundaries and departure from customary ways of seeing have become significant stylistic tools in contemporary photography. Prominent examples of this approach can be found in the works of Cindy Sherman and Sharon Lockhart.

Digital or analog - that is the principal decision photographers must make today. Electronic image processing opens up entirely new dimension in photography. Artists like Andreas Gursky use this technology to illustrate a vision of reality that cannot be found in the real world. The diversity of photographic styles and artistic hallmarks is growing increasingly broad. And it is responsible in part for the fact that photography has continued to defy theoretical or historical description even today. For many artists, however, it is precisely this aspect which makes the medium of photography so very appealing.

14.05.2002 Andrea Gern

Veröffentlicht am: 14.05.2002