Since the dawn of time, humanity has searched for ways to express the world around them in visual form. Sculptors like Praxiteles, Auguste Rodin, Michelangelo and the unknown artist who crafted the Venus de Milo have filled the art history books. Painters, such a Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet and Salvador Dali, have their works in hundreds of museums and on the walls of private collectors.
Although the question of whether photography is an art form is still half-heartedly debated by some, and has been since the 16th century, many photographers have joined the ranks of famous artists. Several photographs, framed or enlarged, black and white or color, now populate the walls and museums of the world. However, only in the past century or so has photography been recognized as any kind of art, much less fine art.
Originally, photography was the “unwanted stepchild” of the arts, a poor relation to drawing and painting. Because of the camera’s mechanical nature, say the detractors, it doesn’t require any real skill. The need for hand to eye coordination is minimal, the subject of the photograph comes “ready-made” and the photographer doesn’t need to be creative or imaginative. In short, a monkey could do it.
Considered an industrial art or a documentary device, the medium still caused much consternation amongst the artists of other mediums. Many were afraid that photography would cause the loss of livelihood. Others saw a disintegration of the arts, distorted by the photographic lens.
So what changed? The art world met Peter Henry Emerson. A photographer himself, Emerson believed that, if a photograph brought “aesthetic pleasure to the viewer”, it was art. No matter how it came into being. In 1889, he founded a fine-art photography movement, calling it “naturalistic” photography.
George Davison and Horsley Hinton, along with Emerson, wrote many pieces claiming that their chosen art was not just a method of documenting and recording. In addition to the common uses, they suggested, photographs could be pictorial in nature, selected for their appeal and beauty.
Around 1892, pictorial photography became accepted throughout the world, vindicating many who had argued for the medium to be included under “art”. That same year, Alfred Stieglitz begged photographers in America to bring art photography to the country. In 1897, America embraced the first pictorial exhibit in Philadelphia and has accepted as an art form ever since.
Once acceptance was garnered, photographers began cropping up everywhere. All you really needed was to own a camera and a good eye. For instance, the “father of photojournalism”, Alfred Eisenstaedt, started taking photos at the young age of 14. He sold his first photograph in 1927 and had never had any training – just a good eye and a camera. His unstaged photographs, taken in the spur of a moment, have delighted and amazed viewers since 1928.
Throughout his entire career, Eisenstaedt never put aside the “amateurish” sense of adventure. He never felt the need to overburden himself with unnecessary equipment, and carried out his photojournalistic assignments merely by catching events at the right time.
Ansel Adams, whose landscape photography graces many walls, calendars and book pages, is another example. Although he had trained to become a concert pianist, a trip to Yosemite National Park and a Kodak Brownie box camera began a new era for Adams. From 17 until his death in 1984, he dedicated his life, an extensive array of fine art photography and music to the beauty of nature and the need to preserve the natural world’s wonders and resources.
Whether art or science, one cannot look upon the works of Ansel Adams, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Anne Geddes, Dorothea Lange, Edward Curtis and many others without feeling at least a small sense of awe. If a picture truly says a thousand words, their voices will be heard for many years to come.