Photography is Art

Towards the light - Midnight by E. Steichen
Towards the light - Midnight by E. Steichen (1908)
(The statue of Balzac by Rodin in the moonlight)

In a book published in 1911, entitled The Birth of the Sixth Art, Ricciotto Canudo (1879-1923), usually referred to as 'the first theoretician of cinema', suggested that cinema was the sixth art in a list that put together the spatial arts — architecture, sculpture and painting — and the temporal arts — music and dance.

He realized afterwards he had forgotten poetry and added it to his list, moving cinema from the sixth to seventh position.

Later, television and strip cartoons were also added. Then, Canudo's list is traditionally made up of nine items: architecture (1), painting (2), sculpture (3) , dance (4), music (5), poetry (6), cinema (7), television (8), and comic strips (9). Have you noticed? Photography is not included in the list.

Untitled #66 by Cindy Sherman
Untitled #66 by Cindy Sherman (1980)

Situated as it is between artistic pretensions and technological constraints, photography is on the horns of a dilemma.

On one hand, it has the great advantage of allowing everyone to practice some kind of a plastic art. That's a great advantage indeed for people who pretend to have some artistic sensibility, but don't have any drawing talent: thanks to technology and automatisms, they can try and produce beauty now.

Baudelaire by Carjat
French poet Charles Baudelaire
portrayed by Étienne Carjat (1863)

On the other hand though, because of its duality, some may still sound doubtful as to the artistic nature of photography. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, for example, called it An average art. Charles Baudelaire, in 1859, criticized it already for being the refuge for every flawed painter, not gifted enough or too lazy.

This appreciation may appear surprising, because he was friend with Nadar, one of the first photographers who used the medium with an artistic intention (he worked in particular a lot on composition and light). Yet Baudelaire did not criticize photography itself. Only, he believed that every art should strive for beauty, not mere reproduction of reality.

Photography can undoubtedly be art sometimes. Undoubtedly too, it is very often not artistic at all. I believe then that the question Is this art? is not that much a question about the medium itself, but about how it is used, by whom, and with which intentions.

2 comment(s):

    It's remarkable how the light in all the three pictures made me think of the work of Carel Willink.


    Really? I essentially remembered of Willink as an abstract painter. I surfed a little because of your comment, and found several paintings by him with quite different styles : sometimes like Klee, or Léger, or Chirico, or Dali, or even Hooper. Yet another artist to explore...

    I don't know much about light in paintings by him then, but you got it indeed Saskia. If was not by chance only that I illustrated the blog with photos taken using light in a very similar way, although they were taken in 1863, 1908 and 1980.


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