Photography Be Damned
But who paints murals is an artist? Let's say… .. this, for example:
Many people — myself included — think so: a mural can be a work of art with its own absolute raison d’être. Obviously there are good mural artists, not so good ones, and bad ones. As in any profession or art. But this is not the point, the point is whether you want to clear the making of murals as an artistic expression or not. I think so: yes, murals can be art.
But the writers, those who cheer up the walls of our urban buildings with various scribbles, are they artists? I ask this question because there are some who claim they are. I personally find that they are — at best — lost aspiring artists.
Other definitions that come to mind would be far less generous, so let’s stop there.
I say all this because the theme “is this art?” is a subject as old as art itself — any art. These questions have also been asked in modern times for sub-categories of visual art (e.g., readymade), for musical compositions (e.g., aleatory music) and also for entire segments of human expression.
Here we are speaking not of a specific sub-category (such as chance music or body art), but of an entire category, as we have just done for writers or for painters of murals. The whole category is photography.
In short, can photography be art? Many of you will be surprised by this question when thinking about the staggering amounts that a photo of Gursky is sold for by the same auction house that offers a De Chirico or a Gaugain on other occasions, and you do have a point. Photography is a recognized art, with all that goes with it — be careful, the “all that goes with it” is the essential foundation of being art, whether we like it or not. “All that goes with it” has meant meaning in the past (give or take) two hundred years exhibitions, an art market, art galleries, critics, marketing of the artist-persona, media buzz, vernissages, to-see-and-be-seen, etc.
Yes, photography today is all this. So it's art.
Some may not like this approach of defining what art is, and I understand that. A different way is to abandon a somewhat mercantile and show-business definition of art and turn to the public to decide what art is. If you are interested in knowing the mechanisms that lead the public to define a certain work a “work of art”, you will have plenty to choose from, for the literature on the subject is imposing. A good starting point is the work of a group of researchers from the University of Vienna  whose link is included in the references at the end. And I stop here because I have already digressed too much.
Let me be clear: I certainly do not intend to relitigate whether photography is art or not. There are about 80 years of discussions on the subject (give or take from 1850 to the interwar period) made by intellectuals and art critics. The answer — anno domini 2021 — has been agreed upon for at least 70 years: photography is art, so it makes no sense to reopen a closed case.
Ok, photography is art. Well, it hasn't always been like that, actually photography has struggled to establish itself as a legitimate artistic expression blessed by the market — again, whether we like it or not. Photography had to fight hard to get out of the long quarantine in which it had been put on its debut, starting with what I — jokingly, mind you — call “Baudelaire’s curse.” This is why the title of the article is “Photography Be Damned.”
Let's go back to 1826 or 1827 when Niepce made what history generally considers the “first” photo — or perhaps, more rigorously — the oldest that has reached us — i.e., the roofs that could be seen from the window of his apartment.
Here it is. You all have seen it.
But we have to get to the second half of the 30s — I mean 1830 — to see some “normal” photos (of people on the street, still life, portraits). In fact, many historians consider January 1839 and not 1827 the birth of photography, i.e., when Daguerre presented his process at the Academy of Sciences in Paris.
Some of the photographs that have come to us — like the famous one shown below — were made by Daguerre, who in the meantime had established an economic-entrepreneurial relationship with Niepce.
Those who argue that photography is the daughter of chemistry and not of optics have a point — in fact, the “camera obscura” was used as early as 1500 to help painters. The relationship between photography and chemistry was crucial to the former: while the roofs photographed by Niepce required an exposure of about 8 hours or — as claimed by others — of a couple of days, some early street photography or people’s portraits required much shorter exposures — and therefore more light-sensitive materials. The breakthrough that gave birth to photography was certainly chemical.
What has been said so far has the sole purpose of presenting the context in which Baudelaire makes his famous j'accuse: we are in 1859 and photography has established itself as a “new vehicle of communication” — as we would say today. The daguerreotype was a phenomenal success, the profession of portrait photographer had taken off, portrait painters had started to feel the economic pressure on their business from this magically realistic and above all economically competitive technology. A daguerreotype cost at the time the equivalent of today’s twenty dollars.
Incidentally — Baudelaire himself writes about it — pornography was one of the very first applications of photography, (in 1860 there were about 400 shops throughout Paris that sold pornographic photos). This reinforces the thesis that any new technology finds its most devoted early adopters in the field of sex and its various declinations. Internet was certainly no exception.
I digress again. Let's go back to portraits made with chemistry on a plate and not with brushes. The daguerreotype introduced the middle class to the possibility of having a portrait done. But what kind of portrait? Certainly not the one done by a painter who — like it or not — has always interpreted the subject in front of him. The daguerreotype — even only for the exposure times, which were not instantaneous, far from it — forced the subject to assume an artificial and absolutely studied pose. This put the subject somewhat in the driver's seat, thus replacing the artist-photographer. The artist-photographer had to take the shot and then handle some horrible chemical concoction. That’s it. (We do not describe here the historical context of this period because it would lengthen this article too much. I have listed an interesting book by Bridget Alsdorf  in the references at the end.)
In the Salon of 1859 Baudelaire wrote about photography and says terrible things. Terrible but also shocking, because they are not coming from any intellectual, however famous, but from someone who is recognized as one of the fathers of modern art criticism. Terrible and shocking because Baudelaire is not an old backward intellectual overwhelmed by the new but rather someone intrigued and fascinated by the modern. Let's read some of the things he writes in this 1859 contribution. The original in French is in the notes at the end. The translation is my own.
- “… but I am convinced that poorly applied progress of photography greatly contributed to the impoverishment of the already rare French artistic genius, as generally occurs with all purely material progress.”
- “If photography were allowed to subsume art in one of its functions, it would soon substitute or corrupt it altogether, thanks to the natural alliance that it will find in the foolishness of the multitude.”
- “In painting and sculpting today's credo of worldly people, most of all in France (I do not believe that anybody dares to state the opposite) is as follows: “I believe in nature and in nature only (there are valid reasons for that). I believe that art is and cannot be but the exact reproduction of nature (a timid and dissident sect wants that repugnant natural objects be discarded, such as a bedpan or a skeleton). Thus the industry that will deliver a result identical with nature will be absolute art.” A vindictive God fulfilled the wishes of this multitude. Daguerre was its Messiah. So it told itself: “Since photography provides us with all the desirable guarantees of precision (the fools actually believe that), art is photography.” From that moment on the filthy society, like a Narcissus, rushed to contemplate its trivial image on metal. A folly, an extraordinary fanaticism seized all the new sun worshipers. Strange abominations came into being.”
- “That it quickly enrich the album of the traveller and reproduce in his view the precision that would lack his memory, that it decorate the library of the naturalist, exaggerate the microscopic animals, even strengthen the hypotheses of the astronomer through some pieces of information; that it may be the assistant and record keeper of anyone who needs/requires absolute material precision in his profession, nothing better up to this point. That it save the hanging ruins from oblivion, the books, the prints and the manuscripts swallowed by time, the precious things whose form/shape will disappear and which ask for space in the archives of our memory, it will be thanked and applauded. But if it is allowed to encroach on the domain of the impalpable and imaginary, most of all that which is of no value except for the fact that humans add with their soul then it is our misfortune.”
Baudelaire continues by saying that only idiots could confuse art with industry. “Art” here is codeword for “painting,” just as “industry” is codeword for “photography.” In short, the attack launched against photography — that is timidly trying to become art by distancing itself from the photos of the baby or the cheese merchant or the well-to-do lady — is extremely violent.
I cannot conclude without reminding you again that — despite this passionate and harsh writing that attacks the concept of photography as art heads-down — Baudelaire was not a Luddite and had let himself be photographed at least a couple of times in classic poses. He was therefore fascinated and intrigued by modernism; photography fascinated him, but he considered it capable of producing art pretty much the same way a slide rule can. In short, a means to make your profession easier and — by all means — more profitable. But Art with a capital A was quite another thing.
After such a blow, it is not surprising that photography had to struggle to establish itself as a legitimate artistic expression. Moreover, the birth of the negative-positive process certainly did not contribute: the public wanted it because the daguerreotype was beautiful, but the need was to send the photo of the newborn baby — or of the married couple — to faraway friends and relatives, and hundred daguerreotypes were not the answer: thus, the true mechanization of photography was born.
For all intents and purposes, it is necessary to reach after the Second World War to see the beginning of a robust art collection of photographs, and above all of a secondary market that is structured and reasonably responsive to the dynamics of supply/demand.
I could stop here but Baudelaire's writing in the Salon of 1859 has heirs that we cannot ignore ... I use the word “heirs” in quotation marks and with a smile.
Let's leave the mid-nineteenth century and let's jump to 1937. As one can imagine, it’s like being on a different planet.
Someone else writes a pamphlet (I don't use the word book or article for reasons that will soon be clear) with a suggestive title: “Photography is not art.” Moreover, the contribution is in French, so the connection with Baudelaire is direct — at least from an emotional point of view.
The word “brochure” instead of pamphlet would be more precise. Or “work of art” perhaps even more so. You decide what it is.
My encounter with this brochure / pamphlet / work of art / portfolio was by chance. I was in a museum (I no longer remember which one), I visited the museum shop and saw it on a shelf. The author — Man Ray — and the title — La Photographie n 'est pas l’art  — proved to be an irresistible combination. Man Ray fascinating personality and the provocative and absolutely Baudelairian title trapped me right away.
As you can see in the references it also reads “12 photographs. Foreword by Andrè Breton.”
The brochure was accompanied — at least in the version that I found in the museum — by a text by Herbert Molderings (in German, French and English). Herbert Molderings is an important German art historian. The contribution of Molderings is very interesting because it brings new information to the discussion of this paper. We learn that in 1929 the French art magazine L'Art Vivand had published a series of articles in defense of photography as art and in one of these issues it had — to support the concept of photography as art — proposed some photos of Man Ray. Who — apparently little interested in the subject — said in response:
“Is photography art? It's not worth trying to figure out if it's art or not. Art is a thing of the past, we need something else. We have to watch light at work. It is light that creates. I sit in front of my sheet of photographic paper and think."
Provocation? The doubt that it is — knowing a little about the personality of the artist — has some justification. Or sincere outpouring, instead?
Returning to the brochure discussed here: we are in 1937 and Man Ray does not write on the subject but offers a portfolio of twelve images entitled "La photographie n'est pas l’art.” If we think about what Baudelaire wrote, we cannot fail to react with a smile to some of the photos that Man Ray offers. Remember that Baudelaire blesses photography for the use that naturalists, architects, tourists can make of it, for those things we want to archive, etc. So Man Ray proposes the photo of a seahorse entitled “Histoire naturelle”, or a rayograph of a flower entitled “Photographie intégrale et cent pour cent automatique.” Or the banal photo of a skyscraper (“Vide-air utilitaire”).
André Breton — poet and art critic, of whom Man Ray also painted a portrait — writes the preface, even if you shouldn't expect a preface in the classical sense: here is the poet — not the art critic — who writes.
Molderings tackles the topic in a scholarly way, including Man Ray's relationship with Dadaism, the influence Duchamp had and his photography readymade. For this reason I recommend if possible to get this booklet / treatise / pamphlet — call it whatever you like! — because if you are interested in the topic it is certainly worth reading it.
Ok, we are now in 2021, photography has been recognized as a legitimate artistic expression for at least seventy years, game over.
Well … not quite. I think there are some debris left around. In fact, the emancipation of photography as an artistic vehicle has not been clean, it has left us with some as yet unresolved contradictions. I like to call them debris. This is the core of the article, its raison d’être, i.e., talking about these debris.
These debris that photography still coexists with (and it suffers from) are also a consequence of Baudelaire's curse. Interpreted in a metaphorical sense, of course: I use the term "Baudelaire's curse" to define a reaction of both public and professionals who were opposed to “photography as art” from its beginnings to — at least — after the first world war and perhaps a little further. My take is that these debris still symbolize a discomfort in photography with classical arts — painting in the first place.
Let me give you two examples of these debris. The first is an instinctive rejection of unique pieces. Unique pieces that techniques such as in-camera photography can produce. If you do not know what it is, in-camera photography consists of putting a positive paper inside the film-holder instead of the negative film, expose it, and develop it to obtain a unique print. No negative-positive process. (An alternative would be to go through a certified process of destruction of the negative after the first print.)
If it is true that photography suffers — when compared to painting — from this characteristic of mechanical reproducibility (as an outcome of the negative-positive process), any approach that gets rid of the “N prints plus 2 author’s prints” that characterizes fine art photography ought to be welcomed. One would think that the market and collectors — unnerved by these limited editions (or even worse, by multiple editions with different crops) — would react with interest to unique pieces.
The opposite happens: unique pieces arouse suspicion. It seems that photography must equate to reproducibility, otherwise it ain’t photography. Hidden behind it is Baudelaire’s curse — i.e., freeing photography and bringing it a little bit closer to painting. No unique pieces, then: photography was born reproducible and must remain so!
This is not even historically correct: it was not born reproducible, it became so to facilitate the circulation of the portrait of the last born or of the newlyweds on their wedding day, to facilitate the circulation of an image of a microorganism in the research community or of the carnal attributes of beautiful ladies and handsome gentlemen. In one word: convenience.
The great-great-grandfather of in-camera photography is, after all, the daguerrotype.
So, we have an almost schizophrenic situation in the art world: on the one hand many look at the reproducibility of photography with skepticism, on the other suspicion replaces skepticism when reproducibility is taken off the table.
The second example of debris is the tremendous complexity that many fine art photographers introduce in their processes of image creation and production. Yesterday these were semi-magical chemical concoctions of film and paper developers, fixing and washing baths of sublime intricacy and so on. Today these are color management techniques, processors of RAW files, Photoshop actions with triple somersault without net. There seems to be the need to introduce the greatest craftsmanship possible in the act of photographic production. Which up to a point makes complete sense: the artist wants to express something and it is reasonable to expect him or her to master the tools at his or her disposal. But in many cases we arrive at extremes that do not justify the goal of artwork creation and appear to be pure juggling acts. One does not hear painters discuss about brushes and canvases endlessly, but one hears many photographers searching for a better RAW converter. We are left with the doubt that there is a need for the art photographer to stay as far as possible away from what Baudelaire called industry. How to do that? By employing increasingly sophisticated and esoteric techniques — therefore impalpable, undocumented and undocumentable, a-mechanical and not standardized, and hence … “artistic.”
Let me be clear: I never claimed that all art photographers suffer from an inferiority complex towards the classical arts. But an observation that is fairly anchored to everyday experience is that in the other arts the “how I do it” plays a far smaller role than “what I want to say.” Photography has its own identity and this identity includes a relationship with technology and scientific progress that other arts do not have, I grant you that. But if one has to judge from the behavior of many lead actors — i.e., the photographers — as opposed to the statements of intellectual and critics, the debris some inadequacy towards the historical arts is still there.
Most intellectuals and art critics disagree completely with what I say, in the sense that reproducibility does not represent a hindrance for photography to be a full-fledge art. Others go even further: one of them is Susan Sontag, who in her famous “On Photography” writes: “painting was handicapped from the very beginning by its being art, with each object unique, original and handmade." She maintains that photography has its own artistic space precisely because it is mechanical. She turns my argument on its head. Fascinating.
- mais je suis convaincu que les progrès mal appliqués de la photographie ont beaucoup contribué, comme d’ailleurs tous les progrès purement matériels, à l’appauvrissement du génie artistique français, déjà si rare.
- S’il est permis à la photographie de suppléer l’art dans quelques-unes de ses fonctions, elle l’aura bientôt supplanté ou corrompu tout à fait, grâce à l’alliance naturelle qu’elle trouvera dans la sottise de la multitude.
- En matière de peinture et de statuaire, le Credo actuel des gens du monde, surtout en France (et je ne crois pas que qui que ce soit ose affirmer le contraire), est celui-ci : « Je crois à la nature et je ne crois qu’à la nature (il y a de bonnes raisons pour cela). Je crois que l’art est et ne peut être que la reproduction exacte de la nature (une secte timide et dissidente veut que les objets de nature répugnante soient écartés, ainsi un pot de chambre ou un squelette). Ainsi l’industrie qui nous donnerait un résultat identique à la nature serait l’art absolu. » Un Dieu vengeur a exaucé les vœux de cette multitude. Daguerre fut son Messie. Et alors elle se dit : « Puisque la photographie nous donne toutes les garanties désirables d’exactitude (ils croient cela, les insensés !), l’art, c’est la photographie. » À partir de ce moment, la société immonde se rua, comme un seul Narcisse, pour contempler sa triviale image sur le métal. Une folie, un fanatisme extraordinaire s’empara de tous ces nouveaux adorateurs du soleil. D’étranges abominations se produisirent.
- Qu’elle enrichisse rapidement l’album du voyageur et rende à ses yeux la précision qui manquerait à sa mémoire, qu’elle orne la bibliothèque du naturaliste, exagère les animaux microscopiques, fortifie même de quelques renseignements les hypothèses de l’astronome ; qu’elle soit enfin le secrétaire et le garde-note de quiconque a besoin dans sa profession d’une absolue exactitude matérielle, jusque-là rien de mieux. Qu’elle sauve de l’oubli les ruines pendantes, les livres, les estampes et les manuscrits que le temps dévore, les choses précieuses dont la forme va disparaître et qui demandent une place dans les archives de notre mémoire, elle sera remerciée et applaudie. Mais s’il lui est permis d’empiéter sur le domaine de l’impalpable et de l’imaginaire, sur tout ce qui ne vaut que parce que l’homme y ajoute de son âme, alors malheur à nous !
 Matthew Pelowski, Gernot Gerger, Yasmine Chetouani, Patrick S. Markey and Helmut Leder, “But Is It really Art? The Classification of Images as “Art”/“Not Art” and Correlation with Appraisal and Viewer Interpersonal Differences”, Department of Basic Psychological Research and Research Methods, Faculty of Psychology, University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria, 2017 - https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01729/full
 Bridget Alsdorf, “Fellow Men: Fantin-Latour and the Problem of the Group in Nineteenth-Century French Painting”, Princeton University Press, 2012.
 Man Ray, “La photographie n’est pas l’art. 12 photographies. Avant-propos de André Breton.” Fotohof Edition, 2009.