No doubt many PHOTO Techniques readers are interested in using photography to make art.Those who don’t sell their photographs have complete flexibility. Like young painters who sometimes copy the works of masters as a learning exercise, they might set out to duplicate a famous photograph. On the other hand, a photographer who subjects his or her photographs to the scrutiny of the wider world of galleries, museums, and collectors probably wants to avoid being seen as an imitator. Therefore, it’s important for anyone seriously involved in photography as art, especially those in the second category, to be well informed about what contemporary photographers are doing and what has gone before.
Very soon after Daguerre and Talbot announced their photographic processes in 1839, there were people who were attracted to the idea of using them to make art. However, some felt that camera images resulting from the regular photographic processes were too mechanical to be considered art, and that some sort of human intervention or manipulation should be involved.
Among those sharing the latter view were two painters who took up photography in the 1850s, O. G. Rejlander and H. P. Robinson. A solution to this problem that satisfied them was to print multiple negatives on one piece of paper so skillfully that the result looked as though it came from a single negative. One Robinson print, Fading Away, was made from five negatives, and Rejlander’s well known Two Ways of Life was made from more than 30.
P. H. Emerson, physician turned photographer and cousin of Ralph Waldo Emerson, was prominent in the 1880s when he published a half-dozen books of his photographs made in the English countryside. Although Robinson was still making combination prints then, Emerson demonstrated that there were some who thought straight photographs could be art. In his 1889 book, Naturalistic Photography, he wrote “the emotional and psychological effect of a photograph lies in the untouched image of the lens as recorded by the sensitive material, and therefore . .. this effect should never be spoiled by handwork or combination printing.” (Nevertheless, he was willing to print in skies from separate negatives, since the orthochromatic emulsions of the day usually produced white skies when things on the ground were adequately exposed.)
Emerson’s was a minority view; the mainstream of art photography in the late 19th century and first couple of decades of the 20th was Pictorialism. At a time when photographs were not widely accepted as art objects, Pictorialists went far beyond combination printing in their manipulation of images. Alfred Stieglitz, who worked tirelessly to promote photography as art, formed an influential group of Pictorialists called the Photo-Secession in 1902. With Stieglitz and Edward Steichen serving as jurors, this group organized a large exhibition in 1904, which was reviewed by a well-known art critic, Sadakichi Hartmann. He wrote, “The photographers not only make use of every appliance and process known to the photographer’s art, but without the slightest hesitation . . . overstep all legitimate boundaries and deliberately mix up photography with the technical devices of painting and the graphic arts.”
Hartmann concluded “Alfred Stieglitz, who had become the champion of artistic photography in America, continually clamored for more ‘individual expression.’ And since ‘individual expression’ in straight photography is extremely difficult to attain, the artistic photographer began to imitate the artist. ‘Individual expression’ became synonymous with ‘painter-like expression.’”
Hartmann was surely right about the difficulty of attaining individual expression in straight photography. Anyone who makes technically excellent black-and-white landscape photographs and displays beautifully crafted large prints today is in danger of hearing the comment “It looks like an Ansel Adams.” Arriving at a recognizable personal style can be challenging for anyone making straight photographs. I will say more about this below.
Reaction against the Pictorialist approach increased during the 1920s, culminating in an exhibition held in San Francisco late in 1932 by a group of friends that included Edward and Brett Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Willard Van Dyke, and six others. They believed in making straightforward, sharp photographs, printed on smooth-surface papers to preserve maximum detail and tonal range, with no alteration of images beyond normal dodging and burning. They called themselves Group ƒ/64, symbolizing their respect for sharpness and the greater depth of field associated with small lens openings. Although Group ƒ/64 did little else as a group, this exhibition and subsequent individual efforts helped to make their approach, called Modernism, the dominant thread in art photography for the next 40 years and a significant influence still.
The 1970s brought a great increase in photography collecting by museums and individuals, and many more university art departments began teaching photography. Academicians generally embraced Post-Modernism, using photographs to convey ideas, rather than beauty for beauty’s sake. This made the pursuit of technical excellence less important to them than it was to the Modernists. In an art-school environment, being original, or at least different, is highly valued, but as Hartmann pointed out in 1904, individual expression is very difficult to achieve in straight photography. Not surprisingly, Post-Modernist photographers adopted all sorts of techniques to set themselves apart. For example, we saw old processes such as platinum or hand col- ored black-and-white, strange subjects such as fat, nude matrons, deliberate technical flaws such as out-of-focus or excessively dark prints, or deliberately damaged negatives or prints. Instead of utilizing gimmicks, some Post-Modernists simply made technically competent photographs of what one reviewer called “stunningly boring” subjects.
The Post-Modern emphasis on the use of photographs to convey ideas often means that words must accompany a photograph in order for the viewer to “get it.” For example, I saw a museum exhibition of large, extremely out-of-focus portraits that seemed most appropriate for a wastebasket. Then I heard the photographer explain that they symbolized his friends who had died or were dying of AIDS. A powerful idea had transformed nondescript photographs into art worthy of museum walls.
The boom in digital photography has been especially welcome in university art departments for at least two reasons. It seems to take less time to learn to make satisfactory prints digitally than with conventional materials. This is attractive in an art school where students often take up a new medium. More importantly, computer programs that process digital images, such as Photoshop, offer many ways to substantially alter images, which can be appealing to a Post-Modernist.
It’s natural for someone becoming serious about doing photography as a fine art to be concerned about developing a style, a form of individual expression. Perhaps it will be useful for me to pass along some of the advice I have received.
• Eagerness to have an identifiable style can lead to the adoption of a superficial gimmick. A more genuine style is likely to come to the photographer who simply makes a lot of photographs, following where his or her interests lead.
• If you are excited about your subject, the chances are that viewers of your photographs will be too. I went to the Greek islands because I wanted to use whitewashed buildings as raw material from which to create strong designs for my own pleasure, not expecting anyone to buy them. Later, the response to them made me regret having set a limit of only 50 prints for each of these photographs.
• It is desirable to find some sort of subject matter or project that will remain accessible while you explore it in depth. With increasing familiarity, you are likely to discover possibilities that weren’t initially apparent.
The accompanying illustrations are drawn from projects that have occupied me for long periods of time. After growing up in the flattest part of Ohio, mountains have appealed to me since the 1960s, and I have never stopped photographing them. Some 40 photographic trips to the western United States and Canada, six to the Alps in Europe, and one to the Himalayas constitute more of an obsession than a project. This aspect of my career is represented by the accompanying photograph, Twilight, Jackson Lake, Wyoming.
Six trips to photograph English churches and cathedrals were spread over the period 1981–2003. At first, I concentrated on small churches and produced a limited edition portfolio of prints and a book, which included Masonry, Wye, England. Later, I made Portfolio XVIII: Ten Cathedrals.
My abstract photographs were not made as a deliberate project, but rather, occasionally, when opportunities arose between the 1970s and 2002. Ten of them were in Portfolio XX: Abstraction. For 20 years, I taught workshops at the east end of Lake Superior, around Lake Superior Provincial Park. I always took the students to a burned-down house on the shore of the lake, where there was a car hood with no car attached. Its paint peeled more over the winters, making it different every summer. For 10 years, it was my habit to photograph it after one of the workshops, which yielded Car Hood, Ontario, 1984.
My first four trips to the Greek Cyclades Islands in 1984–1988 resulted in two limited edition portfolios of prints and a book, White Motif. An unexpected opportunity to return to the islands in 2004 produced Portfolio XXII: Aegean Light, which contains Intersection, Santorini, Greece. Using the sunlight and shadows on whitewashed Greek buildings to construct images that approach abstraction has been very exciting for me—my most satisfying project. However, I won’t promise to stay away from the mountains.