Is a photograph art? Why? Why not? For 180 years, people have been asking the question.
At an 1853 meeting of the Photographic Society of London, one of the members complained that the new technique was “too literal to compete with works of art because it was unable to elevate the imagination”.
The conception of photography as a mechanical recording medium never fully went away. Even in the 1960s and 1970s, the idea that photographs could capture more than just surface appearances was limited to niche galleries, aficionados and special publications.
Sam Wagstaff (1921 -1987) was an American art curator and collector as well as the artistic mentor and lover of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Wagstaff championed the acceptance and support of photography as medium of fine art.
After seeing the 1973 exhibition The Painterly Photograph, 1890-1914 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wagstaff became convinced that photographs were the most unrecognized and, possibly, the most valuable works of art. He began selling his collection of paintings, using the proceeds to buy 19th-century American, British, and French photography. Then, influenced by Mapplethorpe, Wagstaff’s taste moved toward the daring, and he began a search of new talent. His collection was recognized as one of the finest, and in 1984 Wagstaff’s photography collection went to the J. Paul Getty Museum, for a reported price of around five million dollars. Wagstaff was taken by the plague in 1987.
Over the past few decades the question of “is photography art?” has been heard with decreasing frequency. When Andreas Gursky‘s photograph of a gray Rhine River under a colorless sky was sold by Christie’s for a world record price of 3.5 million dollars in 2015, the debate was over. Yet, there are still no photographs insured for hundreds of millions of dollars, or exhibited behind bulletproof glass, or even the subject of art heists. No one has made a blockbuster film about stealing a photograph.
The “First Photograph”, or more specifically, the earliest known surviving photograph made by a camera, was taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1827. The image depicts the view from an upstairs window at Niépce’s estate in Burgundy.
After developing the First Photograph, Niépce traveled to England where he showed his invention to botanical illustrator Francis Bauer of the Royal Botanic Gardens. Bauer recognized the importance of Niépce’s work and encouraged him to write about his invention for a presentation to the Royal Society. Although his proposal was rejected, Niépce left his handwritten memoir and his picture, including the First Photograph, with Bauer, who inscribed the gifts, labeled them 1827 and set them aside.
During the 19th century, the First Photograph passed from Bauer’s estate through a variety of hands. After its last public exhibition in 1905, it slipped into obscurity. In 1952, photography historians Helmut and Alison Gernsheim found the First Photograph when they were contacted by the widow of Gibbon Pritchard, who had found the Niépce heliograph in her husband’s estate after his death. It now lives at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas in Austin.
I became deeply interested in photography in the late 1980s. I have always been a struggling actor and writer, so collecting important photographs was always been out of my range. But, I have an impressive collection of informal snap shots, mostly with a LGBTQ interest, from the 20th century, found at thrift shops and yard sales.
The snapshot is a photograph that is “shot” spontaneously and quickly, mostly without artistic or journalistic intent. Snapshots are usually technically imperfect, amateurish, out of focus or poorly framed or composed. The subjects are everyday life: parties and celebrations, sunsets, kids, group photos, boyfriends and girlfriends, pets, tourist attractions, and celebrity sightings.
The snapshot idea was introduced to the public by Eastman Kodak, which introduced the Brownie box camera in 1900. Kodak encouraged Americans to use the Brownie to capture moments in time and to shoot photos without being concerned with producing perfect images. Kodak advertising urged consumers:
“Celebrate the moments of your life and find a Kodak moment”.
The snapshot camera continues in our own era with inexpensive point-and-shoot digital cameras and a camera on our phones with fully automate flash, ISO, focus, shutter speed, and other functions, making the shooting of a quality photo simple. After a lifetime of trying, I was finally able to take a good picture with the purchase of my first iPhone in 2011. I have a very nice Instagram account where I document my life as a pedestrian. Check out World of Wonder writer and the world’s greatest “Paint-by-Number” artist Trey Speegle‘s Instagram here and here. WoW writer James St. James‘ pictures can be seen here.
I am sharing some of my snapshot collection below: