Photography is internationally recognised as a new medium to produce art. Work by acclaimed photographers such as Cindy Sherman, Jeff Walls and Andreas Gursky, sells for over a million pounds. When Gursky’s work Rhine II sold for £2.7m at Christie’s in New York at the end of 2011, he beat his world record. Art photography is big business, but is it art? Is photography just a chemically process for art production or is it art in its own right?
The etymology of the word sheds light on the medium as an art form. The Greek words phôtós and graphé mean light and drawing or writing. Hence, it defining photography as an image produced by light.
When the French photographer Louis Daguerre experimented with capturing reality on a sheet of silver-plated copper in 1839, he was not primarily interested in capturing an image, but he was more interested in experimenting with the chemical process behind it.
The profession of a photographer can be regarded as a handicraft, as he captures reality with his own hands, but needs to know how to deal with the chemical progress of developing his photographs to get the picture he wants. This stands in comparison to an artist’s work. He creates the object of his work in his head first, and then reproduces it on a surface solely with the help of his own hands. However, it is impossible to say whether an artist has seen the object of his artwork before its creation in real life.
While naturalist and realist painters were interested in depicting reality, abstract artists created pieces of art based on how they individually perceived the world. For example, the images of the abstract paintings by the Russian-born painter Wassily Kandinsky s emerged in his head and cannot be considered to be a reproduction of reality.
The Seduced by Art – Photography Past and Present exhibition at the National Gallery in London explores the similarities and differences between paintings and photographs from the past and of today. It strongly encourages its visitors to rethink their definition of art and photography.
Paintings and photographs where similar, or even exactly the same, objects are exhibited next to each other. Therefore, the exhibition addresses the idea of reproduction in art rather than the creation of fresh art.
Considering the works shown as a reproduction is, however, only a impression. After a second, more critical, look it becomes obvious that, although the objects are identical, the images are different.
For example, the British artist Nicky Bird’s reproduction of Margret Cameron’s photograph of a girl, shows that the depicted girls have no closer similarities, other than their hair colour and the flowers on top of their heads.
However, the photographs’ objects are similar, the real images are not. Colour versus sepia-tone, a small versus a bigger print. And the girl in Bird’s photograph has a cheeky expression, while the other, in contrast, looks as if she is rising above something. Of course, it is kind of a reproduction but Bird’s photograph is still a completely new image.
The Canadian artist Jeff Wall took Ferdinand-Victor-Eugème Delacroix’s oil painting (1827) as an inspiration for his photograph The Destroyed Room (1978). The objects of the pieces are similar, naked men and women are depicted next to a bed. Delacoix’s painting captures a sexual, wild and powerful atmosphere.
Wall’s photograph does not focus on depicting human-beings but on the atmosphere his photograph captures. Emotions, wild and strong, makes the room what it is: destroyed and spoiled, as the humans are in Delacoix’s painting.
Notably, more than half of the exhibited photographers at the National Gallery are British. The Englishman Henry Fox Talbot further developed the idea of photography and invented the paper-negative process, called calotype, in 1941. Since then, photography has become an English territory.
Interestingly, nearly all the photographers exhibited teach fine-art photography at leading art schools in the UK, as well as selling their work in the commercial art market. The photographers have developed their skills and interests into a profitable job. By taking photography to an academic level they add more quality to their work, and they are able to show their work at the world’s leading galleries.
For example Richard Learoyd embraces every way to occupy himself with photography. He sells his work through the McKee commercial art gallery in New York and teaches at the Art Institute in Bournemouth. His work is considered as one of the most outstanding photography of our time. His specially produced C-type print large-format photographs are also offered at leading art fairs, such as at Art Basel.
But is a photographer an artist?
Photography is a craft, but can also be a form of art. The photographer Luc Delahaye blurs this. Delahaye started to make photographs as a war photographer for a press agency. Amongst other places, he took several in Afghanistan, where he produced some of his most recognisable and first large-format pieces. Out there, he took a shocking image of a wounded dead Taliban soldier.
While his first war photographs were produced to serve the public interest, providing a picture of the situation in a country in war, his artistic photographs serve a more profound purpose. The subjects of his photographs are trying to depict reality per se, which is not always the case with press pictures as the bigger picture is missing sometimes.
Delahaye distinguishes himself from the idea that an artist uses reality only as a model of reality while his own art is a simple reflection of the world seen through a bird’s eye perspective.
He said: “The art historian will later say that the photograph is inspired by the painting, but what we actually see is that the path of the photographer, who took reality as a subject, and of the painter, who took reality as a model, are crossing somewhere.“
His photograph of a press conference taken in 2004 shows a pack of journalists asking questions and press photographers taking pictures. This photograph is unusual as it is taken from the interviewees’ perspective, which let the press become the subject of a press conference.
Seduced by Art seduces people with a deeper interest for photography, and questions the art of our time and the past. The exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery distills the art and photography of the past by putting it into a contemporary context and by doing so, makes a statement that contemporary artists are producing new and valuable art – even if some works look like a pastiche at first sight. Remarkably, paintings are creating a new reality and their subjects transcend that truth. By contrast, the reproduction of reality in photographs is manufactured through the photographer’s imagination. It is that imagination behind the image which makes the art, regardless of its medium.
The exhibition comprises of 90 photographs is shown at the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square (Sainsbury Wing) until January 20. The catalogue features Ori Gersht from Israel on the cover.