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Photography – Science or Art?

Photography – Science or Art?
January 20, 2018 Leela Maitreyi
Leela Maitreyi
In Uncategorized

Photography is a tool that helps people communicate to others what they find beautiful and important in daily life. It allows an individual the ability to communicate small moments in time when particular emotions or moods are felt. The artist can communicate expressions such as joy, sorrow, humility, or wonder. The artist can change the way they personally perceive the world and promote change in the way others see.

Images can intrigue. Images can inspire. Images promote critical thinking. Images can bring out many questions-questions like: What can photography do that words or other artistic mediums
cannot do? How have artists used and manipulated a specific technical tool to effectively convey a meaning? Much like a painting, a photograph has the ability to move, engage and inspire viewers. Children in particular learn most through visuals and photographs do wonders to a child’s creativity, learning and memory.

Good photographs are works of art. Oddly enough, it was not always this way. Photography has not yet celebrated its 200th birthday, yet in the medium’s first century of existence, there was a great deal of debate over its artistic merit. For decades, even those who appreciated the qualities of a photograph were not entirely sure whether photography was – or could be – an art. In its first incarnation, photography seemed to be more of a scientific tool than a form of artistic expression. Many of the earliest photographers didn’t even call themselves artists: they were scientists and engineers – chemists, astronomers, botanists and inventors. Before Daguerre invented the Daguerreotype (an early form of photography on a silver-coated plate), he had invented the Diorama, a form of entertainment that used scene painting and lighting to create moving theatrical illusions of monuments and landscapes. Before Nadar began to create photographic portraits of Parisian celebrities like Sarah Bernhardt, he’d worked as a Caricaturist. (An aeronaut, he also built the largest gas balloon ever created, dubbed The Giant.)


Still life with plaster casts, made by Daguerre in 1837, the earliest reliably dated daguerreotype


One reason early photographs were not considered works of art because, quite simply, they didn’t look like art: no other form possessed the level of detail that they rendered. For this reason, it’s no surprise that some of the earliest applications of photography came in archaeology and botany. The medium seemed well suited to document specimens that were complex and minutely detailed, like plants, or archaeological finds that needed to be studied by faraway specialists, such as a tablet of hieroglyphics. In 1843, Anna Atkins produced Photographs of British Algae – considered the first book illustrated with photographs.


A cyanotype photogram made by Atkins which was part of her 1843 book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions


Finally, the genesis of a painting, drawing or sculpture was a human hand, guided by a human eye and mind. Photographers, by contrast, had managed to fix an image on a metal, paper, or glass
support, but the image itself was formed by light, and because it seemed to come from a machine – not from a human hand – viewers doubted its artistic merit. Even the word “photograph” means “light writing.” Before the photograph, painted portraits had almost always flattered the client and conformed to the fashions of the day; meanwhile, the earliest photographic portraits didn’t.

Debate over photography’s status as art reached its apogee at the end of the 19th century. Photographers manipulated the negative by hand; they used multiple negatives and masking to create a single print (much like compositing in Photoshop today); they applied soft focus and new forms of toning to create blurry and painterly effects; and they rejected the mechanical look of the standard photograph. Essentially, they sought to push the boundaries to make photographs appear as “painting-like” as possible – perhaps as a way to have them taken seriously as art.

“Photography is the most transparent of the art mediums devised or discovered by man”.