History of Photography: Essay

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The history of photography is deeply rooted in a constant debate about its status as an “Art” or a “craft”. The history of photography is credited as beginning with the discovery of two fundamental principles. That of camera obscura and the observation that some materials are altered by exposure to light (Hirsch, 200). Photography, as it is understood today, can be thought of as beginning in the seventeenth century with Johannes Kepler's understanding of the optics of camera obscura with a lens and its relation to the human eye (Wade and Finger, 2001). Camera Obscura is defined as the natural optical phenomenon occurring when an image on the other side of a screen is projected through a small hole in that screen or wall as a reversed and inverted image on a surface opposite to the opening (Daniilidis and Klette, 2006).

The first commercially successful photographic process was the ‘daguerreotype’ in 1839 (Lowry and Lowry, 2000). This is an early example that provides an insight into the craft vs art debate prevalent in the realm of photography. The daguerreotype became a prevalent photographic method in response to a large societal demand for portraiture that emerged from the middle class during the Industrial Revolution (Gillespie, 2016). This demand at the time could not be met in volume or cost by methods such as oil painting, and thus propelled the development of photography. Photography at this point in human history was not seen as ‘Art’. It was simply a mechanical process that reproduced images. The cultural and societal views at the time were that it lacked the subjective elements that were perceived in Art.

Throughout history, there have been an extensive amount of developments in photographic technology. In order to dissect and discuss the concept of Art vs craft, some key developments must be outlined and understood. It wasn’t until the mid-1880s that photography would become accessible to the masses. George Eastman began producing the film on rolls, which was a lightweight and resilient alternative to the large glass plates that were used at the time (Jenkins, 1975). The use of film on a roll allowed for multiple photos to be taken in quick succession. This allowed amateurs to take improved quality photos at an increased volume (Jenkins, 1975).

Another technological advancement in photography key to the Art vs Craft debate is that of Autochrome. French brothers, Louis, and Auguste Lumiere are credited for producing the first color photographic processes in 1904 (Lavédrine and Gandolfo, 2013). The process they called ‘Autochrome’ was achieved by adding tiny grains of dyed potato starch to panchromatic emulsions (Hofmann and Schoegl, 2001 p.73). This process produced vivid, color images and would become the most popular color photography process until the introduction of Kodachrome in 1935 (Mannes and Godowsky, 1935).

It would be 1995 when the Kodak DC40 and the Apple QuickTake 100 became the first digital cameras marketed for consumers (Price and Wells, 2015). Current photographic technology seems to be subject to technological theories such as Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law is the observation that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit double about every two years (Moore, 1965). This results in exponential growth of technology as electronic devices gain more computing power while also getting smaller. This can be seen in the photographic capabilities of modern smartphones and new mirrorless cameras becoming the norm. This exponential technological growth makes it difficult to draw definitive conclusions about photography being viewed as Art in society.

Hailed as a great technological invention, photography immediately became the subject of debates concerning it's aesthetic (Wells, 2015 p.13). The more photographic devices became available to the masses, the more its criticism as an Art grew. However, this also propelled individuals striving for “artistic” photography to stand out. This is still observable to this. With every modern phone functioning as a camera. In the nineteenth century, opinions of photography split into two key understandings; it was either accepted that photography was separate from art and was used to discover the intrinsic properties of the medium; or it was pointed out that photography was more than a mechanical method of documentation, that is could be manipulated, tweaked and contrived to produce images that resembled fine art (Price and Wells, 2015 p.).

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The use of photography in science allows for an understanding of the symbiotic relationship between art and craft. Photography and science have seemed formed to form an undeniable link, where photography has relied on science for technological developments and science has utilized photography as a tool for examining and documenting the natural world. (Wilder, 2009). Wilder addresses many of the issues that emerged in the nineteenth century as science began to, albeit slowly, embrace photography as a tool for scientific inquiry. One of these issues related to science is that of interpretation Once the photographs were made, then issues arose in that interpretation. Quite simply, what is an image about? Any individual could provide various interpretations of the same photograph, thus diminishing the photograph as scientific evidence (Wilder, 2009). Owing to its mechanical nature, photography was perceived as efficient and objective, thus relieving the observer from the problem of measuring, and describing; skills often prone to human error (Wilder and Nathan, 2011). Photography’s utilization within scientific films only provided further division from the realm of Art in the eyes of those who set to separate ‘Craft’ from ‘Art.

Photography was, and to a certain degree, still is viewed as failing within the realm of Art. This is due to photography’s perceived mechanical nature that appeared to lack an artist's compositional ‘creativity’ in the romantic sense (Price and Wells, 2015 p.14). Baudelaire in the French journal La Lumiere published writings on photography both as a science and as an art. He stated that 'the invasion of photography’ was linked to ‘the great industrial madness of today' and proclaimed that 'if photography is allowed to deputize for art in some of art's activities, it will not be long before it has supplanted or corrupted art altogether' (Baudelaire, 1859 p. 297). In Baudelaire’s opinion, art was not to be connected to dispassionate, mechanical processes that don’t have the romanticized properties of Art.

The definitions of the words, ‘Craft’ and ‘Art’ can often be used synonymously. The debate between photography and other mediums being either an Art or a craft is a socially constructed concept that has seemly develop out of the limitations of language rather than any transcendent truth.

“Art is described as an unstructured and open-ended form of work; that expresses emotions, feelings, and vision. Craft denotes a form of work, involving the creation of physical objects, by the use of hands and brain. Art relies on artistic merit whereas craft is based on learned skills and technique” (Surbhi, 2018).

This romantic view of Art is indicative of the socially constructed labels that are given to something to elevate its status within certain facets of society. As McIntyre postulates, “…in order to protect the mysterious quality of art it has often been proposed that art and craft are thoroughly different and must be kept separate” (McIntyre, 2012 p.156). What constitutes ‘beauty’ and ‘Art’ is not formally defined, but Kelley Wilder in Science and Photography makes note of form, pattern, and structure (Wilder, 2009). All of which are key functions showing photography functioning within the systems model of creativity. The craft of photography is a product of human experience rather than of cultural inheritance. (Price and Wells, 2015 p. 23)

Photography within creativity research fits within Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s system’s model of creativity. The systems model presents a systems approach to creativity theory that suggests multiple elements must be present and active for creativity to occur, which are categorized as Field, Domain, and Individual (Csikszentmihalyi, 1995). The ‘craft’ of photography, in relation to the systems model, is within the domain. There are rules and conventions to the craft of photography, whether this is composition conventions such as framing, or basic elements such as exposure, aperture, shutter speed, etc. There is a field of photography that individuals involve themselves in. Photography fits within modern creativity theory just like any other ‘creative’ medium.

Photography is evidently a craft. It has led to art, not as evolution or sort of, “next step”, but rather out of individuals striving to create something that society would consider ‘Art’. Art is a subjective notion created and sustained by commercial society. Whatever is considered ‘Art’ can not exist without an understanding of the craft and functioning within a system, consciously or not. ‘Art’ is a subjective label given to a craft that meets the socially constructed requirements of something artistic. It is clear that there can be no ‘Art’ without a craft.

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History of Photography: Essay. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 18, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/history-of-photography-essay/
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