Aesthetica Art Prize 2014
Photography has had an interesting history, first being connected to science, then struggling to be recognized as fine art, and now, with the digital age, the concept of what a photograph is or can be is changing, as are the photographers themselves – what challenges and opportunities does this present within the established tradition of the art museum?
At the dawn of photography, the technical experiments of pioneers including Joseph Niépce and Louis Daguerre in France, and William Henry Fox Talbot in England, established the medium’s basis in science; and photography soon became an alchemy of wonder to the mid-Victorian age. Its early connection to science introduced the concept of the photograph as truth, a direct recording of the reality found in front of the photographer’s lens.
However we do not need to investigate far into the medium’s first fifty years before we find significant examples of photographers who challenged this blind faith in photography’s veracity, and pushed the practical and ideological limits of the medium. Hippolyte Bayard’s Self-Portrait of the Photographer as a Drowned Man (1840) was arguably the first example of the photographic lie. Camille Silvy’s River Scene, France/La Vallée de l’Husine (1858) and Henry Peach Robinson’s When the Day’s Work is Done (1877) are both complicated compositions made from multiple negatives. Traditions such as ‘spirit’ photography, popular from the 1850s onwards, and the trend for ‘headless’ photography often found within photo collage albums of the Victorian era are further examples. In her essay on photography for the Quarterly Review in April 1857, Lady Eastlake wrote: “Photography has become a household word and a household want; is used alike by art and science, by love, business, and justice…”
I present these historical examples to argue the point that while the challenges brought by the digital age are expansive and complex, photography has always been a highly experimental medium, ambiguous and fluid in nature, often moving between classifications. Any artist-photographer working today either consciously or subconsciously is working within the historical context of such forebears discussed above. Once we have dismissed a singular view of photographic history, and accepted that a straightforward linear narrative from science to art with clear ideological beginnings and ends is not appropriate, we are free to explore the role of photography today.
Considering the traditions of the art museum, what conceptual challenges does the digital age bring to a museum’s practice in terms of its understanding and exhibition of photography? As photography moves further away from film and paper-based techniques, and a born digital image becomes increasingly screen-based, and adaptable in how it can be merged with other mediums, our past understanding of this term needs re-evaluating. The digital age can necessitate that the art museum reconsider its traditional object-based view. It must be adaptable in acknowledging that contemporary photography has further blurred distinctions between genres, the still and moving image especially. Many photographic artists working today are currently exploring the hybrid found when the mediums of photography, painting, computer technologies, and film meet. The work of Susan Sloan, whose motion capture portraits were exhibited at the Photographers Gallery in 2012, is an example of this development.