The Fine Art of Photography


It’s been at least twenty years since photography was accepted into the inner sanctum of the fine arts. But that hasn’t stopped photographers from quarreling among themselves over what makes a legitimate art photo

ALMOST from the start, two great debates engulfed photography.

The first asked: "Is photography art?"  Opponents, like the French poet Charles Baudelaire, thought not. Baudelaire saw photography as a mechanical process that should be regarded only as a "servant of the arts and sciences." Its advocates countered that just like drawing or painting, good photography demanded artistic skill, wise decisions and an inspired vision.

Charles Baudelaire: saw photography as a mechanical process not unlike “shorthand or printing”

Ultimately, photography prevailed. Today, most of the world's major fine-art museums routinely collect and exhibit  photography.  A 1904 Edward Steichen print of "The Pond-Moonlight" sold at Sotheby's in 2006 for almost $3 million. Works by other 20th century photographers including Richard Prince, Man Ray, and Edward Weston have all changed hands for prices in excess of $1 million. 

True, these sums pale in comparison to a Matisse or Van Gogh. But consider that Steichen made 35 prints of "The Pond-Moonlight."  Imagine if Van Gogh had painted 35 copies of "Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers?"

In establishing its artistic bona fides, photography wasn't exactly an overnight success. Photographers began seriously aspiring to artistic recognition in the 1880s with a series annual exhibitions in Europe and the United States. The aim was to show critics that photography "could stand alone and that it has a future entirely apart from that which is purely mechanical."  But it took almost a century before photography was eventually accepted alongside painting, sculpture, and its closest relative, fine-art printmaking.

Traditional fine-arts enjoy a mystique that has eluded photography for most of its history. "To many people, photography has seemed to be merely a reproductive medium," says Tad Beckman, a humanities professor and photography teacher at Harvey Mudd College. Or as Baudelaire put it, photography was closer to “shorthand or printing” than to a fine art.

Photography exhibitions in mid-19th-century Paris and London did, in fact, cause a sensation in the art world. But it was the kind of sensation that frightened fine artists into unified opposition. The antagonism to photography ran so deep that even using  photos as an aid in painting was considered contemptuous -- a kind of artistic cheating. Many 19th century painters did work from photos, but few were willing to admit it.

American Pictorial Photography showing at the National Arts Club in NYC (1902)

Then, in 1888, the snap-shot was born with the introduction of the Kodak box camera and its U.S. advertising slogan:  "You Press the Button, We do the rest!"  Within a few years, box-camera carrying tourists -- known as “Kodakers” -- had fanned out across United States and Europe. Even if the fin-de-siecle  art community had been inclined to reassess its position toward photography -- and there's no evidence that it was -- the advent of mass photography with its "press the button" mentality was taken as a vivid confirmation of Baudelaire’s ”mechanical” allegations.

When photography finally did enter the pantheon of fine arts about 100 years later, it was due to changing attitudes within the art establishment -- especially the advent of a Postmodern sensibility. Beginning in the late 1970s, the art-buying public began to collect photography. Then, in the 1980s, as  Michael Langford, photography course director at the Royal College of Art in London, points out, “photography as a creative medium grew increasingly at home with other forms of fine art -- particularly printmaking and painting. In fact, it started to become difficult to see where one activity ended and the other began, since painters added photographic images to canvases and photographers abraded and handworked prints on photographic paper.”

What’s more, art dealers, critics, curators and collectors who had come of age during the creative ferment of the 1960s were taking charge of a vastly expanded fine-arts community. Performance art, installation art, even video art were suddenly the rage.

As collectors and museums vied for the work of fashionable new Postmodern artists like Judy Chicago and Nam June Paik, photography took its seat at the fine-arts table almost unnoticed. But if vulva-shaped dinner plates and meandering home videos were being admitted, who could deny photography an invitation to the party? At least photography arrived with an historic pedigree and an A-list of entertaining and oddball characters like William Henry Fox Talbot, Juia Margaret Cameron, Henry PeachRobinson, Peter Henry Emerson, Lewis Hine, Matthew Brady, Edward S. Curtis, Edward Steichen, Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Man Ray, Weegee, Wililam H. Mortensen, Imogen Cunningham, Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Clarence White, Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Mapplethrope, and Daine Arbus.

There was little fanfare, but by the late 1980s the issue was moot. Photography was taught in art schools and art-history courses, celebrated in museums, sold in galleries and pursued by deep-pocketed collectors. Case closed.

Judy Chicago: “The Dinner Party” (1976)

Except it isn’t.

The Great Rift

Long after collectors and curators resolved the question of "photography as art" by voting their wallets, a deep philosophical rift persists among photographers themselves. On one side are photographers who prize the visual qualities unique to their medium such as sharpness, detail, tonal range and factual accuracy. In the opposing camp are those who see the camera and darkroom as tools for self-expression.

In this on-going debate, “Straight photography" is sometimes faulted for obsessing over technique at the expense of content, meaning and emotion. Pejorative descriptions include adjectives like "banal," "vapid" and "unimaginative." Conversely, photographers with experimental or expressive inclinations are often criticized for imitating painting or confusing artificial and overdone effects with originality. Their work is derided as  "derivative," "kitsch" and "mere graphics arts."

Henry Peach Robinson: “Fading Away” (1858). Robinson perfected composite printing to overcome the limitations of slow films and lenses

The dispute has deep roots. From the mid-19th century until the early 1930s, Pictorialism was the dominant movement in art photography and Henry Peach Robinson was its most influential advocate. Robinson had trained in oil painting at Britain’s Royal Academy of Art and was a devotee of J.M.W. Turner, whose moody, atmospheric paintings laid the foundation for impressionism. 

The photographer’s goal, as Robinson saw it, was to “elevate his subject” through a “mixture of the real and artificial in a picture.” In the service of this objective, he maintained that “any dodge, trick and conjuration of any kind is open to the photographer's use.” In his own work, Robinson made ingenious use of multiple negatives to overcome the profound limitations of mid-19th-century photographic materials.

Robinson’s fiercest critic was Dr. Peter Henry Emerson, a physician turned photographer. Emerson was a wildlife enthusiast and proponent of “Naturalistic photography.” Several of Emerson’s key ideas anticipated Straight photography. He rejected retouching: “The photographic technique is perfect and needs no... bungling.”  And he argued against the painterly tableau that was so central to Pictorialism: “Photograph people as they really are -- do not dress them up.” Above all, he steadfastly rejected the Pictorialism’s underlying assumption that to prove itself, photography should strive to emulate painting.

Dr. Peter Henry Emerson: “The Old Order and the New” (1888)

Naturalism, however, differed from Straight photography as it would come be articulated during the 1920s in one significant respect. Emerson contended that human eye did not perceive everything within its field of vision in focus, so neither should the photograph appear entirely sharp. “Nothing in nature has a hard outline, but everything is seen against something else, and its outlines fade gently into something else,” he argued. But deliberately blurring parts of an image was a novel, and not entirely welcome, idea at a time when photographers were devoted to overcoming the limitations of extremely slow lenses and light-sensitive materials.

The stark differences between Robinson and Emerson might have provided the platform for an enlightened debate on photography and its place in the arts. But it wasn’t to be. Robinson inferred that if the world looked blurry, perhaps Emerson needed glasses. Emerson replied with a personal attack that precluded any further debate: "I have yet to learn that any one statement of photography of Mr. H.P. Robinson has ever had the slightest effect on me except as a warning of what not to do."
It was a dismissive attitude that came to characterize much of the subsequent public discourse between art photography's opposing factions.

Meanwhile, the Pictorial strategy for swaying the opinion of the art world was also ending in stalemate. “Reflecting contemporary Arts and Crafts philosophy, [Pictorialism] wished to disavow photography's technological basis--its adherents took great pains to make the by now industrialized photograph appear to be a handmade, unique object, expressing the sensibility of the artist,” explains art historian Douglas R. Nickel. But art critics were not impressed. They continued to think of photography as an industrial,  mechanical process -- albeit one that could sometimes produce a passable imitation of painting,

Edward Weston: pictorialist to purist

As with many expressive pursuits, Pictorialism was, almost by definition, prone to excess. While the Naturalist movement was generally content to let the photograph “speak for itself,” Pictorialists wanted to make images that conveyed messages, meanings and emotions. This was a lofty ambition. And when it didn’t work out, there was a long way to fall.

In the 1920s, the concept of artistic Purism began to exert a strong influence on American painting, sculpture and photography. Purists held that each artistic medium has its own distinctive and compelling properties, that art should stress harmony, logic and mathematical order without fantasy or individual expression. In embracing Purism during the 1920s, photographer Paul Strand launched the first salvo in what would become an all out war on expressive photography: “If photographers let other people’s vision get between the world and their own, they will achieve that extremely common and worthless thing, a Pictorial photograph.”  By the early 1930s, Straight photography based on Purist concepts had gained important adherents on both the U.S. East and West coasts, including Weston and Steichen, who disavowed their former Pictorial style for a new hard-edged realism.

Straight photography valued sharpness, tonality and photographic “authenticity.” Its supporters did not necessarily reject image manipulation -- as long as the result “looked photographic.” But they believed that photography should always maintain an intimate link between image and reality, and that it is the quality of light reflected by an object or scene lends the photographic image its unique power.

This meant using view cameras -- the bigger, the better. By exalting the tripod-mounted view camera, Purists put distance between themselves and the swarming mass of Kodakers -- perhaps injecting a little mystique into photography as well. Their relentless emphasis on differentiating photography from other visual arts did give the art world reason to pause and reconsider -- and, perversely, may helped pave the way for photography's eventual acceptance as a fine art.

Imogen Cunningham: “Portrait of Frida Kahlo” (1932)

But its advocates were also inclined to treat Straight photography as a moral crusade.  "While Straight photography clearly won the day in 1932, nowadays it is the dogmatic Purism of that camp that seems most dated," says Richard Nilsen, an art critic for The Arizona Republic. The vanguard of the Straight photography movement had an agenda that went far beyond establishing Purism’s dominance. The goal was nothing less than erasing the memory of Pictorialism altogether. And they were surprisingly successful.

Ironically, the cruelest blow was not delivered by Purism’s vocal, manifesto-writing partisans, but rather a pair of soft-spoken academics named Nancy and Beaumont Newhall. In the mid-1930s, as librarian for the recently founded Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, Beaumont Newhall recognized the need for an authoritative history of photography.  In 1949, MOMA published Nancy and Beaumont Newhall’s The History of Photography which went on to become a standard textbook in art and photography courses as well as the starting point for subsequent works like Naomi Rosenblum’s 1984 A World History of Photography.

There was just one problem. While the Newhalls adopted a facade of academic
objectivity, they were, in fact, anything but objective. “While nominally pledged to the impartiality of scholarship,” critic A.D. Coleman writes that the Newhalls were “highly biased in their approach to photography’s history. They shared an intense attitudinal and aesthetic commitment to advocacy of the ‘Straight/Purist’ stance.” Additionally, the Beaumonts compromised their objectivity through “elaborate personal and professional relationships” with several leading proponents of straight photography. “To their discredit,” says Coleman, the Beaumonts “allowed their prejudices and allegiances to overrule their obligation to the discipline of historianship.”

Man Ray: “A l'heure de l'observatoire - Les amoureux,” circa 1930s

Art historian Nickels agrees, observing that the Beaumonts’ work was based on the “not altogether original idea” of “historically justifying certain contemporary approaches to photography while ignoring or repudiating others.” What was ignored and repudiated was the vast swath of photographic history that did not lead directly to Straight photography. The Pictorial movement, which Nickels estimates occupied “one-third of photography’s life span in 1937,” was not only “summarily” dismissed, but was also “curiously distorted to fit the author’s scheme.”

This may sound like an arcane academic dustup. But imagine a history of American politics that barely mentions the Democratic party? The Beaumonts censored and twisted their historical research to justify, legitimize and aggrandize a specific photographic style. In so doing, their work explicitly benefited the reputations and finances of a small group of their closest friends and professional associates.

More importantly, the Beaumonts gave Purism’s true believers the ultimate weapon -- a distorted and grandly exaggerated version of Straight photography’s historical role and importance that has been used to indoctrinate successive generations of photography students. This goes a long way towards explaining why, as Straight photography has been marginalized over recent decades, its adherents have grown increasingly frustrated and resentful. In his later work at MOMA and The George Eastman House, Beaumont Newhall made enormous contributions to the advancement of art photography. But for the sake of historical integrity, the Newhalls’ book would more appropriately have been called The History of Straight Photography.

Jerry Uelsmann: from Modern to Postmodern

The Postmodern Era

Beginning in the 1960s, photography was overtaken by the same wave of activism, rebellion and experimentation that swept across the U.S. and European social and cultural landscape. "Creative freedom" became a mantra endlessly repeated in both the editorial and advertsing pages of the photographic press. Even as some of its acolytes were attaining the status of cultural icons, Straight photography itself was surrendering to a rising tide of automated cameras, accessories and self-trained photographers. By the mid-70s, critic Susan Sontag could declare that "recently, photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing."  The idea of photography as self-expression was back with a vengeance.

In the vernacular of art criticism, the 60s marked the emergence of Postmodern photography. During the 60s, art photography was swept up by the same vast sea change that was transforming Western culture at large. In addition, the relatively inexpensive and easily mastered SLR -- notably the 1959 Nikon F, the 1964 Pentax Spotmatic, and the 1971 Canon F1 -- attracted millions of aspiring “creative” photographers who were oblivious to the dictates or even the existence of photographic Purism. Others, however, were as much in open revolt against Straight photography as the Purists had been in rebellion against Pictorialism.  UCLA printmaker Robert Heinecken, for instance, emerged as the spokesmen for a West coast group that, in effect, declared that: ‘Photographers who limit their vision to a purely objective representation of reality will achieve that extremely common and worthless thing, a Straight photograph.

There were also photographers who combined a Purist reverence for technique with a Postmodern sensibility for subjective expression. At the vanguard of this approach is Jerry Uelsmann.  who came of age in the early 1950s at the peak of Purism’s dominance. Uelsmann studied under Minor White, a member of the inner circle of Straight photography who, nevertheless, became known as the “high priest of photographic metaphor” for his emphasis on images that conveyed inner meanings.  Throughout Uelsmann’s career, he has remained faithful to the Purist large-format technical aesthetic, but his eerie combination prints are profoundly influenced by Minor White’s mysticism as well as 20th century Surrealism.

Creative Freedom: Broadway poster for “Hair” with a solarized photo and Rastafarian color scheme reflects the 60s art and social revolution

One convenient moment by which to mark the transition between Modern and Postmodern photography is Uelsmann’s 1966 speech before a Society for Photographic Education conference in Chicago where he used Purist language to argue for a Pictorialist idea: “Let us not be afraid to allow for ‘post-visualization.’ By post-visualization I refer to the willingness on the part of the photographer to re-visualize the final image at any point in the entire photographic process.” In other words, photographers should not be afraid to approach photographic image making in ways that had been stigmatized by the Purists for more than three decades.

In art photography today, perhaps the most notable feature is the sheer diversity of styles that have emerged since the experimental heyday of the 1960s. Critic A.D. Coleman observed that the three most influential photographic approaches of the 20th century -- Purism, traditional documentary, and small-camera social-landscape work -- had “devolved into little more than another three choices among the numerous optional styles available to contemporary picture-makers. They continue to have their dedicated practitioners, of course. But the argument that any of those approaches represents some tendency inherently truer to the medium than others has lost almost all all its drawing power and energy.”

Haleh Bryan: “Tears and Shadows” 2004

When it comes to photographic styles, the larger art world remains steadfastly agnostic. Pictorial and Purist images have both commanded six-figure sums at auction. If anything, art historians and curators like to think of photography as a succession of movements -- Pictorialism, Photo-secession, Surrealism, Modernism, Straight/Purist,  Constructivism, Postmodermism, etc. -- an approach that simplifies the work of cataloguing collections and providing narrative context for exhibitions. Among photographers, however, the issue of style can still incite passionate -- even hostile -- disagreement.

As the SLR revolution of the 60s and 70s has given way to the digital revolution and the arrival of pixel-by-pixel digital editing, Purists can hardly be faulted for feeling besieged. Online photography sites have become the 21st century’s photographic salons, but the computer screen does not begin to convey the nuanced tonalities and detail of the large-format photograph. Even worse, the vivid sunsets, dramatic skies and rare lighting conditions that could take days or weeks of disciplined patience and effort to capture on film, can sometimes be convincingly replicated with a few hours of skillful Photoshop editing.

László Moholy-Nagy: “Photogram” (1923)

"Postmodern photography has no problem in manipulating images, just like the Pictorialists did," says The Arizona Republic's Nilsen. "Indeed, it revels in mucking around in digital software, in setting up artificial tableaux, in creating counterfactual icons and basically thumbing its nose at the idea that there could be such a thing as Straight photography in the first place."  Whether the intention is nose thumbing or not, almost anyone who "mucks around in digital software" soon discovers that there is a small but strident group that is offended by the very idea of the digitally-elaborated photograph.

From the Purist perspective, it’s almost as if digital editing has brought photography full circle -- back to the bad old days when Pictorialism dominated and wannabe painters posed as art photographers. But this is hardly the 1920s.

For one thing, photography no longer needs to prove itself. Photos of nearly every style, genre and movement have won acceptance from the art world's taste-makers and arbiters. From Aleksandr Rodchenko, the Russian Constructivist, to László Moholy-Nagy, the Hungarian-American Bauhaus experimentalist, from Henry Peach Robinson, the founder of Pictorialism, to the straight-photography work of  Imogen Cunningham, outstanding photos have become as collectable as great drawings, paintings, or sculpture. 

Diane Arbus: “Albino Sword Swallower” (1971)

Ironically, it was the repudiation of the philosophy of Straight photography, which by the late 1960s was becoming increasing irrelevant, that  helped establish the medium’s fine-art "cred." Today, photography is in a new era that abounds with fresh possibilities. After all, photography is, at heart, a technology -- and a rapidly evolving one, at that. Had art photography been confined by Purist dogma, much of the most dynamic and intellectually challenging work of the past half century or so would not exist. There would be no Herbert Bayer or Man Ray, no László Moholy-Nagy or Jerry Uelsmann, and perhaps not even a Cartier-Bresson or Diane Arbus.

All of which makes angry rejection of other approaches by Straight photography's remaining adherents seem self-righteous and, ultimately, self-serving. Man Ray summed up the issue neatly when he wrote during the 1930s that:

"There are purists in all forms of expression. There are photographers who maintain
that this medium has no relation to painting. There are painters who despise photography... There are architects who refuse to hang a painting in their buildings maintaining that their own work is a complete expression.

In the same spirit, when the automobile arrived, there were those that declared the horse to be the most perfect form of locomotion. All these attitudes result from a fear that the one will replace the other. Nothing of the kind happened. We have simply increased our range, our vocabulary. I see no one trying to abolish the automobile because we have the airplane."

Photography would do well to leave this philosophical squabble behind and get on with the business of making art. Can't we just accept that like every other form of fine art, the photographic image can be objective and representational, or subjective and expressive, or even a little of both?

Unfortunately, the answer seems to be ‘No!’ Straight photography is a belief system that, like religion, requires commitment, discipline and sacrifice to uphold. It teaches ‘our way is the only way.’ Photography, however, has become a banquet with enough variety for almost any palate. Purists, who only allow themselves bread and cheese, have grown resentful of the other diners. The more diverse and tempting the banquet becomes, the deeper the grudge.

Visceral Reactions

After spending a lifetime pondering human creativity, British novelist Arthur Koestler observed that: "We see not only with our eyes, but with our whole body. The eyes scan, the cortex thinks, there are muscular stresses, innervations of the organs of touch, sensations of weight and temperature, visceral reactions, feelings of rhythmn and motion -- all sucked into one integrated vortex."  In our image-saturated culture, finding any photo the elicits this kind of a response is a tall order.

Even so, the works that incite my deepest, most  "visceral reactions" are usually subjective. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's photograms, Paul Caponigro's abstractions and Jerry Uelsmann's elegant, dream-like photo composites all had this kind of physical impact when I first encountered them in the 1970s -- and they continue to move and inspire me several decades later. Yes, there can be subtle beauty in a great landscape photo, or important historical lessons to be gleaned from good photojournalism, but for me it is the subjective perspective that spins a seductive web of ineluctable mystery. 

Because they often provide a window into nature's most complex creation -- the human subconscious -- subjective images can also swarm with luminous meaning, hidden motives, and the promise of great discovery. This is even more true making images than viewing them. As Uelsmann says: "Ultimately, my hope is to amaze myself. The anticipation of discovering new possibilities becomes my greatest joy."

Herbert Bayer: “The Lonely Metropolitan” 1932

If nothing else, new possibilities -- seemingly endless new possibilities -- are at the bright, seductive core of digital photography and, especially, digital editing. In theory, if you can imagine it, pixel-by-pixel digital editing offers the potential to create it. Theory comes close to reality, if you combine photography, digital editing and 3D modeling.

Which brings us to the emotionally-charged issue of photographic image manipulation.

The first thing to bear in mind is that every photographic image is, to some degree, manipulated. "Is not the act of photography a manipulation of space and time, a presentation of a particular point-of-view as opposed to an empirical fact?" asks Robert Hirsch, author of Exploring Color Photography and several other popular photography textbooks.

Jim McNitt: “She Moaned” (1994) digitally ‘elaborated’ and composited photo

Lens selection, composition, f-stop and shutter-speed combinations, filters, etc. are all subtle forms of in-camera manipulation. Dodging, burning, contrast filters and chemical processing are all forms of darkroom manipulation. Some of the best known straight-photography American landscapes involved printing from multiple negatives -- as well as enough chemical processing and reprocessing to start a small toxic waste dump.

The real issue is not whether or not an image has been manipulated, but rather, what is the intention. Does the photographer intend to overcome the inherent limitations of photography to achieve the most factually accurate record of a scene possible? Is manipulation intended to make an image more attractive or eye catching by removing extraneous details, selectively sharpening, or boosting contrast or color saturation? Does the image make an artistic statement that involves intentionally, but overtly, altering visual reality? Or is it intended to mislead by, say, cloning out the wrinkles from a woman's portrait, replacing a hazy brown smog with blue sky and puffy white clouds, moving the Great Pyramid to make a tighter composition, or darkening O.J.'s murder-arrest mug shot to make him seem sinister?

Photographic manipulation, in other words, is neither inherently good nor bad -- rather it depends on such circumstances as the subject, the audience, the venue and the purpose of the image. "There is the truth of the moment, the act of witnessing, in which we want ethical photojournalists and institutions to tell a story as honestly as possible," says Hirsch. "Then there is the truth of reflection, which gives us time and space to step back from the moment to deliberate and distill all our senses have told us about an event."

Ben Goosens: “Rain and Snow,” 2007

There should be zero tolerance for manipulation is photojournalism. After spectacular gaffes by Time and National Geographic, among others, news organizations have adopted such rigid standards that a press photographer like Weegee, who was known to sometimes stage scenes for maximum visual impact, would be summarily fired today.

What Hirsch calls "the truth of reflection" is an altogether different matter. This is the realm of art photography where images should be free to slip the moorings of literal representation to explore the symbolic, the enigmatic and the ambiguous. This is where, as Henry Peach Robinson might have put it, all the feints and tricks that the photographer can conjure up become fair play. "We all know that art is not truth," Picasso once said. "Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth."

Magie Taylor: “Garden,” 2005

Straight photography and photojournalism are well suited for revealing the objective "truth of the moment." But, if nothing else, Postmodernism has shown that photography can also penetrate the uncharted territory where truth speaks not so much with the bright light of clear reason, but in the shadowy and inchoate voice of dreams and fantasies. We are still in the infancy of our understanding this other, subjective realm. In the hands of inquisitive and creative artists, digital tools are helping define a new grammar, a new language and perhaps even a new understanding, or at least an increased familiarity with the inner realms of human experience. "Just as the technology of the 1860s defined photographic truth in that era, so now are digitalization and the Internet redefining how we know the twenty-first century," says Hirsch. "We seem to be coming full circle, giving image makers authority to again explore their subject with subjectivity both in and after the moment of witnessing."

Purism is loathe to accept that subjectivity, experimentation and diversity of styles are good things -- good for art and good for photography. Man Ray’s point has never been more appropriate. The straight photograph cannot be replaced by the experimental image any more than Rembrandt can be replaced by Rauchenberg.
Fine art is not a zero-sum undertaking. Just as mixed-media techniques expanded the possibilities of painting, mixed-media photos --  works that combine camera work, digital elaboration, textures, 3D imagery, hand-painting and other techniques -- can only add to the vitality and broaden the appeal of art photography. In Man Ray’s words, it simply increases “our range, our vocabulary.”

After an awkward, century-long courtship, the fine-arts community has finally embraced photography as one of its own. Even so, in a legacy of the bitter struggle between photo Purists and Pictorialists in the 1930s, photographers themselves continue to bicker over the artistic legitimacy of each other’s work.

Guilty: Time’s manipulated mug shot, 1994

It is, at best, an irrelevant and unproductive discussion because, as far as the rest of the art world is concerned, Straight photography and Pictorial photography were no more than two historic movements within the same medium. Neither one is inherently more deserving to called fine art than the other. "Art photography is anything that you frame and put on the wall," according to one common photographer’s quip. "Whether it is fine or not is up to the viewer."

--Jim McNitt  November, 2007

Principal Works Consulted

Coleman, A.D., "The Perils of Pluralism: Thoughts on the Condition of Photography at Century's End," 1999, (Nov. 15, 2007)

Coleman, A.D., Depth of Field, University of New Mexico Press, 1998

Hirsch, Robert and Greg Erf, "Perceiving Photographic Truth,” (Nov. 15, 2007)

Hirsch, Robert and Greg Erf, "Truth of the Moment & Truth of Reflection," (Nov. 15, 2007)

Hirsch, Robert, "Flexible Images: Handmade American Photography,

1969 – 2002," 2003, (Nov. 15, 2007)

Leggat, Robert, "A History of Photography," 1995, (Nov. 15, 2007)

Langford, Michael, The Story of Photography, Focal Press, 1997.

Neilsen, Richard, "Old Photography Debate Renewed," The Arizona Republic, Oct. 8, 2007, (Nov. 17, 2007)

Nickel, Douglas R., "History of Photography: The State of Research," The Art Bulletin, 2001. (Nov. 15, 2007)

Newhill, Beaumont and Nancy, The History of Photography, Bulfinch,1982

Rosenblum, Naomi, A World History of Photography, Abbeville Press, 1997

Sontag, Susan, On Photography, Picador, 2001