Is photography art? Is a question I’ve reflected on in previous blog posts, whilst studying DPP. That there are varying levels of commitment that a photographer may invest in producing an image. When photographing a landscape, the photographer may take considerable thought to choose the perfect location and waited until the light was at its optimum, before pressing the shutter. On the other hand a street photographer may need to act quickly, on impulse, to capture scenes where people are unaware of his/her presence. Does the lack of time required mean that the street photo is any less ‘art’ than the landscape image? Furthermore, does the digital manipulation of an image make it any less realistic and more artistic than the original scene?
Perhaps the reason for this unresolved debate is due to the fact that the first camera, the camera obscura, was created to assist artists in producing accurate pictures, enabling them to trace the image that had been projected by the pin-hole camera.
The camera obscura (latin for ‘dark room’) was a wooden box that allowed the light of a scene to enter a small hole and be projected upside down, retaining perspective. Some examples can be viewed here on the Victoria and Albert Museum website.
Whilst this tool for artists enabled them to reproduce an accurate representation of the scene in front of them, they still had to draw it onto paper in order to preserve the projected image.
Then one summers day in c.1826 a french inventor, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, went upstairs and took the first ever permanent photograph from the window of his country estate near Chalon sur-Saône (Badger, 2007). You would think that such a prestigious, ground-breaking development would be something of great interest, and yet Niépce’s ‘View from the Window at Gras’ is quite mundane.
Niépce coated a pewter plate with a tar-like substance (a mixture of bitumen of Judea and water). Then he heated the pewter plate to dry the bitumen mixture onto it. Once the mixture had dried, Niépce slotted the plate into a camera that looked out of an upstairs window. After an exposure time of 8 hours, he then washed the pewter plate with a mixture of oil of lavender and white petroleum, which washed away the bitumen that had not been hardened by sunlight. The resulting photograph consisted of light areas, formed from the hardened bitumen, and dark areas where the bitumen had been washed away, revealing the pewter plate. Finally the image was left to dry in the air, and Niépce had successfully developed the world’s first permanent photograph. This had been the culmination of a number of experiments involving his heliography process. Previously Niépce had been able to combine sunlight with lithographic printmaking to expose an image, but had never been able to prevent it from fading.
An animation of Niépce’s groundbreaking discovery can be seen below.
Returning to my original question, ‘Is photography art?’ Niépce’s photographic process was defined as ‘the new painting’ (Badger, 2007), which would eventually grow into it’s own creative field. It would be used to document and decorate, but as Niépce has shown, it is arguably just as much to do with science and maths as it is art.
Badger, G. (2008) The Genius of Photography. London: Quadrille Publishing.