Andromeda 3/6 by A. K. Nicholas

Photography as Art and How Photography Has Evolved Over Time

Joan Amanwi February 08 2023


Is photography truly art? This is an age-long question within the art community. Join the discussion about the evolution of photography and why it is an outstanding visual art form used by contemporary artists today.

People have found it hard to accept photography as an authentic art form. The debate on whether or not photography is art ignites different questions about art and photography. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines art as “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination, especially in the production of aesthetic objects” such as paintings, music, literature, dance, etc. There are numerous definitions of art. However, it is essential to understand that art is subjective and depends on one’s personal view and experience of it.

Photography on the other hand is the process of capturing light to produce images through the use of a camera (film or digital). Some people, especially during the 1960s and 1970s, never truly considered photography as an art form. However, after Andreas Gursky’s photograph of the grey river Rhine, titled ‘Rhine II’, sold for a world-record price of 2.7 million GBP (or 4.3 million USD) in 2011, views around photography as art began to change. It became clear that photography was a form of visual art that could evoke emotion and required great skill like any other art form. Due to some photographs' complexity, aesthetics, and emotional appeal, some people may consider them art - while others disregard them.

While the debate about photography as art still lives among certain individuals, many photographers have made a name for themselves as artists by capturing outstanding images through skill and creative imagination; two key characteristics embodied in the definition of art. There is no doubt that an image can evoke emotions and tell a story like paintings or sculptures.

Today, seasoned, as well as up-and-coming artists, have re-imagined photography and expanded the market for buying and selling art. The possibilities of photography as art are limitless thanks to its evolution explained below.

The evolution of photography

1. Photographing through the dark chamber

The concept of capturing images existed many years ago in ancient Greece and China before the invention of what we call photography today. In those days, it was called Camera Obscura. An image projection system containing a dark chamber with a hole in a wall that projected light from objects outside the chamber onto an opposite wall to create an image. The concept of Camera Obscura was first demonstrated in the 16th century by Italian scientist Giambattista Della Porta.

Many years later, Joseph Nicephore Niepce used the idea of Camera obscura to create an image-capturing technique called Heliography (1822). He is believed to be the producer of the oldest surviving fixed image captured in 1826 from the window of his estate in Le Gras, France. Other names that made headlines during that time included Mande Daguerre, Hércules Florence, William Henry Fox Talbot, and Hippolyte Bayard who claimed the title of history’s first photo inventor.

2. The first human images

Despite the growing curiosity about photography following Joseph Nicephore’s image, the first recorded photograph of human beings was captured by Mande Daguerre, an apprentice of Joseph Nicephore, in the spring of 1838. Daguerre captured the busy street of Boulevard du Temple in Paris, but only succeeded to retain two people in this photograph – a man having his shoes shined and the shiner. These two people probably had no idea that they were the first ever photographed human beings.

Two years later, around October or November of 1839, the first intentional self-portrait of a human being (selfie) was recorded by Robert Cornelius. Other human portraits during that time included:

∙The Daguerreotype of Dr. John William Draper at NYU in 1839

∙The portrait of Dorothy Catherine Draper in 1839 or 1840, made by her brother John William Draper

∙A calotype of American photographer Frederick Langenheim in Circa 1849.

The demand for portraits grew dramatically among the middle class during the industrial revolution which pushed for even more refined inventions in photography.

3. A new era of printed images

The next era in the history of photography is that of printed images. Prints permitted photographers to reproduce good-quality images without having to take pictures of the original image. Printed photographs came into existence around the 1850s through Frederick Scott Archer. Noticing that the then talbotype/calotype photographic process did not produce the quality of imagery required, Frederick decided to invent a new system known as the collodion process.

This process permitted photographers to take images of the civil war and other Victorian-era photographs cherished to this day. Further developments to the collodion enabled people to create images in a matter of minutes from start to finish. Most importantly, the photo prints from these images were durable and could be carried around, thus starting the era of hand-held photographs.

The possibility of commercial photography was further advanced by Dr. Richard L. Maddox who created a method called “dry plate.” This was the genesis of hand-held cameras which were small, ready to use and commercially sold. Kodak Box Brownie was the most popular portable camera of the era (the 1920s). Printing has greatly improved since the 1900s and has enhanced the sale of photography art today.

4. The colour revolution and digital age

The notion of colour photography has been around since the late 1840s and early 1850s with experiments carried out by different scientists including Edmond Becquerel in 1848. However, Thomas Sutton an English photographer and inventor was the first to successfully create a coloured image by using a concept proposed in 1855 by Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell. The first widely used form of colour printing was known as the Autochrome plate which was commercially introduced by Auguste and Louis Lumière in 1907. By 1935 and 1936, home movies incorporated new colour photography called Kodachrome film which has drastically evolved over the years to produce today’s colour photography.

Digital photography came to light in 1957 advanced by Russell A. Kirsch, who succeeded in creating one of the first scanned images. He achieved this by transferring the image of his infant son, Walden Kirsch, into digital computer memory. This idea of digital imagery was further improved in 1969 by Willard Boyle and George E. Smith to create the charge-coupled device (CCD). Dr. Michael Tompsett discovered that the CCD could be used as an imaging sensor which helped the development of the active pixel sensor (APS) which is widely used in mobile phone cameras today.

Thanks to the continuous need to improve photography, phones, tablets, cameras, etc. have eased capturing images and a new generation of contemporary artists has emerged who use photography to tell unique stories and evoke emotions one picture at a time. Print and digital developments particularly have eased buying and selling art.

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