Research: Book – Photography: A Critical Introduction – Liz Wells

Within this post, I intend to draw highlight to the critical insight of Liz Wells, through discussion her book, Photography: A Critical Introduction.

For the purpose of this, I have focused upon extracts from ‘On and beyond the white walls – Photography as art’ which is the chapter in which Wells herself contributes.

This begins with a reflective quotation from Heiferman.

The history of the art of photography is an extraordinary picture story. Individual images, extracted from the larger histories of technology, economics, politics, and popular culture, are stripped of their context and meaning and then place din a timeline of formal invention. And photographs created as an art fit right into that aesthetic context, all on their own. Photographic images are intentionally made into, or made as, beautiful prized objects.

Wells utilises this quote to discuss in nature upon which we attempt to categorise the history of art photography, which often through its association with a history of ‘master photographers’ ends up losing much of its greater significance, especially with example who aimed to reinforced social and political contexts within their work.

Throughout this, Wells focuses upon a western modern and post modern contexts within twentieth century debates.

When emphasising the subject of photography as an art, there is a significant area of debate, especially within its origins.

The origins of photography as an art came from Fox Talbot’s announcement during the Royal Academy’s first ever photography exhibition in 1851. This resulted in a level of disagreement amongst critics and practitioners whose disagreed with this status. This could even lead us to the questions of what is art and how do we define it?

She suggests that the claims of photography as a art were in relation to the perceptiveness of the artist who is seen to transcend beyond the simple documentation of events and offers a unique insight into their subject matter, allowing for a greater social and cultural understanding.

Photography also had an influence upon the role and status older art practices such as painting. Walter Benjamin argues that ‘aura’ connected to fine art would dissolve against the capabilities of the photograph, which offers a less subjective and exclusive approach to an artist medium due its potential for mass production. This reinforces that argument that photography follows an anti-elitist method.

During this time, there was still a clearly defined distinction between art and technology, ‘the expressive and the mechanical’. This in turn influenced people’s responses and attitudes to it as a medium.

Some might argue that photography is purely a record of reality, offering precision and detail in its subject matter. Other suggested that pictorial photography needs to follow the guidelines and convention of aesthetics in regards to composition and subject, emphasising particular visual elements to reinforce its significance.

It wasn’t for some time that it was recognised that both aspects of this could be used collaboratively with one another to create an image of both clarity and conviction. As many photographer didn’t not perceive themselves as fine artists, even when applying an art approach within their work.

From this, Wells moves on to discuss the relationship between photography and painting in the nineteenth century, reinforces the subtle dialogue of interconnected considerations that often neglected.

National or cultural ideology offered its own influence in this, defining the attitudes of preference in picture making or picture taking. Britain and France were highlighted for their speciality in technical recording abilities, with the majority favouring picture taking.

Part of what emphasised this division is discussed by Margaret Harker whom suggested that the development of the art of photography in the late 1850’s can be partially associated with increasing involvement of people trained as artists.

Another discussion of this is from Aaron Scharf who within his book, Art anf Photography suggests that photographs simply served the purposes of artists, such as a reference notes, which reinforces much of the neglected attitudes toward photography as a independent art form through much of the nineteenth and early twentieth century art movements. In this, the photograph offered artists the option of recording a scene or subject for continued reference during painting.

Two significant examples of this were the realist artists Courbet and Manet who used photography as an aid to painting. When discussing realism as a historical movement in literature and art, Wells highlights Linda Nochlin.

Nochlin suggests that the extent of social change experienced during the industrial revolution in Britain from the late eighteenth century and the political revolution in France, encouraged artists to explore everyday social experience. One of the most significance associations of this was the relation between representation and reality, which in principle offers a variety of contradictions.

The commonplace notion that realism is a styleless or transparent style, a mere simulacrum or mirror image of visual reality, is a barrier to its understanding as a historic and stylistic phenomenon…Realism was no more a mere mirror of reality than any other style and its relation qua style to phenomenal date…is as complex as that of Romanticism, the Baroque or Mannerism. So far as realism is concerned, however, the issue is greatly confused by the assertions of both its supporters and opponents, that Realists were doing nothing more than mirroring everyday reality…These statements could be derived from the belief that perception could be pure or unconditioned by time or place.

This in itself makes is based on the assertion that representation is a culturally defined concept.

I have reviewed the rest of this discussion, however I would like to move onto other concepts relating to this that Wells discusses a few pages later in the chapter, of modernism, modern art and modern photography.

This section begins with a quote from the Tate Gallery in 1995 discussing the formal conventions associated with modern art.

The Modern Movement in the twentieth century has often involved painters, sculptors in an exploration of the idea that art has a formal language in which meaning in conveyed by shape, texture, colour and size. The exploration has been in a shifting dialogue with the traditional subjects of art, such as landscape and still life.

This discusses much of the transition from traditional, pictorial aesthetics and how the associations of modernity have aimed to reinvent the static definitions of art through its evolving attitudes in visual communication.

As emphasised upon previously, significant social progressions held a great deal of influence upon the early twentieth century as a key era of artistic change. Raymond Williams notes a variety of social factors that contributed to this.

These included the dislocation of artist caused by war and revolution, which contributed a sense of both art movements as international and of the artist somehow outside of modern society and therefore in a position to offer a particular perspective on it.

This assumption is something that has been noted through a variety of photographic texts I have read over the years, the idea that the position of the photograph is somehow of a great purpose than the simple observer because of this exclusionary attitude, that a photographer can somehow place themselves outside the physical context of the situation.

Clement Greenberg also offers an interesting insight into modernism and the distinction between painting and photography, through which he condemns the literal in painting but embraces it within photography.

The art in photography is a literal art before it is anything else: its triumphs and monuments are historical, anecdotal, reportorial, observational before they are purely pictorial…The photograph has to tell a story if it is to work as art.

This follows the point of view that ‘straight’ photography, well established by then through American documentary work was superior to that of the experimental nature of formalism.

In a broad sense, modern photography aimed to offer new perceptions, literally and metaphorically, this includes ‘the use of light, form, composition and tonal contrast’ as the primary language of the image. It was during this era, that much of pictorial aesthetics and realism began to merge and form new principles of composition. Two strong examples of this are Florence Henry and Paul Strand.

Wells refers to Strand’s depersonalisation of people within the cityscape citing Wall street and Central park (1915-1916).


Central Park



Wall Street

This has always been aspect that has impacted with Strand’s images, the juxtaposition of scale between people and subject to me underpins the nature of city photography. The individual is one small component of a larger society.

In this, Wells also refers to Peter Wollen who argues that the aesthetic implications of this new photography suggests that the camera as machine does not in itself make the photograph more objective or thus, less susceptible to the influence of representation,

it simply substitutes discovery for invention in the traditional categories of classical aesthetics.

Therefore, the creativity resides within the artist and not the technology they possess.

From this. I believe I have learnt a great deal about both the origins of art photography in the nineteenth century as well as the transition into modernism and the changing language of the photographic image through the merging of pictorial aesthetics and realism.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s