Photography as Art -
A History

Though its roots are in the ancient times of Aristotle, photography was only fully developed in the nineteenth century. Frenchmen Nicephore Niepce produced the first photographic image in 1826 – a blurry, soft picture of his back alley and neighboring roof. With this local, shadowy image, aptly titled View from the Window at Le Gras, Niepce in essence revolutionized art and art making in the Modern Era. An inventor with an unabated appetite for modern technology, Niepce is relatively unknown today outside of photography scholarship, but his discovery and development of the bitumen solution, which hardens in light, resulting in a permanent, documentary image, affected the trajectory of Modern Life.

Before Niepce died suddenly of a stroke in 1833, he worked closely with Louis Daguerre in sophisticating and perfecting his chemical solutions. Daguerre, an artist more than a scientist, propelled Niepce’s chemical advances further, introducing the “Daguerreotype” in 1839, a process which included mercury, and produced a much more defined and detailed documentary image. France would patent the Daguerreotype in the same year, but English inventor William Henry Fox Talbot would vie with Daguerre for the next major contribution to photographic processes. By 1840, Talbot had perfected his calotype process, a technique in which, unlike the Daguerreotype, produced a positive image. As the French and English governments framed their battle as a struggle for dominance between the two nations, Americans seized the Daguerreotype and by the mid-nineteenth century, photographic portrait studios dotted cities throughout the country. Americans were intoxicated with photographic portrait, which, as it was gradually made more affordable, was essentially a democratic art form. Suddenly, a portrait, a sign of status and emblem of posterity, was universally available.

By the nineteenth century’s end, American inventor George Eastman had created roll film, which cheaply and easily manufactured a photographic image. Establishing the Kodak Company just before the century closed, Eastman introduced the Kodak Brownie in 1901, an essentially disposable camera with which one took a roll of photographs before returning it to the Kodak Company for development, much like the contemporary photo-development centers before the advent of digital photography. 

Though rudimentary, color photographic processes were explored in the very early twentieth century, eventually perfected and assessable to the public by the 1950s and 1960s. That color photography, and indeed, photographs in general are rightly accepted as objects of art owes much to the work of photographers such as William Eggleston or Steven Shore. Electrified with deeply saturated and titillating color, Eggleston’s work effectively stunned viewers with vibrant images of ordinary, middle-class American life.  A consummate artist dedicated to aestheticizing the mundane in life, Eggleston’s 1976 solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, titled “Color Photographs by William Eggleston” legitimized color photography, albeit to the chagrin of photography legends such as Ansel Adams. “Unlike most of their predecessors, whose color work has been either formless or too pretty, a new generation of young photographers has begun to use color in a confident spirit of freedom and naturalness,” reads MoMA’s press release for “Color Photographs”. Indeed, photographers such as Eggleston ushered in a new time of autonomy and liberation in photography in general. 

Today, photographers utilize color in the same spirited fashion as Eggleston, and yet stay true to the pioneering processes of Daguerre and Talbot. Contemporary photographers know no technical or aesthetic bounds, relishing in the blend between science and artistry. Contemporary inceptions of Daguerreotypes routinely reach record prices at auction, their poetic hybrid of aged beauty and current forms proving irresistible to collectors. Soft or sharp, color or black and white, photographs entrance us with their seemingly truthful glimpse into an ephemeral moment in time. Through photography, intimate, fleeting scenes are made real.

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This article was written for ARTmine by Leah Triplett.

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