How do photographs become works of art from 1850 to 1900?

Portrait of A.C. Rankin and His Brother Playing Lacrosse

The question of whether or not photographs could be works of art was a controversial one in the second half of the nineteenth century. Some photographers, such as Oscar Rejlander and Julia Margaret Cameron, argued passionately for photography’s status as a fine art, while others believed that photography and the fine arts served different functions. For example, British art critic Elizabeth Eastlake proposed that photographs were most useful for representations that required "mere manual correctness, and mere manual slavery, without any employment of the artistic feeling" (quoted in Goldberg 96). Similarly, French art critic Charles Baudelaire described photography as "the very humble servant" of the arts due to its emphasis on "external reality" and "factual exactitude," and its resulting inability to represent "the impalpable and the imaginary" (quoted in Goldberg 125). While Eastlake concluded that photography could have a positive effect on the fine arts by freeing artists from the "manual slavery" of depicting facts with accuracy, Baudelaire called photography "art's most mortal enemy," explaining that "if photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether" (125). 

The issue of whether or not nineteenth-century photographs are works of art is complicated by the ease with which such photographs move between categories. Many photographs that were created for one purpose—to investigate animal motion or survey the land, for example—have gone on to influence the art world and to be celebrated as works of fine art in their own right. 

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