How do photographs become works of art from 1900 to 1950?


With photography becoming commonplace in both public media and private lives, photographers with artistic ambitions adapted their practices in order to signal their labour and artistry. An artistic movement known as Pictorialism emerged at the end of the nineteenth century, in tandem with the introduction of Kodak cameras, and was characterized by efforts to soften the indexical properties of photography. In the words of Stephen Bull, Pictorialist photography imitated painting “in an attempt to raise photography up to the same status as art,” both through attention to the content of the photographs and the contexts in which they were viewed (126). Pictorialist photographers opted for high-quality prints like platinum prints and photogravures over silver gelatin prints and halftones, and often manipulated their photographs by drawing on their negatives or creating the appearance of brushstrokes with the use of gum-bichromate printing

In the twentieth century, many photographers abandoned what had become known in some circles as the “fuzzygraphs” of pictorialism in favour of straight photography. Art critic Sadakichi Hartmann’s “A Plea for Straight Photography” (1904) rejected the practice of artfully manipulating negatives, and insisted instead thatin his words“the whole pictorial effect of a photographic print should be gained by photographic technique, pure and simple.” Photographers began experimenting with the different effects that “photographic technique, pure and simple” could achieve, taking advantage of smaller cameras and automatic shutters to compose photographs taken from unusual angles and extreme perspectives (Bull 130). In Europe, this approach was described as the "new vision."

For photographers like John Heartfield and El Lissitzky, both featured in this section of the exhibition, the perspectives offered by new types of cameras and techniques such as photomontage had the potential to transform society. These artists were responding to what cultural critic Walter Benjamin called "the age of mechanical reproduction," a time when works of art were "designed for reproducibility." Benjamin argued that this would have the effect of freeing works of art from traditional rituals, allowing them to instead serve political functions.

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