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Mrs Ward
Gertrude Käsebier. Mrs. Ward and Baby, 1903.

Stielgitz Flatiron Building
Alfred Stieglitz. The Flatiron Building, 1902.

Edward Weston. Pepper #30, 1930.

Laurie Simmons. Woman/Purple/Dress, 1978/87.

It was only after the turn of the century that photography began to breach the walls of the gallery and museum world in America, and even then with limited success. Now, however, photographs can sell for six figures — not in the same league as the millions for a Van Gogh painting, but not exactly chump change either — and be presented in fine art museums, not industrial expositions.

The question remains: if photography is an art, what kind of art is it? If we call a specific photograph a work of art does that mean it shows technical excellence? That it reminds us of a particular kind of painting or drawing? Provides a good record of something we regard as beautiful, such as a sunset?

Photographs need not be unique, unlike the Mona Lisa and other paintings, except for daguerreotypes. It's possible to make a lot of copies, so what does rarity mean? (Some photographers are now making "limited editions.") And since photographs can be taken in many ways, what makes one artistic and one ordinary? In the early days of the twentieth century, photographs imitated painting as the way to claim artistic status, modelling a photograph on Whistler's famous painting of his mother, or recording a New York skyscraper with compositional devices learned from Japanese prints and a dreamy softness that removed the image from being confused with an "objective" factual record.

Then along came modernism, and photography eventually caught up, with sharp-focus, and up-to-date notions of subject matter and treatment. Edward Weston's image of a pepper takes something that is familiar and common, isolates it to concentrate attention on it, and through careful lighting and printing makes it look like a monumental sculpture.

Finally . . . along came post-modernism, in the guise of Andy Warhol, who used photographs as the basis for paintings. Many photographers were no longer trying to go out and make pictures "from nature" in the manner of Ansel Adams. Adams, the figure probably most identified with beautiful photographs by the general public, was a man whose ideas about art were essentially ninteenth-century ideas. Post-modern photographers in the late twentieth century appropriated images from other sources such as photojournalism or advertising, or staged their own scenes instead of trying to go out on the streets and capturing "real life." Photography became a tool, and a modern and useful one. Beauty was one thing, "interesting visual images made using photography" was another, maybe. That's where we are today.

In slightly over a century and a half, photography has gone from outsider to insider status, but now the rules of the art game seem to have changed, as "mixed media" (collage and installation art, with photography, painting, and sculpture joined) and "new media" (video and computer) disrupt the old-fashioned divisions into painting, sculpture, and prints and drawings. Photography may be the new kid on the block, but the whole neighborhood is changing fast.