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Art or Document?

Ansel AdamsPeople have disagreed for decades about photography's essential nature. Is it a fine art, equivalent to the other visual arts, or a documentary tool, best suited for recording the facts? Some photographers and critics have said that photography should take advantage of what lenses do best, and be "straight," representing the world as it is. Others have thought that photographs must be more impressionistic, or "artistic," in order to be successful.

Sample the debate, in these quotes from nearly 150 years of photographic history, and form your own opinion. You can also vote in the online poll.

Photography Requires No Artistic Skill

The function peculiar to photography is truth -- correctness of form -- the power of producing as pure a copy of nature's outlines as can be, without the human brain and hand. To this end, no artistic skill is required; photography is confined to the limits of an experimental science, and its results can only be called beautiful in the same sense that a beetle with a pin through it is beautiful -- that is, scientifically so, and about as far removed from what may be called artistically beautiful as that beetle is from its former self, alive and on the wing.

"An Artist's Thoughts About Photography," Photographic Times and American Photographer, 1887, quoted in Paul Spencer Sternberger, Between Amateur and Aesthete, The Legitimization of Photography as Art in America, 1880-1900. Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 2001, p. 65.

Is Blurry Photography Better Art?

...Sir William Newton... propounded the heresy that pictures taken slightly out of focus... 'though less chemically, would be found more artistically beautiful.' ...The suggestion that the worse photography could be the better art was not only strange... but discordant.

Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, unsigned review in the London Quarterly Review, 1857, quoted in Vicki Goldberg, Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981, p. 92.

Photography is the Lowest of All Arts

The limitations of photography are so great that, though the results may, and sometimes do give a certain aesthetic pleasure, the medium must rank the lowest of all arts, lower than any graphic art, for the individuality of the artist is cramped, in short, it can hardly show itself. Control of the picture is possible to a slight degree... But the all-vital powers of selection and rejection are fatally limited....

Peter Henry Emerson, "The Death of Naturalistic Photography," 1891, quoted in Vicki Goldberg, Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981, p. 197.

Photography Requires Artistry

...as one who delights in photography solely for its artistic capabilities I experience a want of sympathy and harmony with the majority of those who practise it with other feelings. There can be no doubt also of the antagonism and total difference of ideas existing amongst those who look at it from another point of view....Especially with regard to photographic journalism and to photographic exhibitions...

Alfred Maskell, 1892, quoted in Margaret Harker, The Linked Ring: the Secession Movement in Photography in Britain, 1892-1910. London: Heinemann, 1979, pp. 82-83.

Photography Can Be a Fine Art

Legitimate photographic methods are the great expressional instrument for a straightforward depiction of the pictorial beauties of life and nature, and to abandon its superiorities in order to aim at the technical qualities of other arts is unwise... The total suppression of almost every quality which we customarily associate with photography must cease. The photographer is not justified, as Mr. [Edward] Steichen claims, in the striving to obtain results of the painter, the etcher, and the lithographer.... I want pictorial photography to be recognized as a fine art. It is an ideal that I cherish as much as any of them, and I have fought for it for years, but I am equally convinced that it can only be accomplished by straight photography.

Sadakichi Hartmann, "A Plea for Straight Photography," in The Valiant Knights of Daguerre, 1904. Edited by Harry W. Lawton and George Knox. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978, pp. 108-114.

Photographs Can't Lie

Only with effort can the camera be forced to lie: basically it is an honest medium: so the photographer is much more likely to approach nature in a spirit of inquiry, of communion, instead of with the saucy swagger of self-dubbed "artists."

Edward Weston, quoted in Susan Sontag, On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977, p. 186.

Photographs Can Lie

...what is before the lens always has the illusion of reality; but what is selected and put before the lens can be as false as any totalitarian lie.

Ansel Adams, 1962 letter to Dorothea Lange, quoted in Ansel Adams, An Autobiography. With Mary Street Alinder. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1985, p. 269.

Photographs Document Life

I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to "trap" life -- to preserve life in the act of living. Above all, I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of one single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.

Henri Cartier Bresson, quoted in Susan Sontag, On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977, p. 185.

Photographs Are an Educational Tool

In 1936 photography, which theretofore had been mostly a matter of landscapes and snapshots and family portraits, was fast being discovered as a serious tool of communications, a new way for a thoughtful, creative person to make a statement. Flash bulbs and small cameras were being used for the first time. The rotogravure was dying; the first big picture magazines, which would take its place, were already being roughed out. In a year or so, and with a suddenness matched only by the introduction of television twelve years later, picture-taking became a national industry....We helped open up a brand-new territory of American life and manners as a legitimate subject for visual commentary...

Was it...art? ...I've always avoided this particular controversy. Nothing strikes me as more futile...Was it sociology? I'm sure it was more than a little bit sociology. Ansel Adams, in fact, once told me, "What you've got are not photographers. They're a bunch of sociologists with cameras."...Was it journalism? Yes and no...Was it history? Of course...If I had to sum it up, I'd say, yes, it was more education than anything else...We...helped connect one generation's image of itself with the reality of its own time in history.

"The FSA Collection of Photographs." Forward to In This Proud Land: America 1935-1943 as Seen in the FSA Photographs. Edited by Roy Emerson Stryker and Nancy Wood. Greenwich, Connecticut: New York Graphic Society Ltd., 1973, pp. 7-9.

Photographs Represent a Better Reality

...[In a 1922 letter to his future wife Virginia, Ansel] Adams complains about the crowds in the Yosemite valley -- crowds that are never seen in his photographs -- and says: "How I wish that the Valley could be now like it was forty years ago -- a pure wilderness, with only a wagon road through it, and no automobiles nor mobs."

...Today, the experience of Yosemite depicted in Adams's photographs is no longer ours, nor even available to us -- as anyone who has visited the park surely knows. Our present-day experience is more like that depicted in Bruce Davidson's 1965 photograph of a crowded campsite on the valley floor, all folding lawn furniture and cars among the trees.... What is interesting to us in retrospect are the lengths to which Adams went in his time to avoid quotidian reality both in his choice of subject matter and in his printing style, which became increasingly theatrical and hyperbolic over the course of his career....

Andy Grundberg, Crisis of the Real, Writings on Photography since 1974. New York: Aperture, 1999, pp. 33, 36.



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