The More Things Change

| June 19, 2014

The following is an excerpt from a book draft I am working on (one of three!) and posted here in response to a friend’s question about photographer Henry Peach Robinson.

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The Brotherhood of the Linked Ring and The Photo-Secession

The Royal Photographic Society, established in London in 1853, is the world’s oldest photography organization. The study of its evolution, mission, politics and history illustrates the great truth reflected by French novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr: “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Like so many similar societies, organizations and associations, the Royal Photographic Society proclaimed its mission to promote “the Art and Science of Photography,” and in a pattern that has become all to common since, went on to place far greater emphasis on the science, mechanics and representational nature of photography than on its use as an artistic medium.

The rift between those primarily interested in the technical aspects of photography and those seeking to promote photography as an art form continued to widen toward the end of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century. In his book The History of Photography, author Robert Leggat recounts the growing discontent with the Royal Photographic Society by photographic artists, led by Henry Peach Robinson:

As time went on differences between the photographic scientists and photographic artists became greater and more acrimonious, and Henry Peach Robinson was becoming increasingly frustrated by the failure of the Photographic Society to recognise that there was an artistic dimension as well as a scientific one to photography. The Photographic News for 19 August 1892 pinpointed the problem:

“If photography is ever to take up its proper position as an art it must detach itself from science and live a separate existence.”

Commenting upon the proceedings of the Photographic Society, Robinson wrote

“For years art has scarcely been mentioned. … The feeling that art had nothing to do with the Society became so pronounced two or three years ago that one of the officials expressed his opinion that papers on art may be tolerated if they could be got and there was nothing better to be had.”

Soon after, Robinson, at the time a Vice-President of the Royal Photographic Society, resigned his position, and several other prominent members followed suit. Together they founded The Brotherhood of The Linked Ring, an invitation-only organization dedicated to the promotion of photography as art.

Though primarily dissenting from the technology focus of the Royal Photographic Society, there was likely another force at play: a rebellion against the growing perception, as a result of photography becoming progressively easier and more accessible, that it was not a worthy medium for art. As further explained by Robert Leggat:

Though the formation of this group was, as their publicity indicated, “a means of bringing together those who are interested in the development of the highest form of Art of which Photography is capable”, it is also very likely that serious photographers were now trying to distance themselves from the growth of photography for all, brought about by the introduction of simple cameras. The idea that anyone could press a button and take a photograph caused the more dedicated to look for new techniques which the “snap photographers” would never aspire to.

Around the same period, similar events were unfolding across the Atlantic. Pictorial photography thrived in the United States and among its most prominent practitioners was photographer and art promoter Alfred Stieglitz, considered by many to be the most important figure in American Art. Stieglitz was a wealthy art patron. He was also extremely charismatic and outspoken and, being a consummate photographer, took it upon himself to use his power and influence to elevate photography as an artistic medium. Where much of the photography of the time was concerned with the subjects being photographed – individual people and places, portrayed in well-established styles, Stieglitz proclaimed that the primary significance of an artistic photograph was, in fact, the creative vision of the photographer and the expression of a subjective interpretation accomplished by the skilled manipulation of the photographic negative.

In 1902, Stieglitz was asked by the National Arts Club (a prestigious New York City art society) to put together an exhibit of the best in American Photography of the day. In doing so, he found himself at odds with the more conservative members of the club when it came to the selection of what constituted, in his mind, the best photographs. In support of his position, and in a similar fashion to Robinson’s foundation of The Linked Ring, Stieglitz established the Photo-Secession group, comprised of several of his close colleagues, including Edward Steichen, Clarence H. White, and Gertrude Käsebier. So close were the goals of Photo-Secession with those of The Linked Ring that several Photo-Secessionists were also accepted as members of the until-then British-only society.

If there is a striking conclusion to be drawn from these stories, it is this: these same arguments about photography’s technical versus artistic aspects, and the merits of image manipulation, are still pursued with the same vigor today, and with nearly the same arguments as they were more than 120 years ago. Sadder still is the fact that many who are engaged in these arguments often are not aware that such battles were fought and settled many years before their time.

The dichotomy of art versus science continues to point to the same intellectual failure to separate the mechanics of the medium from its uses. Many still hold the opinion that all products of the camera must be created, presented and evaluated by the same criteria, whether serving as documentary evidence or personal expression.

To insist that all photographs must represent objective truth is as silly as to require that all writing be in the form of objective journalism, or that all sculptures be the precise likenesses of real people. Any person or organization proclaiming to promote both the art and the science in any medium also has to accept that a medium capable only of objectivity, and where personal interpretation, symbolism, abstraction and metaphor are shunned, cannot be used in the creation of art. In the words of painter Pablo Picasso: “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.”

Or, in the prophetic words of Henry Peach Robinson:

Photography would have been settled a fine art long ago if we had not, in more ways than one, gone so much into detail. We have always been too proud of the detail of our work and the ordinary detail of our processes.

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Arid Pastels

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Photography as Art

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (6)

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  1. steve says:

    At some point, as artists, we have to just let it go. The “argument” doesn’t serve any purpose when we are out in the field or in the darkroom. From a historic perspective, as you have demonstrated, it seems to be one of those unending, spy vs spy Mad Magazine, type arguments that will never be resolved. If I were a Zen master I would say do the laundry. Our practice is the creation of artistic works and we will continue to do so no matter what the “Royal Photographic Society” says.

  2. Frank Field says:

    Guy — What a find! I don’t know how you did it, but this is truly incredible. Yes, the more things change . . .. Will look forward to your forthcoming books. Hope the summer monsoons provide great opportunities for your photography.

  3. Very thought provoking post. Even in the beginning of photographic art there were differences with brush/pen/pencil art. To-day that gap is continually growing farther apart, with photographic art being the art form that continues to develop and expand.

    May your continuing journey be fulfilling.

  4. Dave Kosiur says:

    I have to agree with Steve. Just let it go. The “photography as art” argument will continue on for generations.

    I know you wrote this entry as a response to a friend’s question, but I wonder what purpose it serves, as it rehashes old content. (I hope I’m not sounding too harsh; I don’t mean to be…) If this is to be part of one of your books, what’s the aim of the book? And what’s its audience? I heard/read this before and I suspect experienced photographers know of it a well.

    Having said all that, we should pay less attention to the technology and be content with making images that satisfy ourselves, whether someone calls it art or not.

    Just my $0.02.

  5. Guy Tal says:

    Great to hear from you, Dave! Point taken but, hey, it was already written so perhaps at least worth repeating in the hope that it may reach further? Either way, fresh post tomorrow morning.

    As you can tell this is a very short section meant to establish some familiarity with these people and concepts. It is not the main topic of the book.

  6. Rich Berrett says:

    I think it is short sighted to “let it go” because the discussion and sometimes debate has not ended. Your thought provoking and detailed reflection is appreciated by me and the link will be sent to a few friends to contemplate as they look at their own resistance to explore photography and make room for it as an art form. Thanks Guy for sharing your ongoing “critical thinking” abilities and clear writing.