Michael Pritchard, director general of the Royal Photographic Society, plots the progress of photography to a fully accepted art form
Photography has gone through profound changes over the past 20 years with the move from silver-halide to digital imaging. No aspect has been left untouched, whether it is the manufacturers and retailers or the professional image-maker and consumer. With the transition there have been casualties but also new opportunities which the industry has exploited and photographers have taken advantage of.
The move to digital has also impacted the style and number of images being made. In 1857, Lady Elizabeth Eastlake wrote about the first time she saw “specimens of a new and mysterious art” which was part of a wider discussion about how far photography could be considered an art rather than a mechanical process.
Photography is now fully accepted as an artistic medium sitting equally alongside the other fine arts. The ascendency of digital photography from the 1980s had the potential to re-ignite the debate that photography was only “mechanical-made”. It did not materialise because of the realisation that digital photography had pushed the boundaries of what was possible creatively and had raised the overall standard of artistic photography.
Making images was and remains a craft. It has simply moved from the wet darkroom on to a computer screen. It needs different skills for transferring an image from the camera on to paper.
The photographer still needs a “seeing eye”, technical ability and to make creative decisions that affect whether an image is just a picture or is elevated to a work of art.
Contemporary photographers may have shifted from analogue to digital but, whether they are making landscapes, still lifes or shooting sport, they still need to visualise a picture and have the practical skills to capture it. For some, the old chemical processes have re-emerged and combined with digital methods to retain the best of both.
Photography is now fully accepted as an artistic medium sitting equally alongside the other fine arts
Photography unquestionably has the ability to produce great art as the auction market, the great collectors and modern patrons of photography, such as The Macallan with Annie Leibovitz, have shown. Lady Eastlake asserted that it was right to “dismiss all mistaken ideas about the harm which photography does to art… simply because it is done cheaper and better in another way”.
Digital photography can be embraced irrespective of whether you are an artist, a commercial photographer or an amateur. How the image is made – by DSLR, camera phone, silver halide or CCD – is less important than its quality and content.
Some things may change but, irrespective of the tools used, photography is all about the image.
The Royal Photographic Society is an educational charity with Royal Charter. Founded in 1853, it exists to promote the art and science of photography through public programmes, regional events and special interest groups. A membership organisation, it is open to anyone with an interest in any aspect of photography. It encourages image-making skills through workshops, exhibitions and distinctions programmes, and showcases new and challenging works as well as the traditional. www.rps.org
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