In his (1913) essay – Photography and Photography and Artistic-Photography, De Zayas starts off with a bold statement: ‘Photography is not Art. It is not even an art.’
What were my thoughts of this statement?
I didn’t want to make up my mind straight away and decided I would hopefully form an answer by the end of reading through the essay.
However, in my eyes it was definitely an important and potentially provocative statement for readers of the essay to consider. This was because people would be either in agreement or disagreement with that statement, which could then influence how they saw photography.
He goes on to say that Art only circles around on itself and as it evolves Art serves only to act as a representation of Form. Form (in contemporary Art at least) is an evolution of all prior forms and so therefore culminates in not just a lack of special form but a ‘special deformation’.
However, because ‘photography escapes through the tangent of the circle’, it negates man’s inability to appreciate Form because of imagination?
He further explains how contemporary Art is based upon other Art – ‘that which caused us pleasure in other works’.
He argues words to the effect of: because of the inversely proportionate relationship between the human brain’s (advancing) progression and their (seemingly decreasing) imagination, Art is now void of creativity faculty. His reasoning for there being less creative faculty was that: because contemporary Art drew upon other Art, a circle was formed in which Art was consumed or compounded by other Art.
While the less developed mind struggled with analytic, decorative impression of Form, the more cultured mind struggled with abstract idea of representation of Form.
Imagination was essentially ‘holding back’ Art but because photography sees the world from a whole different angle, it escapes this loop by going off on a tangent as previously mentioned. The way photography did this is: while Art was clouded in its vision of representation of Form by imagination, photography, through a ‘state of perfect consciousness’, cut through this shroud and delivered the material truth. Imagination led man to perceive Form deceptively in conjunction with memory; material truth was not rendered accurately to the human brain – more as feelings – ‘the emotional or intellectual truth’. It was only when ‘a state of perfect consciousness’ was achieved by none-other than a photographer that true Form could be realised.
De Zayas states: ‘[photography] is not to be the means of expression for the intellect of man’. I thought this was important because for me he was dismissing pictorialism in photography; suggesting that actually photography tells the material truth.
I didn’t really agree that man found photography as soon as they reached the highest level of imagination possible through Art but rather that man stumbled upon photography at a convenient time when Art was being exhausted of creative faculty.
However photography came to be about though, certainly photography appears to present Nature in a factual way. While de Zayas is convinced that, through a state of perfect consciousness, material truth could be realised, I would still maintain that photography always acts under a veil of illusion; regardless of the photographer’s intentions or state. This would be because the photographer usually makes a setting ordered in terms of Form because it remains an underlying trait of human nature. In this way, photography stays misleading; in my opinion more so nowadays with the advent of digital, where the photograph can be manipulated after or during the fact more easily and extensively. Reality could then take on a new Form in those moments.
However, he also maintains there are two different types of photography too. I have to agree with this assertion; even today there appears to be those who make photographs purely for beauty and those who have a certain purpose to make out of photography; namely either recording information and/or provoking emotion.
De Zayas labels photographers as either being a ‘photographer’ or ‘artist photographer’. I agreed with this separation in so much as Form is rendered differently (either to show a scene in as faithful a rendition as possible to express something from within themselves respectively), I would say it is very rare a photographer of either kind doesn’t attempt to bring some sort of order to a photograph.
However, I thought he made a salient point that these two types of photography do not devour each other like Art does. It was interesting also, to get to grips with the concept of ‘pure photography’, which De Zayas at that time was saying was gradually becoming more prevalent – ‘man has been slowly approaching the object’ – where objectivity was what the pure photographer had been striving towards. In contrast the artist photographer took advantage of this ability to represent Form and used it to express emotion through subjectivity.
Perhaps this leaning towards pure photography was because man recognised that photography was allowing them to escape the circle of Art through this new tangent.
It was therefore not too much of a surprise that I found De Zayas had allied himself with Stieglitz’s “291” Gallery and that he was ardent to ‘keep up with the most revolutionary developments’, when I reread the preface to the essay.
So my thoughts after reading the essay through, was that photography was not like other Arts because of its apparent and unique ability to represent Form truthfully. However, because order always seemed to be present within photographs, consciously integrated or not, both types of photographs produced were a kind of lie; where reality was intended to be reproduced or manipulated. A case I found backing up this argument I felt, was that of Bate concerning Francis Frith’s depiction of The Pyramids of El-Gizeh – namely: ‘Figure 5.2 Francis Frith (1822-98), the Pyramids of El-Gizeh, from the South West’, Egypt, 1857. in Bate’s (2009): Photography: The Key Concepts’.
Here, while in general, ‘Frith emphasised the ‘truthfulness’ of his pictures and claimed they were ‘independent of general or artistic effect’; quite similar in my opinion to De Zayas’ argument, Bate then immediately points out: ‘the temptation to make any scene picturesque was hard to resist’. This temptation to compose any scene meticulously was described by Frith himself when giving advice to other photographers as ‘’Think of the careful thought and labour which are expended over every successful piece of canvas…’’ It seemed even photographers seeking ‘an actuality of visual information’ – Bate (2009), like Frith, still succumbed to the ‘associated visual pleasure in the act of ‘composing’ pictures’ – Bate (2009), in regards to photographic vision.
Bate, D. (2009). Photography: The Key Concepts, Bloomsbury Academic, 50 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3DP UK.
de Zayas, M. (1913). Photography and Photography and Artistic-Photography, Camerawork: A Critical Anthology, Page 267.