Photography History, Aesthetics and Expression

The Photography Category

In this category we’ll look at the historic and aesthetic aspects of photography, especially its use as a means of personal artistic expression. Technical considerations will be discussed where appropriate, but they’re not the main subject here…it’s more important that someone know my intent for a photograph rather than what lens and exposure settings I used. There are plenty of photography journals and web sites that address the latest technical topics, so I’ll leave that aspect to them. Of course, process is a major part in creating any work of art, and I’ll certainly make mention of that as well. But in this blog it’s mostly about the Art.

Main & Bloomfield, Flemington NJ
Main and Bloomfield, Flemington, New Jersey-2012 –James T Callahan

Brief History

Flatiron Building
The Flatiron Building – Edward Steichen, 1904

The history of photography is quite thick, despite its relatively short time span as compared to classical forms of art. In only 177 years we’ve seen many uses of the medium from scientific study to pure non-objective abstract art, and many artistic movements. Photography at first was seen as a technological wonder capable of showing us “the truth.” From some of the initial photographic forms of the Daguerreotype, Cyanotype (originally called shadowgraphs) and Calotype, the last of which became the basis for the negative-positive process known to this day, photography progressed through a variety of historic processes including various chemical printing processes including Edward Steichen’s platinum print pictured here, and eventually to gelatin-based film in the late 19th century. With the introduction of George Eastman’s Kodak cameras and film, photography was in the hands of the everyday person. What started out as a rather complex chemical and, later, mechanical process, exclusively within the reach of the scientifically educated gentry who created it, became a democratic commercial and artistic medium affordable and practiced (in one form or another) by virtually everyone.

And the rest is history. But let’s backtrack just a little, first.

Aesthetics

Even by the 1860s photographic images were being changed or altered to fit the media’s—or politicians’—or anyone’s purpose through photo manipulation. Also, chemical and other hand-worked processes could be applied to a photograph to alter its appearance for purely aesthetic purposes…to make Art. Many people didn’t consider photography worthy of this distinction, not the least of which was Charles Baudelaire, the father of modern art criticism. In his Salon review of 1859, he leveled a scathing (and often humorous, at least to me) assessment of the ills and ruination that the ‘industry’ of photography was wreaking on “whatever might remain of the di­vine in the French mind.” In his commentary, he dictates that photography should “return to its true duty, which is to be the servant of the sciences and arts— but the very humble servant, like printing or shorthand, which have neither created nor supplemented literature.”

wilson house east millstone
The Wilson House in East Millstone, New Jersey – from a transfer by James T. Callahan. June 2012

So photography can neither create art nor add anything of value to it! This perception of the vacuous exactitude of photography, its perceived precision in rendering the world exactly how it appears, was prevalent at the time. In fact, many people today still consider this to be its primary ability. After all, a picture is reality, isn’t it? Nothing could be further from the truth. What Baudelaire seems to have missed, though, including the fact that he was looking for art and artists that could capture the true appearance and effects of the modern age, was that photography was the perfect medium to realize this quest. Virtually unlimited creative possibilities were inherent in photography from its discovery (in various forms), and talented  artists were already busy creating works that used its inherent properties and its ability to render the exact opposite of reality.

In fact, a photograph is a rendering of anything BUT reality. And that’s really important to the next aspect…

Expression

Photography has provided a means for artistic expression, for deep exploration of the subconscious, to visualize memories acted on by the imagination, and to image one’s passions and interests in a uniquely personal way since its introduction. John Herschel and Anna Atkins, the inventor and one of the earliest users of the Cyanotype process, respectively, were creating art through their passions, intellectual pursuits and interests. Later, the Pictorialist movement, led by Alfred Stieglitz, sought to (and did) raise photography to the status of high art, like the classical visual art forms of painting and sculpture. These mediums have long held the divine and preeminent status that Baudelaire adhered to so imperiously.

former bethlehem steel plant entrance gate
The old entrance gate at the former Bethlehem Steel Plant site in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

The cool thing about photography is you never know exactly what you will get. You can still come back home, process the pictures and see things you didn’t expect. It’s best when you’re not thinking too much. When I go out to make pictures I think a lot about wat I’m going to shoot while driving to the location; but once on the ground my eye guides me, and my subconscious is at work, which you can’t control. Its presence is latent in the images, and you’ll see that when start editing. It’s like magic and each new experience propels you forward to create more.

So, that is a summation (a very brief one for the purposes of keeping it short) of what I consider to be the foundational conceptual elements of photography as I’ve studied and practice it. It’s the combination of them that leads to a synthesis of ideas and propels your work forward. Of course, the physical and technical aspects—what photographic equipment you use, the techniques you apply, your workflow, your process—is an integral part of creating the work that only you can make. I love every aspect of my process, from beginning to end, and there are many parts. But it’s all exciting to me and it compels me to keep thinking, to keep creating compelling and engaging pictures.

Author: jamestcallahan

James T. Callahan is a commercial and fine art photographer based in Hillsborough, New Jersey. His specializations are in product, industrial and architecture. His fine art work takes a poetic look at the American Landscape through 19th Century architecture, historic and abandoned railroads and the American Small Town. You can see his work on his website at www.jamestcallahanphotographer.com, and on Instagram at www.instagram.com/jamestcallahan/.

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