Photography as Fine Art, Then and Now

We live in a time when photographs are not sacred. And that’s okay. In a lot of ways, it’s actually incredible.

If by some mechanism of science-fiction fantasy we could go back in time and suggest to the late 19th century that photography, one of the most recent and game-changing inventions in history, would become so commonplace over the next 150 years that each citizen personally carries the technology in his or her back pocket, I’m sure it would raise a few eyebrows.

The proliferation and convenience of digital photography has changed the way we interact with the world. There is no longer the requirement to develop the photographs, there is basically unlimited storage space and an endless supply of “film.” We can take as many pictures as we want whenever we want. It’s an instantaneous and expendable medium in a way that it never was.

I don’t believe it is inaccurate or controversial to say that — in a broad-stroke sort of way — as a society we no longer really consider the value of a single photograph. Or perhaps it is that a single photograph (with occasional and obvious exceptions) simply does not carry much value. Instead, we want lots of them, all the time.

This presents a real challenge to actual photographers, particularly artists who deal with photography as a visual medium and a history in itself. How can one make the experience of a photograph unique and singular again?

Another strange dilemma of our generation’s gluttonous relationship to photography is how it effects the way we see older photographs. Considering history inevitably requires understanding of and empathy with the knowledge, values and beliefs of a time period. So when looking at a photograph from the turn of the 20th century, it requires an act of willful distortion; we must try to imagine what it felt like to see a single beautiful image in a time when a photograph was comparatively rare — when people did not look at hundreds a day — when we were still learning about how to look at them and what they could teach us.

The National Gallery of Art is confronting these ideas with two complementary exhibitions that offer a provocative, multifaceted exploration of the history and present state of photography as art.

Through Sept. 13, “The Memory of Time: Contemporary Photographs at the National Gallery of Art” presents work by contemporary artists who investigate the richness and complexity of photography’s relationship to time, memory and history.
In the neighboring gallery, through July 26, “In Light of the Past: Twenty-Five Years of Photography at the National Gallery of Art” showcases some 175 masterpieces from the Gallery’s photography collection (initiated 25 years ago), highlighting exquisite 19th century works and turn-of-the-century pictorialist photographs, exceptional examples of international modernism from the 1920s and 1930s and seminal mid-20th-century American photography, as well as photographs exploring new directions in color and conceptual art from the 1960s and 1970s.

An interesting aspect of the “The Memory of Time” shows us how contemporary fine-art photographers are exploring the science and history of their medium. Part chemists, part anthropologists, photographers like Sally Mann, Myra Greene, Adam Fuss, Idris Khan and many others are producing gelatin silver prints, daguerreotypes, salted paper prints, ambrotypes; they are using camera obscuras, experimenting with long and primitive exposures. These artists are pointing historical lenses at a modern world, and the results are quite simply breathtaking. This exhibition is a spoil of austere, tonal beauty.

It would be remiss not to mention Moyra Davey’s “Copperhead” series, a wall of nearly a dozen near-microscopic views of Lincoln’s face on the US penny — part of a series of 100 photographs — exhibiting the deterioration, gouges and discolored, molding and mottled surfaces of the coins. It is Lincoln defaced, ravaged by time and relegated to the least valuable unit of currency. The exhibition text suggests that this points toward the devaluation of history in contemporary culture, but that strikes me as dramatically curmudgeonly. I would offer that, as concepts go, this is merely the fate of all history, as it gets rolled, spat about and distorted through time and distance. It is a sad and beautiful image.

As I walked through the next exhibition, “In Light of the Past,” this notion stuck with me. I saw the iconic series of a running man by Eadweard Muybridge, the Photo Secessionists Steichen and Stieglitz, the breathtaking Depression-era subway portraits of Walker Evans. Beyond that, there was the glamour and thump of carnivals, the hazy bars and urban development of the post-war era and the unraveling of that ecstatic era into Richard Misrach’s 1983 photograph of a flooded marina in the Salton Sea — where the defunct remains of a ’50s-era gas station sit submerged in a shallow ocean.

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