Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Photography As an Art Form

I wrote an essay on this subject for Wikipedia

The aesthetics of photography is a matter that continues to be discussed. Is photography an art? --or is it just mechanical reproduction of an image. If photography is authentically art, what makes a photograph beautiful?

The controversy began with the earliest images "written with light," i.e., photographs. Niépce and later workers were met with wonder--the image was so exact--and yet was it really an art form? What is the criterion that differentiates art from mechanical replication? Does the camera function in a way analogous to the Cezanne's brush, Ingres' pencil?

Clive Bell in his essay "Art" states that only one thing can distinguish art from what is not art: "significant form." Bell wrote: 

There must be some one quality without which a work of art cannot exist; possessing which, in the least degree, no work is altogether worthless. What is this quality? What quality is shared by all objects that provoke our aesthetic emotions? What quality is common to Sta. Sophia and the windows at Chartres, Mexican sculpture, a Persian bowl, Chinese carpets, Giotto's frescoes at Padua, and the masterpieces of Poussin, Piero della Francesca, and Cezanne? Only one answer seems possible - significant form. In each, lines and colours combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, stir our aesthetic emotions. These relations and combinations of lines and colours, these aesthetically moving forms, I call "Significant Form"; and "Significant form" is the one quality common to all works of visual art.   Click here to see Bell's seminal essay, "Art"

That quality, significant for itself, is described in this principle by Eli Siegel: "All beauty is a making one of opposites." Put another way, he wrote: "In reality opposites are one; art shows this." See Eli Siegel's "Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?" 

Can this criterion be applied to photography? If so, is it the opposites in oneness that make some forms "significant" -- so they stir the aesthetic emotions -- and some forms NOT significant? Why does the image of a child on crutches playing in Spain, 1933, by Cartier Bresson stir the aesthetic emotions when a poorly composed photograph of the most perfect rose may not?

This question has been dealt with successfully by the Aesthetic Realism understanding of beauty. It is through this understanding that one can show definitively that photography is art, not mechanical reproduction of an image.

So again, what makes one form significant and another form not significant; one photograph beautiful and another perhaps not beautiful?

Some of the most important writing on this subject is to be found on the web site of Len Bernstein, hotographer, historian and critic. Bernstein describes, in a notable way, the Aesthetic Realism understanding of photography as an art form.

His essays have been published, for example, in Apogee PhotoMagazine and Photographica World: The Journal of the Photographic Collectors Club of Great Britain.

On his web site he introduces the subject as follows:

"When I began to photograph more than 25 years ago, I felt I found a way of expressing myself that met something so deep inside me that I wanted to do it for the rest of my life. Walking with my camera, the city streets seemed transformed--friendlier, more interesting--and I spent hours searching for dramatic situations, trying to capture the right moment. Looking through the viewfinder, what I saw had new value for me, boredom and loneliness seemed to vanish, and I wished I could feel that way all the time. And hoping to learn what made a photograph successful, I avidly studied the history and technique of photography.

"My hopes were met when I first heard this magnificent statement by Eli Siegel, the American critic and founder of the philosophy Aesthetic Realism: 'All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.' This is the criterion for beauty that centuries of artists, philosophers, people in all walks of life, have searched for; the explanation of what makes a photograph good and how our personal questions are the questions of art--dignified and cultural! I've had the thrill of testing it in thousands of instances, from the first known photograph taken by Nicéphore Niépce in 1826-27 to the most modern work of today."

See an online exhibition of Bernstein's photographs.

Likewise, important articles on photography as an art form, written from the Aesthetic Realism point of view, will be found on the "Dienes & Dienes" web site. See, for example Louis Dienes's "On a Photograph by Eugene Atget" and his illustrated poem "Black and White," originally composed for his own exhibition of photographs, which begins: "The day black and white got a break..." .

For more on Aesthetic Realism and art, including photography, see the Terrain Gallery website.

--Arnold Perey, PhD


Important Links to know about

As an educator myself I have used, and highly recommend to every teacher, the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method. This educational method, taught by Eli Siegel, founder of Aesthetic Realism, has been successfully used to teach a wide variety of subjects (K-12 and beyond) for over 30 years. Students learn their subjects with a beautiful eagerness and thoroughness. The most compact introduction to the theory of aesthetics on which Aesthetic Realism is based would be "Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?" and the chapter "The Aesthetic Method in Self- Conflict" from Self and World. Some of the many subjects Aesthetic Realism is resoundingly true about include not only the very basis of aesthetics in general, but photography in particular; not only conflict in the human self as such but a new perspective for anthropology and sociology in particular and a way of seeing a person, whether man or woman, in relation to history, current events, and art--as the website created by Lynette Abel shows -- and that by journalist Alice Bernstein, an Aesthetic Realism Associate. The large online body of work on these very subjects has been provided by Ellen Reiss, Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism, who writes on the "criticism" of John Keats as well as, for example, on poet Robert Burns, and much more. Meanwhile, to learn more about Mr. Siegel, you can visit the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company, as well as biographical information on the Aesthetic Realism Foundation website. Meanwhile, I am sorry to say that as has occurred so often in history, a very few people have attempted to smear this new knowledge and present it as far from what it truly is. This is documented on the important website titled Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies--which I hope you visit.