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Blurred Boundaries: Photography, Painting and the Search for the Photographic Medium

Blurred Boundaries: Photography, Painting and the Search for the Photographic Medium

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by Yvonne Gubbins. Originally submitted for C101 at University College Cork, with lecturer Dr. Julia Jansen in the category of Philosophical Studies
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by Yvonne Gubbins. Originally submitted for C101 at University College Cork, with lecturer Dr. Julia Jansen in the category of Philosophical Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
B lurred Boundaries: Photography, Painting and the Search for thePhotographic Medium
Photography has been a controversial and pervasive social practice almost fromits inception. From the outset photographs challenged how we perceive the world andimportantly how we perceive art. In the art world photography has challenged valuestructures and centuries old understanding of distinct artistic mediums. Painting, in theWestern world, holds the pre-eminent position and status in artistic society. Indeed photography may be seen to bolster the status of painting. Spectators of art are deeplyentrenched in an enduring Western tradition of image making and viewing in which stilllingers a suspicion that photography is a poor substitute for painting.This essay aims to deal with a limited number of issues that arise when we think of photographic practice and its artistic and critical reception. A central focus will be onthe effect photography has had on art and our concept of medium. Prominent amongissues in photography is the easily recognisable fact of photography’s entanglement with painting. These two media may at times appear in symbiotic relationship, photographyfreeing painting from its mimetic function, allowing medium-specific self-reflection,while painting lent to early photography carefully worked out compositional values. Atother times an almost parasitic relationship is exposed with photography’s explorationand value being subordinate to painting while painting makes use of the effects of  photography for its own aggrandisement. I will explore the idea of a reluctance andinexperience of exploring and dealing with photography on its own terms encountering areliance on other means such as painting’s conventions and ideas related to languagestructure.Artists such as Edgar Degas (1834-1917) who readily incorporated thecompositional effects of photography into their work provide ample evidence of  photography and painting’s early involvement.
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While photography was enthusiasticallyembraced as a new form of image making, at first by specialists, then by the modernmasses, artistic entanglement with painting led very quickly to what could be termed a
1
See for example Degas’
The Dance Lesson
, 1881 and
Woman Bathing in a Shallow Tub
1886.
1
 
crisis of identity and definition for the idea of artistic medium.
2
Various efforts by artistsand theorists, from the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries, to categorise anddelimit photography, in terms of medium, both through writing and photographic works,show how once clear boundaries and conventions enjoyed by drawing and painting have been blurred beyond recognition by photography. As the pace of life and proliferation of images continue to accelerate the possibilities of digital imaging, and computer generatedimaging, multiply the complexities and difficulty of media boundaries and definitions.Indeed, the art historian Rosalind Krauss claims we are in a ‘post-medium condition’where not only analogue photography is obsolete, but also our traditional concepts of definable artistic media.
3
 Theorists and artists struggle to engage meaningfully, fruitfully, and in a timelymanner, with ever more complex, varied and technologically advanced artistic means andmethods. Photography was Western society’s means to demonstrate and document whathad been, what had occurred, what persons were present or absent at a given time or  place. Photography is trusted as an index to the extent that photographs are permitted asevidence in courts of law. The proliferation of digital imaging and ease of manipulationafforded the general public by way of computer applications, for example ‘Photoshop’,has awakened in the public a distrust or suspicion of printed digital images. Themanipulator of a digital image sitting before a computer enjoys a level of creativefreedom akin to an artist with brush and paint before a canvas. It is necessary toacknowledge that digital imaging has dramatically changed our use and understanding of  photographic images. It has rocked the foundations of our still tentative understanding of analogue photography as a medium. Digital imaging, its potentials and consequences aredeserving of philosophical enquiry in their own right and so will not be dealt with in thisessay.In the early twentieth century the most important and influential essays whichinformed thought on photography were Walter Benjamin’s ‘
The Work of Art in the Ageof Mechanical Reproduction
’, from 1936, and Clement Greenberg’s ‘
 Avant-Garde and 
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This may be seen as symptomatic of identity crises and blurring of traditional social boundariesexperienced by the Western world’s populace with the accelerating pressures of modernity from thenineteenth century onwards.
3
See R. Krauss ‘Reinventing the Medium’
Critical Inquiry
, Vol. 25, No.2. Winter 1999. 289-305, and‘Two Moments from the Post-Medium Condition’
October 
, Vol. 116, Spring 2006, 55-62.
2
 
 Kitsch
’ from 1939, one of the first essays where the importance of the role of medium inart is mentioned.
4
Later important works were completed by Michael Fried, SusanSontag, Roland Barthes and Rosalind Krauss. At the end of the twentieth century andduring the first decade of the twenty-first there have been a number of important philosophical and art historical investigations into photography: Michael Fried released asubstantial book titled ‘
Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before
’ in 2008 and inDecember of 2009 a special issue of the journal
 Art History
was dedicated to a debate onissues currently at stake in contemporary photographic art, to cite just two examples. Thefact that philosophers, art historians, and critics are exercised by photography indicatesunresolved issues regarding our understanding of photography.The first section of this essay will deal with the complex relationship between painting and photography. The second section illustrates issues in relation to how weattempt to gain an understanding of the medium of photography via other media. Thefinal section argues for an exploration of the process of photography, rather than an end product of images, as a means to understanding photography on its own terms.Photography and Painting: A symbiotic or parasitic media relationship?The advent of photography can be seen as a watershed for painting. Photographycreated possibilities for art with all the speed and unexpected consequences now expectedof any technological advance. One of these possibilities was self-reflection. ClementGreenberg, in his essay
‘Modernist Painting’ 
,
 
writes of self-criticism in the arts which hesees as endemic to Modernism.
5
Greenberg claims that self-criticism (in Modernist painting) is a totally spontaneous practice.
6
 It may be spontaneous but the freedom toreflect only occurs when other more basic needs and duties have been fulfilled. Self-criticism and self-reflexivity can be seen as a luxury. This luxury would not have been asreadily available to painting had not photography, or a similar medium, freed it from its
4
 
W. Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936, 520-527 and C.Greenberg, Avant-Garde and Kitsch 1939, 539-549 in Harrison & Wood, (eds.) Art in Theory 1900-2000An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.
 
5
C. Greenberg, C.
 Modernist Painting 
, 1960. 773-779 in Harrison & Wood, (eds.)
 Art in Theory 1900-2000 An Anthology of Changing Ideas,
Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.
 
6
Ibid, 778.
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