Photography as Art: Changing Perspectives

By : Ekta Niranjan

Photographs are drawings by light. John F. W. Herschel first used the word photography in 1839. It is derived from the Greek words “photos” meaning “light” and “graphein” meaning “to draw”. It was in 1827 that Joseph Nicephore Niepce first created the photographic image, but it took eight hours of light exposure to create and would soon disappear and fade away. It took another dozen years for Louis Daguerre to reduce the exposure time to less than 30 minutes and make the image permanent. By 1839 the ‘Daguerreotype’ process was popularized and thus began the rapid expansion and growth of photography.

Photographs soon started aiding artists in their works and were common practice amongst portrait and landscape artists.  Famous American artist Tomas Eakins (1844-1916) who was considered one of the great masters in figure painting used photography as an aid in his search for realism and authenticity. Some artists on the other hand, out rightly disclaimed photography as an art form because of their belief that photography was a mechanical and chemical procedure that did not require the use of skills and spirit that befit a painter.

Self-portrait by Robert Cornelius. One of the earliest ever daguerreotype
photos of a person. Taken in 1839.

Nevertheless photographic images started becoming popular. One of the first major styles of photography called pictorialism became popular around the late 19th and early 20th centauries. This style was used by lens based artists who manipulated the printing procedure to obtain the end result of a “soft focused” image.



IMG_256“The Black Bowl”, by George Seeley, circa 1907. Published in Camera Work, No 20 (1907)

After 1920, pictorialism began to fade away and modern photography (also known as Modernist Photography or Sharp Focus Modernism) took its place. The works produced under this style was more, sharp focused. Famous photographers of this style include Edward Weston (1886-1958), Bernard and Hilla Bechre (1931-2007), Christopher Williams.



Bernd and Hilla Becher, Grube San Fernando, Herdorf, D, 1961, Gelatin-silver print, 50 x 60 cm © Bernd and Hilla Becher / Courtesy of Schirmer/Mosel

With the works of Stieglitz, Edward Stechen, Man Ray, Ansel Adams, Eugene Atget to name a few, photography as an art form began to be more accepted and appreciated by people and is now a well accepted art form.

Photorealism is another form of art that uses photography to produce the end resulting piece of art. The artist uses photography to study a scene and then attempts to recreate it again though other medium like painting, drawing and graphics.


Dream of Love (2005), Oil on canvas. Example of Photorealist Glennray Tutor’s work

The essence of an artwork lies in its ability to tell a story, however vague or direct. It is appreciated only when it connects to the viewer. Photography like other art forms including painting, sketching or sculpting, though requiring less manual work, requires equal mental and spatial abilities in the artist.  Its values as an art cannot be ignored. And it also serves as the artist’s statement to the world. Photography has brought issues and iconic moments to the world to see and to be preserved forever. The pictures speak for themselves and are like a veil uplifting itself from the face of the stranger we seek. The angle of the photo, its colour, the subjects, the lights they receive weave together to form a complex tapestry that can only be designed by the photographer. Photography as art, is much more than clicking photos, they stand for something.  The artist sets his scene and tries to capture it, wherein lies his talent.

 Photographs are very much appreciated now and are as influencing as paintings. Photojournalism has given this form of art a new boost.  Below are a few examples of photographs, which in their own way have contributed to making photography famous.


Rhein II by Andreas Gursky (1999)

This is the most expensive photograph till date was sold by Christie’s New York for $4,338,500. Florence Waters of ‘The Telegraph’ describes it as “This image is a vibrant, beautiful and memorable – I should say unforgettable – contemporary twist on Germany’s famed genre and favourite theme: the romantic landscape, and man’s relationship with nature……. The scale, attention to colour and form of his photography can be read as a deliberate challenge to painting’s status as a higher art form.”


Untitled (Cowboy), 1989, Richard Prince, Chromogenic print; 50 x 70 in

Photographer Richard Prince had a very interesting style. The above image is a photo, which itself is a photo of an advertisement. It is one of the top 10 expensive photographs. Prince’s initial work started off with re photography. He would change the focus, blur parts or enlarge parts of a photograph when capturing it again. The photographs that he photographed were symbols of a stereotypical America like cowboys on Marlboro boxes. Prince wished to challenge the existence of such stereotypes and question the reality of objectivity, and in a manner subjectivity of things.



July 20, 1969: Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong

Extraordinary events like the Apollo moon landing by NASA and Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk have been immortalized in photography. The United States beat the Russian in their race to reach the moon.  The pictures of the landing contributed to Americas’ increasing strength during the cold war against the Russians.  This is an excellent example of photography and politics. Photographs have been used to capture war torn and conflict areas like the Gaza Strip, Tiananmen Square Massacre, Vietnam. They also were used to capture portraits of vital personnel who have made decisions that have impacted millions like Stalin and Hitler. These photographs have tried to capture the essence of those times and people in just one photograph.


Photojournalist Kevin Carter captured this image in 1993 to show the world the famine in Sudan. This photograph went on to win the Pulitzer Prize the following year. This image raised a huge hue and cry and increased awareness of the situation in Sudan.

Ori Gersht’s Blow-Up- Untitled 5, (2007)

The subjects of a photograph, are either naturally occurring and are captured by the artist or, at times are created by the artist themselves. In the above photograph, Gersht froze the flowers depicted above in liquid nitrogen and exploded them with a small charge. The petals from the flowers flew away and can be thought of as shards being flung from a bomb. This image can be seen as a stand in for innocence taking a turn for the worse and how fragile all things really are.

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. This is exactly why there are so famous. Many times, the non-verbal cues tell us more about a situation than the verbal ones.  When a photograph is “captured” by the artist, so to speak, it actually “captures” a fleeting instance in our lives that truly is worth more than its weight in gold. Photographs in general are precious to all of us as they are reminders of our past and hold memories that are precious to us. As art, photographs tell the story of not just a few individuals, but the times, beauty and turmoil that they live in.  It tries to “capture” the whole world into a small frame and there in lies its true beauty.

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