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Photo art: tradition and modernity

Photo art: tradition and modernity


Art photography can be considered any photo created as an object of art. Unlike paintings and statues, they cannot be made without technical means and unique materials. And yet the photographer has enough free space to realize creative ideas. Thanks to the artistic language understandable to everyone, photography has become one of the most popular mass art forms.

Can photography be considered art?

Today diametrically opposite opinions are expressed on this issue. One part of the expert community believes that photography cannot be considered art because of the high degree of automation of the photography process. As evidence, critics cite that with good photographic equipment, even an amateur can take good photos without intention. And it is hard to argue with this. Even an inexpensive modern smartphone makes it possible to shoot beautiful autumn sunsets with minimal effort. Another part of experts suggests focusing solely on the works of professional photographers-artists. To create a stunning picture, you must correctly use light and shadow play techniques, build a composition, select color filters, and use other features of the artistic language. Art critics have discussed these problems for 150 years, but the question remains.

Photo art in history

Officially, the history of photography begins with the invention of the photographic process by Louis Daguerre in the 30s of the XIX century. Perhaps the first photographers who used the new technology to create artistic images were Gabriel Harrison and Gustave le Gre. The latter is the author of the famous work "Brig at Sea" (1856). But photography began to develop in the Victorian era's second half of the XIX century. Such genres as landscape and portrait migrated from traditional fine art to photography. At the same time, a specific genre of "live pictures" appeared. On them, actors in costumes participated in staged scenes on religious themes.

Around the same time, composite printing technology appeared, which involved the superimposition of different negatives on each other to create new works. An idea of this technique is given by the work of Oscar Rylander, "Two Ways of Life" (1857). During this period, photographers failed to win the recognition of photography as a form of fine art. Representatives made a new attempt at the international movement called Pictorialism. Henry Peach Robinson and his like-minded people began to use compositional and stylistic techniques of recognized painting trends (academism, impressionism, symbolism, etc.). This movement gave the world many beautiful photographs, but the initial goal was not achieved.

Photo by Cindy Sherman - Untitled #96

«Untitled #96» Cindy Sherman. Photos © icon-icon.com

In the United States, Pictorialism was replaced by direct photography. Among the representatives of this movement, the most popular was Paul Strand. Candid photography did not try to imitate painting and shifted the emphasis to the process of photography. According to art history experts, the masters were inspired by the ideas of modernism. At the same time, modernist photography movements were emerging in Europe: "New Vision," photodynamic, "New Substance," surrealists, etc.

After the war, color film opened new horizons for photography. The new technology was actively used to create cycles of works on street photography by Ihei Kimura and Raghubir Singh. Photographic art is increasingly being auctioned and exhibited in specialized museums. Later, it was strongly influenced by the ideas of conceptualism, postmodernism, and other fashionable philosophical trends. Modern art photography uses the achievements of the past centuries, allowing the artist to choose the artistic language and aesthetic concept.

Genres and styles of photography

From the first years of its existence, photography actively began to borrow the genre system of fine art. First, portrait and landscape appeared in photography, and later still life joined them. At present, nude, macro, hunting, and night photography have also appeared in the genre system, but their belonging to art photography is debatable.

The classification considers the color scheme, compositional solutions, shooting technique, and subject matter. The division into styles is also relevant for photography. Among the most unique types, it is worth noting:

Pop art. The photos of this style blur the line between elite and mass art. They are characterized by contrast, brightness, and abstract motifs.

Retro. Pictures are made with the use of ancient technologies. Black and white gamma enhances the visual perception of the plot.

Photo by Jeff Wall - Conversation of fallen soldiers

«Conversation of fallen soldiers» Jeff Wall. Photos © flickr.com

Glamour. The style is focused on chic and luxury of impeccable images. For the first time, photos in this style appeared in the 20-the 30s of the twentieth century during the development of the American film industry.

Vintage. Photos were created with the help of modern technologies but stylized in antiquity.

Grunge. Protest style of the late twentieth century. In the center of the composition are unattractive images with emphasized imperfections. Representatives of this style oppose themselves to glamour.

The most famous photos

The cost of famous pictures can reach several million dollars. The most valuable works include photographs of high artistic value and works dedicated to significant historical events or created using unique techniques.

"Untitled #96"

The most famous work of the artist Cindy Sherman. In the early 80s of the last century, as part of the study of stereotypes of mass culture, she created a series of works stylized as frames from American films of the mid-twentieth century. The photo "Untitled #96" became the most famous of them. On it, we see a pretty young red-haired girl with a somewhat unusual appearance for glamour. According to Sherman, in this way, she tried to draw attention to the problem of standardization of life in the space of mass culture and the inevitable depersonalization of a person. The approximate cost of the work is estimated at $ 4 million.

"Dovima and the Elephants"

One of the most famous pictures of Richard Avedon was created to advertise the collection of Christian Dior, "Autumn-Winter - 1955". In this work, the author used several techniques of artistic expression. The contrast between the model's fair skin, black dress, and gray elephants in the background is striking. The angle emphasizes the gigantic size of the animals and creates the feeling of their hovering over the viewer. Malin Pereira, an expert on American and African-American culture, argued that the woman's pose symbolizes colonial politics and capitalism, while the elephants in the background represent enslaved peoples. But this interpretation failed to spoil the reputation of one of the most famous photographs of the twentieth century.


At first glance, the untitled photo by Richard Prince is no different from tens of thousands of similar pictures. This work has gained popularity due to its background. On it, we see another incarnation of the famous cowboy from Marlboro cigarettes advertising.

Photo by Richard Prince - Cowboy

«Cowboy» Richard Prince. Photos © sfmoma.org

Initially, the marketing campaign was aimed at women, but after a few months, it became clear that men would now smoke cigarettes with a filter. The picture was taken in 1989, almost 40 years after the start of the advertising campaign.

"Pond. Moonlight"

The photo was created in 1904 by Edward Steichen using the technology of photographic printing of the XIX century. On it, we see the moon on the horizon among the trees. At the bottom of the picture is a lake, the calm surface reflecting the night sky and creating a compositional balance. In 2006, a print of the photograph was sold for 2.9 million dollars, which was the most significant amount paid for a picture at that time.

"Conversation of fallen soldiers"

The staged photo by Jeff Wall was created at the studio in 1992. On it, we see the bodies of Soviet soldiers scattered by an explosion during the war in Afghanistan. Next to them in different poses are actors who play the roles of the souls of the fallen soldiers. The photo encourages viewers to reflect on the value of human life and the horrors of war. In 2004, for unspecified reasons, the photograph was not allowed to participate in the exhibition of photos in the Moscow Historical Museum.

KyivGallery art critic