by Jonathan Goodman

Photography, roughly as we contemporaries know it, came about in the late 1830s, with the discovery of chemically treated images that were affixed to paper. Quickly, it saturated the world market so completely that there was a nearly global market for such images. In the beginning of fine art photography, to be distinguished from novelty art or technically experimental treatments with chemicals and papers, artists were hard put not to follow the pictorial emphasis of the painting around the turn of the century, when a movement called Pictorialism was developed by new photographers. Artists such as Alfred Stieglitz took such pictures as a copse of trees before a small lake in the moonlight; the references to painterly composition were obvious and sought after. It is only in the second and third decade of the 20th Century that we see an opening up of the medium. New York photographers often led the pack, with Stieglitz and Edward Steichen concentrating on documenting urban life, with pictures of the streets and buildings of their chosen city. The deliberate choice to remain close to painting faded, with painting being transformed by the camera’s removal of the need to portray the likenesses of things or people.

American modernism, in particular, is celebrated for its contributions to the world history of photography; known for their formalism and visual directness, artists such as Paul Strand made pictures of astonishing acuity and emotional depth. Their contributions to the field were broad and sometimes focused on the social concerns of the poor affected by the Great Depression, as Walker Evens documented in conjunction with the writer James Agee. Additionally, the field was unified—there wasn’t the division between documentary work and fine art work until the later, roughly contemporary period of the 1960s and ‘70s, when photos keyed into performance and conceptual art. One must remember that the discovery of photography was essentially French, and that those French artists practicing the medium such as Eugene Atget took advantage of the newness of the medium. As time has gone on, photography still has adherents to its old strengths such as documentary art and straightforward art photography, but the invention of the computer and software programs such as Photoshop have transformed the field. The notion that the genre is more truthful than painting or sculpture has been thoroughly changed with the adoption of technological innovations that allow the photographer to seamlessly alter the image. This has resulted in what amounts to a new kind of artist, for whom the conceptual bias of the project has become as important as the image itself.

Very recent photography—art of the last twenty years—has been used to take images of one’s personal life and milieu, such as happens with the work of Nan Goldin, who explored the demimonde she belonged to. At the same time, the intimacy of the camera has been explored in work that has a more conceptual bent—one thinks of the staged interventions of Sophie Calle, the French artist who takes pictures of herself in highly personal situations. At the same time, the Germans have distinguished themselves with a very different point of view, which attempts to convey the objectivity of the actual world, even when the image has been technologically altered. One thinks of Thomas Ruff, Bernd and Hila Becher, Andreas Gursky. One also thinks of the great staged photographs of the Canadian photographer Jeff Wall. Indeed, the fecundity of contemporary photography is so great as to generate new modes of expression that seem to fit the spirit of the time, no matter whether the image is black and white or color, or whether it has been altered or not. The current vogue of conceptual photography will likely last for some time, bringing to contemporary art an seeming rationality transformed into a socially or artisticly imagined image.