Being a much younger medium than painting, photography as a means of making visual art lags in some ways behind movements already established by master painters. In particular, one of photography’s handicaps as an artistic medium is the expectation, among some, of precise representation of objects ‘as seen.’ While useful in any number of documentary contexts, such an expectation is, to a degree, antithetical to the goal of art, which is to allow artists freedom to express something of their own creative minds in their work. More particularly, visual art may offer symbols and metaphors for feelings, ideas and even abstract concepts, rather than necessarily being an accurate portrayal of realistic subjects.
Interestingly, the emphasis on photography as a medium for accurate representation is a fairly recent development. For much of photography’s history as an artistic medium, photographers prided themselves on their skill at manipulating images to appear like paintings. This style of photography is known as pictorialism. Among other things, pictorialists deliberately softened sharp details and added various effects to enhance mood. Pictorialism ultimately gave way to what we now know as ‘straight’ photography – photography that emphasizes the characteristics of the photographic medium (particularly sharp details), thanks to the efforts of the likes of Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand, and later Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and others.
It may be interesting to draw parallels between straight photography and a style in painting known as realism, or naturalism, which was also concerned with accurate rendition of details and colors. In particular, it is interesting to note that realists often sought to portray scenes rendered in moody light, similar to the light prized by many contemporary photographers. More interesting is the fact that realistic paintings ultimately fell out of favor as the emphasis on technique, detail and realistic treatment of light came to be considered as draconian limitations to the artist’s power of expression.
Realism ultimately gave way to impressionism, which was not concerned with details at all, but rather with the moods created by natural light. Impressionists did not completely abandon fidelity to nature, only to its precise details. They still very much believed in the importance of natural forms and the beauty of natural colors. This changed with the advent of what we now call post-impressionism, when neither details nor colors were expected to match those of real, natural subjects. This is not to say that artists abandoned natural beauty completely. In fact, in the beginning it was quite the opposite. Pioneer post-impressionists, such as Paul Cezanne, still celebrated natural scenes, however they believed that art should offer its own aesthetic experience, related to but not a precise copy of natural views. Cezanne famously proclaimed that art should be a “harmony parallel with nature.” And indeed, many of his paintings portrayed beautiful natural scenes, but on close examination, and sometimes to the viewer’s surprise, their colors and details are not precise matches to those of the actual subjects.
In many ways, we are now starting to see such post-impressionistic treatments in the world of nature photography. With far superior tools available to us today to manage color with greater accuracy than ever before, photographers, even those who seek to express a love for natural subjects, and therefore work within limited range of adjustment (such as the author), can now express much more with color than what was formerly dictated by the rigid palettes of various film emulsion.
Read this and many more articles in High Definition inside Issue 55 of Landscape Photography Magazine.