The fight to certify photography as a fine art has been among the medium's dominant philosophical preoccupations since its inception. Photography's legitimacy as an art form was challenged by artists and critics, who seized upon the mechanical and chemical aspects of the photographic process as proof that photography was, at best, a craft. Perhaps because so many painters came to rely so heavily on the photograph as a source of imagery, they insisted that photography could only be a handmaiden to the arts.
To prove that photography was indeed an art, photographers at first imitated the painting of the time. Enormous popularity was achieved by such photographers as O. J. Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson, who created sentimental genre scenes by printing from multiple negatives. Julia Margaret Cameron blurred her images to achieve a painterly softness of line, creating a series of remarkably powerful soft-focus portraits of her celebrated friends.
In opposition to the painterly aesthetic in photography was P. H. Emerson and other early advocates of what has since become known as "straight" photography. According to this approach the photographic image should not be tampered with or subjected to handwork or other affectations lest it lose its integrity. Emerson proposed this philosophy in his controversial and influential book, Naturalistic Photography (1889). Appropriately, Emerson was the first to recognize the importance of the work of Alfred Stieglitz, who battled for photography's place among the arts during the first part of the 20th cent.
In revolt against the entrenched imitation of genre painting known as "salon" photography, Stieglitz founded a movement which he called the Photo-Secession, related to the radical secession movements in painting. He initiated publication of a magazine, Camera Work (1903–17), which was a forum for the Photo-Secession and for enlightened opinion and critical thought in all the arts. It remains the most sumptuously and meticulously produced photographic quarterly in the history of the medium. In New York City, Stieglitz opened three galleries, the first (1908–17) called "291" (from its address at 291 Fifth Ave.), then the Intimate Gallery (1925–30), and An American Place (1930–46), where photographic work was hung beside contemporary, often controversial, work in other media.
Stieglitz's own photographs and those of several other Photo-Secessionists—Edward Steichen, one of his early protégés; Frederick Evans, the British architectural photographer; and the portraitist Alvin L. Coburn—adhered with relative strictness to a "straight" aesthetic. The quality of their works, despite a pervasive self-consciousness, was consistently of the highest craftsmanship. Stieglitz's overriding concern with the concept "art for art's sake" kept him, and the audience he built for the medium, from an appreciation of an equally important branch of photography: the documentary.
The power of the photograph as record was demonstrated in the 19th cent., as when William H. Jackson's photographs of the Yellowstone area persuaded the U.S. Congress to set that territory aside as a national park. In the early 20th cent. photographers and journalists were beginning to use the medium to inform the public on crucial issues in order to generate social change.
Taking as their precedents the work of such men as Jackson and reporter Jacob Riis (whose photographs of New York City slums resulted in much-needed legislation), documentarians like Lewis Hine and James Van DerZee began to build a photographic tradition whose central concerns had little to do with the concept of art. The photojournalist sought to build, strengthen, or change public opinion by means of novel, often shocking images. The finished form of the documentary image was the inexpensive multiple, the magazine or newspaper reproduction. For a time the two traditions, art photography and documentary photography, appeared to be merged within the work of one man, Paul Strand. Strand's works combined a documentary concern with a lean, modernist vision related to the avant-garde art of Europe.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.