Wells and Bate on photography as art

As suggested by the course notes I’ve reviewed the opening section of Liz Wells’ chapter ‘On and Beyond the White Walls‘ (Wells 2009: 259-292) for an overview of photography’s changing relationship with art, or rather ‘Art’ (as in the world of). I’m not attempting to summarise the whole thing as I will return to specific ‘-isms’ in a later post. I just want to touch upon a few key points I took away. I also looked at Bate’s Photography: the Key Concepts (2009).

Early (blinkered) thinking

Two (related) phrases in particular struck me as important markers for the debate:

“[T]he history of photography as art has focused not so much on photographic communication as upon photographs as object, reified for their aesthetic qualities.” (ibid: 259)

“Historically, tension between the photograph as document and the personal expressivity of art has been at the heart of debates as to the status of the photograph as art.” (ibid: 260)

Both these statements refer to a traditional view of art as culminating in an art object, whereas I prefer the more holistic view that art is a communication (or expression) process between an artist and an audience, of which the artwork is the conduit. This limited thinking isn’t unique to photography however.

The phrases also highlight the difficulty photography experienced because of its highly distracting indexicality, which many felt limited its scope for creativity:

“For the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a non-living agent. For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man.”.
(André Bazin, ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ in What is Cinema? 1945: 7)

Photography was therefore difficult for many to take seriously as art as it was simply too good at reproduction, leaving no scope for expressivity (or so people thought for many decades).

A further hindrance for a long time was the simple reproducibility of photographs – the very notion of art was for centuries founded on an understanding that an artwork was unique and this was key to its value.

An uneasy relationship

The most notable realisation that came though from reading the Wells chapter was the long and shifting relationship that photography has had with art. I am paraphrasing massively but the relationship seems to have gone through a number of stages:

  • “Photography is not art”
    • It’s a technical method of documentation
  • Photography gets compared to traditional art
    • Wins some arguments, e.g. realism
    • And loses others, e.g. creativity
  • Photography influences traditional art (esp painting) and vice versa
    • Photography emulates painting e.g. pictorialism, allegories
    • Painting relinquishes its responsibility for realism and is freed to experiment
    • Painting takes on visual cues from photography (light, form, framing)
  • Photography is recognised as ‘its own art’
    • Modernism: emphasis on photography’s specific qualities
    • Asserts its own strengths as an artistic medium
  • Photography is accepted as a legitimate part of the wider ‘art world’
    • Conceptual photography, postmodernism
    • Emphasis on ideas, not the medium itself, or its relationship to other art forms

There has been a grudging relationship between traditional art and photographic art until people focused on the similarities (they’re all forms of expression) over the differences (techniques, materials etc).

Bate’s paradigms

These don’t map directly onto my rough stages above but were useful for comparison: Bate posits five key paradigms (thinking and practice) of photographic art:

  • 1870s-1910s: Pictorialism
  • 1920-1930s: Avant-garde/Modernist [Formalism]
  • 1945-1960s: New Realism/Humanist Photography
  • 1960-1979: Minimalism, Conceptualism/late Modernism
  • 1980-1990s: Postmodernism/Neoconceptualism

(Bate 2009: 134)

I don’t think I need to dig into these any more right now, but I may return to this subject later in the course to validate my understanding.


Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.

The Ontology of the Photographic Image http://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/bazin_ontologyphoto_0.pdf (accessed 03/03/2016)


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