The default history of photography is presented as art, but it shouldn’t

Photographs are everywhere. We understand what they are and why we use them. There are photographs everywhere. In the last 150 years, they have penetrated and entangled almost every human endeavor that we can think of – from medicine to industry, tourism, relationships, and social policy, to name a few. In certain ways, they have made the invisible visible.

The Tate Britain has a new exhibition, Salt and Silver, that features salt prints made between 1840 and1860. The first negative/positive photography process, which made it possible to reproduce photographs in the form we know today, was the salt prints. The photographic chemicals are absorbed into the paper fibers, giving them a jewel-like appearance. The softness of the paper, coupled with the fading from chemical instability, creates an ethereal quality unlike any other. The exhibition’s strapline, “rare and revealing,” makes it clear that these are valuable, connoisseurial items.

These fragile and valuable prints (they sold for a fortune) made me wonder what kind of photographic history is presented to the general public. Why is it that the default value for photography seems to be “art?” This suggests that the ultimate purpose of photography is aesthetic expression and discernment. This alone does not convey the power or importance of photography.

David Hill and Robert Adamson, Five Newhaven Fisherwomen c.1844. Wilson Centre for Photography

Other Stories

It was only after I had visited the Science Museum that I realized how true this statement is. The exhibit Drawn by Light features a collection of materials from the Royal Photographic Society. The exhibition was dominated by science and photography. These interests were almost seamlessly woven into the narrative of photography’s aspirations in terms of aesthetics and the names that have made the photographic canon famous: Julia Margaret Cameron and Martin Parr. They crowded out other voices despite some interesting juxtapositions.

Unfortunately, this is what is being told about photography by default. There are many photographic histories in the fields of science, medicine, and architecture. These are often stuffed into the “art” category, making them less visible and interesting.

Edouard Denis, The Floods of 1856 in the Brotteaux quarter of Lyon, 1856. Wilson Centre for Photography

Recently, I spoke with a colleague who was working on industrial photography. These images tell a story of our economic structure and how thousands of people have worked to create it. He was told that although the work was fascinating, no one wanted to exhibit it because “this was not art.”

The reasons are many: institutional and disciplinary investments that make photographs one thing or another; the siren call of the art markets, which dictates what’s important and desirable and what’s not. What about the rest of the photographic workhorses, which have been shaping ideas since 1850? They are evident in the new academic work but are mostly absent from gallery agendas.

The cozy canon

Canons are cozy concepts that have cogency. These frameworks save you from having to think outside of the box. Other types of photography do intrude on gallery spaces. They do this not for their inherent historical interest but because they appeal today’s aesthetic sensibilities.

This is how some 19th-century photographers are “recognised” by applying their sensibilities. It could be as protomodernists, such as Roger Fenton’s Queen’s Target, or surrealists. This may seem fun and quirky when compared to contemporary art photography. It can be a provocative juxtaposition. It doesn’t explain how photography has influenced the way we view the world. It doesn’t make us think, and it doesn’t tell us why we, as an audience, need to be aware of it.


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