top of page

Photography and Arts

Photography and Arts

The American Civil War was the first war to be extensively documented by photography. The photographic process was still in its infancy in the first quarter of the nineteenth century; by modern standards it was a cumbersome and primitive process. With the advent of the war, photography, which had been largely limited to portraiture and the visual recording of landmarks, both natural and humanly constructed, took a new direction and discovered a new purpose. It recorded history with a graphic reality unrealized in any written description; it largely dispelled the romantic imagery of equestrian prowess, flashing sabers, and desperate but heroic stands by larger-than-life figures—images derived from paintings and illustrations that had been the more commonly depicted views of war before the photograph. Photography presented to the public the devastation of war and its destructive aftermath in all their grim reality. Although the Civil War was not definitively documented on film, there were approximately one million photographs taken between 1860 and 1865, and there were more than 3,000 photographers actively practicing their profession in the United States (Schwarz 2000, p. 1515).

Among these photographers was a relatively small group who worked as the first photographers of the devastations of war. The most notable members of the group were Alexander Gardner (1821–1882), Timothy H. O'Sullivan (c. 1840–1882), and James F. Gibson (b. 1828), all of whom began their careers working for Mathew Brady (1823–1896), an enterprising producer of daguerreotypes whose name became all but synonymous with Civil War photography.

Popular American photography began in the 1840s with the daguerreotype, a process for reproducing images on a light-sensitive, silver-coated metal sheet. The process, patented in 1839, had been developed by Louis Daguerre (1787–1851), a French artist and chemist. There was one image produced with each sitting, and the subject was required to hold completely still for a period of time that could last up to a full sixty seconds in order to effect the proper exposure. These proto-photographs were generally kept in decorative boxes designed to protect the product. Daguerreotype studios flourished in New York City in the 1840s, and one of the more successful of these studios was owned by the enterprising Mathew Brady.

History of photography, method of recording the image of an object through the action of light, or related radiation, on a light-sensitive material. The word, derived from the Greek photos (“light”) and graphein (“to draw”), was first used in the 1830s.

This article treats the historical and aesthetic aspects of still photography. For a discussion of the technical aspects of the medium, see photography, technology of. For a treatment of motion-picture photography, or cinematography, see motion picture, history of, and motion-picture technology.

General Considerations

As a means of visual communication and expression, photography has distinct aesthetic capabilities. In order to understand them, one must first understand the characteristics of the process itself. One of the most important characteristics is immediacy. Usually, but not necessarily, the image that is recorded is formed by a lens in a camera. Upon exposure to the light forming the image, the sensitive material undergoes changes in its structure, a latent (but reversed) image usually called a negative is formed, and the image becomes visible by development and permanent by fixing with sodium thiosulfate, called “hypo.” With modern materials, the processing may take place immediately or may be delayed for weeks or months.

The essential elements of the image are usually established immediately at the time of exposure. This characteristic is unique to photography and sets it apart from other ways of picture making. The seemingly automatic recording of an image by photography has given the process a sense of authenticity shared by no other picture-making technique. The photograph possesses, in the popular mind, such apparent accuracy that the adage “the camera does not lie” has become an accepted, if erroneous, cliché.

This understanding of photography’s supposed objectivity has dominated evaluations of its role in the arts. In the early part of its history, photography was sometimes belittled as a mechanical art because of its dependence on technology. In truth, however, photography is not the automatic process that is implied by the use of a camera. Although the camera usually limits the photographer to depicting existing objects rather than imaginary or interpretive views, the skilled photographer can introduce creativity into the mechanical reproduction process. The image can be modified by different lenses and filters. The type of sensitive material used to record the image is a further control, and the contrast between highlight and shadow can be changed by variations in development. In printing the negative, the photographer has a wide choice in the physical surface of the paper, the tonal contrast, and the image colour. The photographer also may set up a completely artificial scene to photograph.

The most important control is, of course, the creative photographer’s vision. He or she chooses the vantage point and the exact moment of exposure. The photographer perceives the essential qualities of the subject and interprets it according to his or her judgment, taste, and involvement. An effective photograph can disseminate information about humanity and nature, record the visible world, and extend human knowledge and understanding. For all these reasons, photography has aptly been called the most important invention since the printing press.

Art, also called (to distinguish it from other art forms) visual art, a visual object or experience consciously created through an expression of skill or imagination. The term art encompasses diverse media such as painting, sculpture, printmaking, drawing, decorative arts, photography, and installation.

bottom of page