Building an art collection as an investment

The history of fine art photography: what does it mean for the digital arts?

by Petter Zandvliet

The development of photography in the 19th century was a boon to journalists, educators, historians and artists. But it took some time for photography to be regarded as a "fine art," equal to established art forms like painting, drawing and sculpting. Even today, the lines between fine-art and hobby photography are blurred in a way that isn't true for other art forms. Given the birth of new art forms in the modern world, what can we learn from the history of the struggle?

The scorn of the establishment

Early attempts at art photography were met with resistance from the artistic establishment; in 1857, for example, Lady Elizabeth Eastlake published a ringing condemnation of photography as art. To Eastlake, photography was merely "literal, unreasoning imitation" rather than true art. Eastlake was far from alone. French poet Charles Baudelaire predicted that "If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether...". Some of this anxiety may have come from the fact that photography was gaining popularity among people who traditionally hadn't had much access to the education needed for painting or other art forms. Despite this initial opposition from entrenched interests, the young art from gained in popularity. By the end of the 19th century, photography -- but not all photography -- was understood to be art

What is fine art photography? 

Spend enough time around photography enthusiasts, and you'll hear the latest round of a never-ending debate: what exactly is fine-art photography? What makes an artistic photograph of a landscape different from a holiday snap? There are as many definitions as there are authorities, and fundamentally the question is up to the individual's judgement. What no one disagrees about any more is that there is such a thing as a fine-art photograph, even if no one can quite agree what it is. Like painting, drawing and printmaking, photography, from places like Christensen Fine Art, now has a network of museums, art galleries and dealers. 

Fine art photography and new media

In many ways, the development of photography as an art form parallels the recent development of digital and new-media art forms; like photography, new art forms encountered resistance from the art establishment; similarly, critics like Roger Ebert insisted that video games could never be art. The ongoing controversy around whether or not games are an art form replicates some other elements of the 19th-century debate. The similarities have to lead observers to wonder: will new media see the same progression from popular entertainment to legitimate art form?