The Destiny of Photography within the Context of Art in the 2000s

* This essay was presented as paper at the 6th Photography Symposium organized by AFSAD (Ankara Photography Artists Association) from 18th – 20th October 2002, with the same title and was included in the book of abstracts.

This essay compares the concept of photography as an art form with the changes in science and technology in so far as its status as a means and an end alongside a debate on present and future societal influences on the artist. Though I may not succeed in deciphering the destiny of photography in this century of ultra modern slavery under instruments void of the sacred flame that bore the human spirit, I will use this method to put forward my own opinions on the matter.

A new century is bound to bring about ideas of change. Even the words “twenty-first century” allude to a departure from the good and the bad of what came before. The last 20-30 years of the past century had gone by amid discussions of modern, post-modern globalization. This had been a time when the sinful was brought front and center, and the dawn of the new age was inevitable. But what would this new era be like? Reflecting on the 2000’s means facing many questions within the bounds of possibility. What does the future hold for the ever-changing concept of photography; the common ground of a way of life that is both cultural and aestheticized, a form that – with the contribution of science and technology- is branching out to more and more areas every day.

Which style will it go along with? Which techniques will be included and which one’s will be excluded? What roles will it play within the sociological structure? How will it resonate with different social groups? The conclusion to all these questions and many more in the same vein may be that we must show faith in the perpetuity of photography.

With this continuity in mind we can now ask ourselves: Will photography be able to maintain its presence as an art in the 2000’s? To accept that art may one day disappear, one must accept that art must have one day, in the history of thought, emerged and that this birth can be named by date. What has been born may also die. In this century, the reason it exists may be what ends photography. Before we accept this thought, taking a passing glance at the history of humanity will shed light on the future and will be necessary.

Whether it be the invention of writing in 3500 BCE, of paper in 100-200 CE, of the printing press in 1454, the sweeping changes brought about by the industrial revolution in the 18th century or the invention of photography in the 19th century, when, according to Karl Pawek we embarked upon the Optical Age, the same question has emerged as an area of discourse and debate:  Is this the limit of what we can do?

We have witnessed so much in the past century… Just think about all the developments that have been beneficial to many: internal plumbing, electricity, central heating, lifts; trams that are not drawn by horses, buses, electric lighting, underground trains, gramophones, the radio, telegraph, illustrated magazines created with photographic images, the rapidly developing aircraft industry, notable developments in the field of medicine, exploration of new signs of life beyond our blue planet, efforts to reach the stars, international means of communication and inter-personal connections… Literature, philosophy, physics, chemistry… Frankly unimaginable progress in all fields of science and art… The names for our century also reveal the speed and unpredictability of the changes we are going through: the Computer Age, the Electronic Age and the Information Age…

The past century relied more heavily on a definition of progress hinging on scientific and technological development and worked hard with that aim in mind. The people of the 21st century were quick to ascertain the comfort offered by machines since the second half of the 19th century.

However, even from the beginning, it was doubtful if people could use their new mechanical powers wisely. In fact, wherever the machine intervened an old occupation, one that had sustained human life, disappeared. While the machine spared man from work, it also did away with his freedoms and talents. In a single sentence: the present and the future has been shaped by industry. The new members of a society created by such powerful industry, as Ortega said, finds everything available in front of him; and is directed towards consuming, not to thinking. Technology has simultaneously glorified and vilified humanity through the exploitation of some abilities to the detriment of other abilities. Technology has directed man both towards the superior man and an inhumane human. Technology, in the hands of science, has created a wild jungle, turmoil, not unlike Dante’s Hell.

The investigation and manipulation of a particular subject in a certain way for a specific purpose is a common characteristic of almost all sciences. Science explores the unknown by starting with what is known. Thus, making constant, general and accurate relations between the events that make up its particular field.

Science is the creation of concepts and the investigation of facts. Investigating reality is the driving force of science. As for the technology: It is in the business of taking theoretical scientific findings and making them useful for everyday use.

The most vivid examples of technology can be found in the means of production. From this point of view technology serves as infrastructure for the object for the fabric of society. Science investigates the plain truth by impartially creating a thought-oriented superstructure for the fabric of society, and carefully avoids all kinds of prejudice in the pursuit of this truth.

We cannot deny that all countries, whether they like it or not, experience cultural division or fragmentation in the face of such rapid technological development. Intellectuals in all developed or developing societies of our times are clearly polarized. On the one hand are scientists, the creators or practitioners of technology, on the other are artists. As long as cybernetics calls the scientist a creator, as long as it purports that the act of creation is the same for art and science it seems inevitable that the members of each society will withdraw, making their own environment and terminology thus, departing further from other cultures and put up insurmountable walls around themselves.

Art aims to pursue freedom and change, freely exploring the new that transcends the boundaries of personal taste, far beyond the concept of beauty. The structure and essence of art is completely unlike the real and the true that science seeks, and the useful and functional created by technology.

Where does photography – on the one hand based on technical knowledge and skill, on the other a product of aesthetics – stand in the triad of art, science and technology?

In light of historical information, we see that, photography was developed by technocrats as a technical tool for use in scientific experiments. This is also why the invention was announced to the world by the French Academy of Sciences. Let us consider how much what we know about matter has increased with the discovery of X-rays and radioactivity. X-rays and radioactivity would still be undiscovered if so many experimental techniques had not been performed on them. Finding out uranium is radioactive was coincidence result of the technological development of photography. This is only one of the examples that can be given of how photography has served science. The scientific use of photography – beyond its capability to supersede the limits of human perception has been the starting point of countless areas of beyond revolutionary use.

When it was first invented in the 19th century, photography was just a recording device, far from a brand-new tool of expression and had no claim to artistry.

The first people to use photography, before any artistic concern, only wished to record their subject matter objectively and accurately. Because, photography, unlike other visual arts, came about as a prefabricated image, and its form and meaning did not evolve in the delicate chronology of societal values like the visual arts did.  Though naturalist painting (which came about at the same time as the machine was created by scientific technology) strove to objectively examine and integrate the visibly real with itself it had iconography within the stylistic and technical articulation it utilized.
However, it is also a fact with the sudden appearance of photography the naturalist description was destined to disappear sooner or later because the view that ascribing the function of describing or explaining something to art meant restraining creativity had begun to gain power. Was not photography developed to perform this task much better than the painting? The role of photography is often more complex than you might think. When imaging technology was discovered, some believed that photography would replace paintings. But, the truth is that artists used and are still using photography as an auxiliary tool for design, lighting and perspective.
Although photography did not kill painting, it reduced the value of the types of image that primarily functioned as descriptions. Photography did not stop at portraiture. It tried to also include everything that belongs to the perception of reality into its own field, and to create and reproduce their images. It even dabbled in the composition of abstract values based artistic fantasy. Oscar G. Rejlander’s 1857 study Die zwei Lebenswege, Alfred Stieglitz’s 1893 Endstation, Paul Strand’s 1915 Schatten eines Zaunes, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray’ photograms and rayographs from the 1920s, the deformations of André Kertesz in 1934, the geometric structuring in Henri Cartier-Bresson’s piece Women Carrying Bread in a Small Italian Town in 1952, and many others pushed the limits and their efforts to move beyond, opened up road to an intellectual perception richness.

Just as the still influential Pop-Art and notions like Minimal-Art and Concept-Art that came after were art movements created through adaptation to the industrial environment, future industrial-technological developments will undoubtedly push humanity to adapt and the materials and technologies they use will be reflected in art. Painting may continue to create new excitements as an expression of human excitement. It seems like photography won’t be able to offer new thrills unless it integrates the conceptual perception of its time instead of attempting to describe external realities and the decisive moment developed by technology. In this case, it seems like the machine of the future will replace the photographer. This brings to mind not only art void of people but people void of art. In the beginning, the state of photography as an art form we feel as of today, has started to give signals showing that it will direct towards imitating thought in the future when it is in the position of instrument, i.e. a machine. Today, advanced cameras are useful and functional tools produced for the user by technology. However, once science has developed wearable intelligence and artificial intelligence that will leave human intelligence in its shadow, these technologies will soon enter our lives and this means there is potential to add new dimensions to this instrument. According to projections the most poignant global issue of the 21st century is to be the matter of governance by humans or artificial intelligence and it is believed that there will be all out war between those who support scientific experimentation and those who are for the supremacy and creativity of mankind.
Or are the sci-fi movies we watch messengers from the future? In this case the individual of our age will either be a pragmatist, continue living in the created environment, or will continue to rebel as he has done in the past.

With the current state of urbanization in a century when industrialization has reached its peak point, artists have been forced to withdraw, to be limited within a very narrow frame, to loneliness and to break away from other arts. It seems that the rift that already exists between photography and other arts is likely to increase further in the 21st century with faster industrialization, faster urbanization, and faster crowding of cities.

In conclusion, the painter Paul Delarauche said upon the official announcement of the invention of photography on August 19, 1839 at the French Academy of Sciences “As of today, painting is dead/Depuis ce jour, la peinture est mort”. This was an exaggeration at the time and is not going to come true in the future either.
But, let’s hope that these words have not been ordered for photography in the face of complex infrastructure problems of the 2000s.

September 2002 


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