A Brief History of Photography as Art
This is a fun lecture for me. This is art as photography. And I go into some directions that I know most of my colleagues don't feel easy to talk about, the art. Talking about art, not me, but art, is like grabbing a greased pig. It's got really soft edges. So I'm gonna try to boil it down to make it a little bit more accessible. So as you look at this image, I love nothing more, as I work on the book Primordial, I love the big landscape, the awe-inspiring landscape. I did a book called Edge of the Earth, Corner of the Sky, and I did a book called Light on the Land. It was really dedicated to the big scale of things. I love it, I just totally love seeing that. One of my fondest memories was actually on the edge of this lake in the Chamonix Alps of France at sunset when the wind died and the rain stopped, and all of a sudden, miraculously out of a day of rain, this appeared. So these things are a part of my lifelong memories. And I just love being out in nature, of course. As you recall...
, in my first lecture I talked about camping in the forest in the mountains. And getting into those mountains. When I first started going down to Antarctica, you know, it was exotic for anybody, but in the early 1980s there wasn't a plethora, give me credit for saying that word, by the way, there wasn't a plethora of a lot of photos of Antarctica. Penguins that I got on those early trips, I was able to sell in stock until many of my colleagues kind of got down ten years later. But then if I talk about going to Antarctica, you know, people up the street, oh, yeah, we went there last year. You know, it's like wow, the world's become a small place. So I once shot a national ad for a camera manufacturer and I went to Mesa Arch out of Moab, Utah. And on the morning I was there, it was crystal clear, beautiful sunrise. I shot the ad, and I thought wow, this is a magical place. And then I went back there about ten years later. And I came upon this scene. And I'm thinking, okay, at this point in my career, I might know the instructor. So I kind of looked across the crowd. I'm not sure, I couldn't find anybody I knew, and I asked a person, who's teaching this workshop? And they answered, this is not a workshop. I said, do you guys know each other? No. You're all in a row. Yeah, we all agreed in advance that we're not gonna walk in front of the other person. I thought wow, that's really democratic. But my God, this is not what photography ought to be about. All these people showing up, standing in a line, agreeing not to walk in front of the other. Though it was really cool on one level, it was also depressing on another level. You know, the place that I had been ten years before didn't remind me of this, you know. And if you Google Mesa Arch now, there's tens of thousands of photos online of this very arch. So what I'm seeing and what I was experiencing is the fact that we now have the economic means to go to the same places and shoot the same shots. When I first went to Patagonia and I shot Mt. Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, it was exotic, it was new. A few of my colleagues had these photos, but people thought, oh my God, where's that? Now they look at it and they go, oh, yeah, Patagonia, been there, done that. So isn't that a kind of a hollow victory, though, if all you're doing is going back to places that old guys like me did 20 years ago, but you got new technology? Is that in and of itself the reward? Do you come away rewarded? I don't know if you would. I think photography ought to move forward, evolve and be much more interesting. Yeah, get these big landscapes, but don't make that the entire reason you would go and travel, just to take the same shots that have been done over and over and over again. There's a lot of world out there, in other words. Yeah, if you Google Mt. Fitz Roy, this is what you get. Just the tip of the iceberg. So I would argue, maybe this is where you ought to go. Somewhere that nobody's gonna have this particular shot. We don't know where it is, but it's uniquely my copyright, it's my vision, and I'm gonna try to get you there in the lecture that follows. You onboard? Let's give a little brief history of time. You know, photography started, was created in the 1830s, I think it may have been 1837. And it was instantly adopted by people embedded with the troops, virtually. Here's a statement. In the longest time of human history, paintings were not considered art. Paintings were not considered as art. What were they, then? They were records of history. All the paintings early on were really biblical in theme, or of war and crusades. They were a record of what was once. Photography wasn't around back then. So when photography came onboard, it was the same thing. It was really recording historical events. So photojournalists started instantly taking the cameras out as they could, and following the troops, or great events. But they clearly saw themselves, not as artists, but as recorders of history. So that's where early photography was. Frank Hurley, had he not been there with his camera, we may not really know the extent of Shackleton's story. But through the photographs that have been rediscovered and rediscovered again. We know Shackleton's great story through the photos of Frank Hurley. Great events, historic events in our history, really are summed up in these salient photos that collectively become part of our consciousness. But photojournalism was there. And by World War II, yeah, there were a lot of photographers embedded with the troops. Okay, so that's a little bit of history, right there. And the photographers were there towards the end of the war. But it was at that period of time in history, at the end of World War II, that things changed. You know, painters that lived in Europe came to the United States. Willem De Kooning came out of Holland and came to New York, ahead of the war that was coming. Other painters came out of Europe. And the world of art came to New York. New York became the center of the art world during this period of time. The US Government hired painters, like Willem De Kooning and Jackson Pollock, to paint large-scale paintings for public view. These artists got a lot of noteriety. They were called abstract expressionists. And they influenced a whole lot of photographers working during that period of time. So photography shifted from being purely photojournalism or scientific, to being abstract and art during those years. Now I'm jumping over individual photographers that may have been artistic earlier, but in general, this is what happened. So the paintings of Jackson Pollock, profoundly effected the photographers at the time. Photographers were shooting things that were obviously abstract and more, you react on it on a subconscious level. It could be anything. You don't need to know the scale, it's irrelevant. It's whether you're responding on an artistic level from a point of view of elements of design, from my perspective, line, pattern, texture. All those elements are rolled up in some of these photos. You know, during this time Ansel Adams, whose career started during World War II and peaked in the '50s and '60s, and was very much active shooting large format in the west, and Elliot Porter was on the east. Ernest Hawes was doing the book Creation, all those things brought photography into the households of the American public and the world.