July 05, 2006
Whether it be a sculpture of human feces in the middle of a white room at London's renown Saatchi Gallery, a grid of television screens depicting a man washing dishes against the wall of New York's newly designed Museum of Modern Art, or a darkened corridor with nothing besides creepy orchestra music and a solid beam of light projecting on the otherwise undisturbed wall of Helsinki's Kiasma museum, modern art repeatedly appeals to only a few eager viewers, but never fails to evoke some kind of reaction from all.
As a category that encompasses a painfully broad range of material, modern art classifies objects ranging from avant-garde chairs made out of corkscrew and safety pins to public displays of sculpture such as the work of the famous Bulgarian duo Jeanne-Claude and Christo.
Among the enormity of art forms flooding the studios and coffee tables of cultured and worldly modern art gurus today, photography is widely known and easily accessible, but its complex nature is understood by a fortunate few. It all began in 1888 when George Eastman of Rochester, New York, using his knowledge and understanding of photography, mass-produced and distributed the iconic disposable Kodak camera. The mere absorption of light through a pinhole, then its reflection off an interior mirror and onto a strip of film, led mankind to understand and see the physical world in ways which they never had before.
For years, photography was put to practical use. It became a way to capture images of people who could not afford, or did not care to sit for, a professional portrait to be painted. It took people beyond their personal visual spectra into the elusive worlds of other countries, cultures, and natural phenomena. But not long after its introduction, photography developed into a form of fine art — a field unfortunately understudied by many of today's art students and art historians.
Among the few areas of fine art that develop in correlation with technological advancement, there is a tendency to ignore the artistic aspects of photography, and focus on its practical uses. As I am about to point out, however, photographers use specific intricacies and techniques that make photography as valuable an art as any. By admiring the artistry, talent, and diversity of the photographic masters explained below, one might be able to draw a new appreciation for this historic form of expression.
No one can write about photographic artistry without mentioning Ansel Adams, who was among the first photographers to produce pictures regarded as fine art. Through skillful altering of his camera's aperture and shutter speed, manual implementation of light to exacerbate or hide certain details of his subjects, and the sequence of chemicals he used to ultimately develop his images, Adams created visual feasts on which the curious eye can feed through his landscape photographs of natural areas like California's Yosemite Valley.
A second notable film photographer, who goes by the name Weegee, is known for taking shocking photographs of urban life in Manhattan. His un-staged, but brilliantly composed, photographs emit human life and emotion from a mere 8.5x11 sheet of photographic paper. One of his most notable works, "Their First Murder," captured the emotional reactions of children to a murder on a city block. The viewer is able to identify clearly with the subjects, by feeling the emotions they feel, and learn about human nature through the facial expressions and crisp focus Weegee repeatedly uses in his prints.
Starting in the late '90s, digital technology changed the face of photography by eliminating film, introducing the memory chip, and making the dissemination of images via the computer occur at a rate so fast it's scary. With the technology also came, fortunately, an additional variety of artistic elements to the field of fine photography, as demonstrated by famous New York Times photographer Vincent Laforet, widely known for his birds eye view images of Central Park and other New York City landmarks. Laforet is able to use photo-editing software to change the color scheme, perspective, proportions and details of his photographs, making them personalized and unrepeatable.
Modern day photographer Walter Iooss also uses digital technology to skillfully capture the cultures of both sports and beauty. He is able to add dramatic colors, and even merge different photographs together digitally to create montages that make the viewer work to absorb all of the images as both starkly distinct entities and a cleverly organized composite.
When viewing a photograph, to truly appreciate its artistic value, paying attention to detail is key. As both the subject matter and composition of photos becomes increasingly advanced and innovative, and technology introduces more and more areas for sophisticated artistic expression, the future of photography is questionable, but in a good way.
Sarah Singer is a third-year intern at The Independent. She is a sophomore at Cornell University where she studies philosophy and government.