Greek vases or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the photograph

One of the first clearcut paradigm shifts that we know of in western art is the transition of Greek vase-painting from the so-called ‘black-figure’ painting to ‘red-figure’ painting. The former style is the most common and most known of the two, but a change happened around the time of the Greco-Persian war (499 B.C. – 449 B.C.). In Athens, new techniques and sensibilities emerged, and black-figure style went out of fashion. The motifs of these vases varied greatly – from divine scenes and myths to a lowly shepherd tending his herd (Link 1). But the common theme is, that because these vases – and maybe to a higher degree, ordinary pottery – was extremely plentiful and widely available to the public, it can be argued that it was the most democratic art form in the birthplace of democracy. When the classical world collapsed and the monotheistic religions became the most powerful force in society, again there was a shift. The vases of old were long forgotten, but when the medium of oil painting emerged in the late Middle Ages, there was again a seismic shift in the perception of art. Along with Filippo Brunelleschi’s discovery of perspective in drawing a whole new world opened itself up to European artists.

We then jump a few hundred years forward to the end of the Enlightenment. The great philosopher Immanuel Kant dies in 1804, Napoleon crowns himself as the Emperor of France, thus ending the French Revolution, and this period is generally regarded as another turning point in society. The wide support for a constant flow of new ideas is somewhat subdued by several governments, perhaps nervous about the ideas of the French Revolution infesting their own countries, but in private, many brilliant minds still seek to further their knowledge and spread innovation in many fields. One of these fields is chemistry, and in 1822 the French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce made arguably the first photo-graph, as we would define it today. The following years were a tad slow in this specific field, but by 1839 another French inventor by the name of Louis Daguerre had invented the daguerreotype; an easily re-produceable image with unsurpassed image quality.
This spurred a frenzy among people to get their portrait taken, and thus the technology rapidly advanced and developed in many different directions. This new avenue of capturing reality was naturally ground-breaking, but the artistic value did not follow immediately – not even close. For most people, the new photo-chemical process was perhaps a novelty and a service, rather than a serious artistic medium.

Although there were several contenders for the invention of the ‘fine art’-aesthetic in photography, broad acceptance, both in the academic and public spheres was lacking, arguably, until the late 1960’s when John Szarkowski curated an exhibition called ‘New Documents’ at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (Link 2).
While it is somewhat controversial to try and determine an exact date for the emergence of the fine art aesthetic, it can safely be argued that this exhibition made a big and lasting impression on what people thought about they knew about photography in the world of art. A world that hadn’t seen the large shifts in mediums for a long time. When pictures became widely available, the democratization of ‘true’ pictures where a blessing and a curse. Critics were quick to acknowledge the leap in quality and general innovation that the medium of photographic heralded but were equally as quick to dismiss its artistic potential as frivolous and unremarkable, and thus relegate the medium even before it could prove itself. Although there were – especially viewed with modern eyes – several decently successful attempts to breathe life into the artistic merits of photography, pictorialism and modernism, for example, they were seen as somewhat reactionary to an older and more archaic hierarchy of genres. This hierarchy was still dominated by painting and sculpture and most of these artists did not seek to disturb the status quo with a relatively new and untested medium. But as time progressed the medium grew into its own.

Alongside the photographers themselves, several influential philosophers joined the conversation and embraced the medium for the many applications it had. These ranged from the practical and scientific dimensions of capturing images to the societal repercussions that could follow a news publication of high importance. But these aspects all contributed to the wider acceptance of the photographic medium and today everybody has a camera with them. The arrival of the smartphone is the most current paradigm shift that occurred in any art form, but it can be argued that it has somewhat diminished the prestige that photography had earned in the decades prior, but at the same time done more for painting, sculpture, and most other art form by virtue of ease of information. One did not need to visit a museum to enjoy a piece of art, nor did it hide away information that previously was only accessible to academics and employees at these museums. It completely turned, not only the world of art on its head, but the wider society as well, as is the case with most revolutionary technology that enters our lives and becomes indispensable. And this is the democratization I am referring to; the breakdown of an elitist mindset, the liberation of information, and a non-exclusive community that can explore new mediums and theories without sacrificing their individuality in the process.

When all of this is said, I still believe that such as it was for many generations, that just because every-body has the possibility to draw or paint something, not everybody has the ability. While this may sound like gatekeeping people from pursuing a certain way of life, I think it is important, in a world where information is free and the possibilities are nigh nor endless, that people look inwards and choose a life where they can do good, both for themselves and others in what way their talent allows. This is why the democratization of the photograph itself can seem like a gatekeeper for minorities and people in less fortunate economic circumstances. This is none more prevalent than in the role modern governments handles the presence of the mobile camera.

While most of the world’s countries are regarded as free and democratic in their approach to the role of the smartphone and its camera, there are places in the world where the personal device is invaded and the line to the outside world is cut through. The release of the first successful smartphone in 2007 came only a few years before the start of the Arab Spring in late 2010 and it quickly became obvious that the new device was to become a major factor in the spread of news that several of the North African governments sought to contain (Link 3). And alongside the furious pace that technological advances arrive in, the methods of control and the chokehold on information become increasingly sophisticated. At the time of writing the Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip has been ongoing for over four months. There was immediately a sharp divide in countless countries about what side to support, and accusations of all kinds were thrown around. People went to the streets to demand either action or made condemning statements from and about their governments, and it was all documented on a camera, as one would expect. There was also a shift in the attitude towards the established trust in intrinsic news value of the photograph. Main-stream news outlets were somewhat shunned by many as they sought ‘on-the-ground’ sources of the Palestinian people that showed the situation through social medias such as Facebook and Instagram. While these sources do not adhere to the ‘proper’ journalistic practices they are raw and unedited, which is one the main critiques of the established media outlets and is accepted as truth in the context of especially the Israeli narrative that is pushed by them and their allies – a narrative that many see as a façade and full of lies and understatements about their actions.

Again, the picture (and video, must also be mentioned) is the most important factor. The things I just described are of course not related to any sort of artistic practice, such as it is, but there are many under-lying principles that run parallel with each other. The democratization process, breaking down social hierarchies, and the acceptance of new avenues of a medium in the mainstream; these can all be attribut-ed to both situations. When all these things are considered in a vacuum, it becomes clear what places in our world that the photograph holds. It has been a sort of positive feedback loop that has enhanced and progressed the medium, almost with no interference from the outside or other medium.

From a personal perspective, it is quite easy for me to decide what to believe. Photography is the medium that I chose when I set out to become an artist. I had weighed up pros and cons from a wide variety of mediums and genres, and while photography was one of the easier paths to take, I still knew that it could be the one of the most controversial.
In my experience working with other artistic endeavors, it quickly became obvious to me that while the photograph had gained acceptance into the fine art environment it was far from everybody that accepted it. The New Documents show at MoMA is a far cry from the vast majority of the art shows put up today – painting and sculpture are still the most dominant forms and important art forms in most people’s mind. And this has always made me wonder what causes this; 1) a disinterest in the artfulness of the photograph, 2) misinformation, 3) lack of education in the subject, or 4) just a plain simple dismissal of the medium. The older I get, the more I lean towards an explanation that combines points 3 & 4. The flow of pictures is not controlled in any specific way, but a conservative guess is that 90-95 % of the pictures that people consume – both in the form of artistic photography and news-related media – are through a small number of apps and devices. I believe that this can cause people to be jaded and de-sensitized towards the medium itself, and when this is combined with failure of people to appreciate and under-stand the depth and breadth of knowledge and possibilities that are about and can be photography, it creates a negative image of the medium. And since people carry a camera in their smartphone, and their smartphone is on their person constantly, almost everyone ignores the power and possibilities this creates, not just in emergencies and critical situations but in everyday life.

But why then start this article with comparisons and discussions about Greek vases and oil painting? The migrant crises and the wars that are raging at the time of writing are not related to this in any way, shape, or form. Well yes and no. The paradigm shifts that I discuss in the beginning of this text do exist in a somewhat of a vacuum. They are reactionary to the shifting tides in society, in war, in personal relation-ships and in a person’s mind. I do not believe that these parameters have noticeably in the two and a half millennia covered in this article, and I do not expect to change in the future either. Other shifts in art are coming, it would be foolish to assume otherwise, but now we can at least somewhat see the trends and make predictions and take precautions if necessary.

People smarter than me have made dire predictions about the rise of AI and the role it will play in our society (Link 4). Technology is moving fast, and AI is in the forefront of this new narrative, but sometimes I think it is wise to look back in history and analyze the larger shifts of the past. This could be considered nostalgia, rather than an educated guess as towards what comes next – but consider this:
Societies of the past could not predict the rise of the transistor and the microchip, and we cannot realistically image a world with quantum computing, so sometimes it is important to hold on to what we know. Again, not nostalgia, but rather an appreciation and celebration of our achievements. And in this situation, I would like to hold on to the photograph for a bit longer, flaws, and all.

Visual Links:

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In this era of AI-photography, I can no longer believe my eyes, The Guardian (Text, retrieved 15/02/2024)

The Exhibit That Changed Photography,The New Yorker (Text, retrieved 15/02/2024)

The social media wat between Israel and HamasThe Guardian (Text, retrieved 17/02/2024)

TechScape: Are social media giants silencing online content? (Text, retrieved 17/02/2024)

Is it right or wrong to post about conflict on social media?The Guardian (Text, retrieved 18/02/2024)

When AI can make art – what can it mean for creativity?The Guardian (Text, retrieved 19/02/2024)

Rematerializing PhotographyArtNews (Text, retrieved 22/02/2024)

G. de Bertier de Sauvigny. The Bourbon Restoration: One Century of French Historiography. Durham, Duke University Press, 1981. Print.

Rancière, Jacques. The Future of the Image. English ed. London; New York: Verso, 2007. Print

Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics. English ed. Lonndon; New York: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd. 2006. Print

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New ed.1993. Print

Webster, T. B. L.. Attic Vase Painting during the Persian Wars. Greece & Rome 1 Vol 65. New York. Cambridge University Press. 2018. Print.