From the Industrial Revolution to World War I, C. 1850–1914

Early Photography

Why wasn’t photography considered art in the nineteenth century?

Throughout art history, painters and other artists have been interested in the concept of capturing images through light, or using light-images to inspire their work. When photography developed in the mid-nineteenth century, it also became popular with journalists and scientists interested in documenting the world around them for reasons not necessarily related to beauty or aesthetics. A debate about whether or not photography was considered art ensued, with traditional artists arguing that since photographers do not use their hands to make their images, photography should be considered an automatic process rather than an artistic process. During the 1855 Exposition Universelle (International Exhibition), photography was accepted and on view to the public—but not in the Palais des Beaux-Arts (Palace of Fine Arts.) Instead, photography was displayed in a separate building along with science and industry exhibits. Early photographers such as Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (Nadar), Julia Margaret Cameron, and Oscar Rejlander helped to elevate photography to the status of fine art, though to some extent, the argument over the (supposed) objectivity of photography and its ability to present “truth” continues to this day.


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