The History of Photography by Dr. Jan Seewald. First published in LUMAS Art Magazine, 2017
What is it that makes a photograph a milestone in art history, an epoch-defining work of art? What qualifies a photograph as a work of art at all, differently asked:
Is photography even art?
A valid question that has already been discussed at great length in the short history of the medium. Before photography rose to be its own art form, painting dominated the art world. In the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, artists - especially notable painters - looked down on photographers as lesser rivals. "Photography is the mortal enemy of painting, the refuge of all failed painters, the untalented and the lazy," propagated French author Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). Because of the medium's efficiency and shorter time required to produce a photographic image, photography came to be seen as a threat in the 19th century. In those days, people traditionally had their portraits made by painters, who now had reason to fear for their own livelihoods.
Some artists, however, began to integrate photography into their own process. Important painters such as Edgard Degas and Pablo Picasso used the medium to give their compositions new levels of perspective or composition. In the 50s, Picasso also used photography specifically for a series of light paintings. today, the photographic portrait has almost completely replaced its painted counterpart, enriching the art world with iconic portraits. Although portrait photography is one of the most popular genres, it is also one of the most difficult.
A portrait by a good photographer will reveal just as much about the person on either side of the lens. "My portraits are more about me than they are about the people I photograph," remarked legendary photographer Richard Avedon. Naturally, lenses and focal lengths play a role, as do locations and lighting. But the most important factor is the particular instant in which the photographer presses the shutter. For example, Will McBride captured world-famous moments starring John F. Kennedy and Willy Brandt. Portraits are used to create an image or mood and to arouse desires, especially in the film, music, and fashion industries.
In movie stills and modern studio photography that follows the tradition of old masters, current Hollywood stars like Naomi Watts and Cate Blanchett are stylized as flawless and almost superhuman. Michael Comte's legendary portraits of Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell contributed to the meteoric rise of these supermodels, turning them into icons. Supermodels are often characterized as capricious and unpredictable divas.
Naomi Campbell has certainly been known to bare her claws on occasion, even scratching a paparazzi's eye with her handbag once. Interacting with professional photographers, however, she is the very picture of composure - most certainly easier to work with than the subjects in fascinating sub-category: animal portraits.
Julian Wolkenstein's series of Pony Pin-ups is a great example of this. In these works, the Australian artist takes a humorous approach to the portrait genre. At first glance, these pieces appear to be light and full of irony. In actuality, they are the result of a complex process. Especially considering the "models" are not paid professionals, but animals, which are known to have a mind of their own. Each horse required about four hours of styling, throughout which a whole team dedicated to hair and mane extensions transformed them into starry-eyed beauties. "Misty" is reminiscent of actress Farrah Fawcett, and "Florence" brings pin-up model Betty Page to mind. Worlkenstein's work exudes carefree humor but also stimulates thought about the humanization and domestication of animals, which is so widespread in our society.