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A Documentary Photo Book As Contemporary Art

Aug 15, 2008
In the advent of the digital era, photography has become available to the masses and everyone is a photographer. With humble beginnings, photography was confined to a small group of people that required the technical know how to make the technology work, and had very little to do with art or creativity. It was a scientific discovery, but its useful applications were not clear. It was not long however until photography was taken under the wing of artists and its applications became widespread in the creative world.

Initially photography was found to have a social use in documenting and recording slices of time. In the early 19th century infant mortality was high, and photography gave wealthy families a chance to have a lasting memory of their deceased infant. Families would dress the cadaver and pose for a photo as a lasting reminder. Photography was also used to document urban and rural landscapes, in much the same way as Constable and his contemporaries are said to have done in paint. It is for this reason that photography has been accused as being the death of painting. A device had been created that could capture an instantaneous image, in perfect clarity, with no bias over the details the image contains. It was said to be telling the truth.

It was not long before this scientific tool was taken into the hands of the more creative type. Although still difficult to work and develop, the camera became more widely available and artists began using the photograph as a new medium. Alfred Steiglitz was a pioneer of declaring photography to be fine art, something the art world was not ready to accept. He worked closely with Marcel Duchamp, famously documenting the infamous Fountain, and it is this seminal artwork and its image that brings light to the confusion over photography as art and photography as documentation, questioning who the artist is when we are regarding such an image.

The original Fountain no longer exists, and there have been 17 authorized replicas since; but the Fountain we regard as art is actually the image by Steiglitz. This has the potential to make the work we are referring to as art as belonging to the American Photographer. Arguing that it is documentation is a possibility as the photograph is neither well framed nor aesthetically pleasing, it is serving a function to record a temporary event, an ephemeral moment. But does the fact that the author of the image is a fine artist practicing with the medium of photography make it art?

This phenomenon is also widely under discussion in performance art, conceptual art and happenings. Taking Joseph Beuys as an example, in particular his piece How to talk to a dead hare, the image we are presented with has evidently been chosen for it's aesthetic qualities as well as it's documentational information. Taking into account the status of the work by Beuys, it is not common for people to recall what the performance was about or contained; or where it was located and its duration. People are remembering the image, and that is what is presented when referring to this particular work of art. This can be argued that the image is art in itself as well as documentation.

In recent years, the documentary aesthetic in photography has become a valid art object in its own right. Contemporary artists such as Andreas Gursky have sold their documentary images for over 3 million US dollars on the commercial market and public galleries are being graced with the images of ephemeral artwork from likes of Andy Goldsworthy. In an age where the photographic medium has become readily available and documentation can be considered art, it will become ever more difficult to distinguish between a snapshot and fine art. On the flipside, this gives everyone the potential to become an artist in their own right.
About the Author
Shaun Parker is a leading expert in the photographic industry. Find out more about creating a photo book as a prestigious way of documenting snapshots or photographic fine art at Cewe Photo World.
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