Research Paper on Photography
There are many collections and exhibitions in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC that are worth detailed attention and in-depth analysis. However, the collection that impressed me most was Photograph. It captures the history of photography from its invention in the 1830s to the present and has several unique and highly interested pieces. After scrutinizing the historical evolution of the photographic image, I came to the conclusion that the implicit thesis of the collection is that more complex relations between the object and the image mark each historical stage of the development of photography. From the stark photographs of the realists to the anomalous effects of photomontage, photography as an art has drastically evolved over the years, complicating even further its obscure relationship with reality. In this paper, I will explore the subject in full depth and support my theoretical conclusions with the analysis of the photographic images. I will discuss typical images representing a particular trend in order to illustrate the features of a specific type of photography-reality relations.
The first trend in the history of photography was realism. The typical feature of the realistic photographic image is the straight reflection of nature. Realist artists were largely inspired by world’s natural beauty. Realism in arts has is traditionally defined as accurate, detailed, unembellished depiction of nature or contemporary life; it rejects imaginative idealization in favor of a close observation of outward appearances. Realistic photography has brought together scientific invention and artistic creativity.
My decision was that the most productive way of revealing the essence of realistic photography would be by looking at a typical photographic image from the collection. “Flower Study, Rose of Sharon” by Adolphe Braun (ca. 1854) is an example of realistic photography with an artistic touch. Late 19th century was the period marked by prominence of realism in Europe in all fine arts, including photography.
Braun’s key notion was to identify new uses for photography and, through the application of art and technology, to reach the widest possible audience. Braun's work is distinguished by its remarkably diverse subject matter, including celebrity portraits, architectural studies, mountain landscapes, still lives, rare animal studies, and art reproductions. Braun's preoccupation was the interconnectedness of science, technology, design, and education in photography (Hannavy, 2007).
The close bound between photography and reality at the early stages of development of this art is evident in the “Flower Study, Rose of Sharon.” The photograph captures reality as it is, yet focuses on the finest aspect of it.
Dadaism and surrealism opened new horizons for photographic art. The tradition of the early 20th century is based on realism, but the artistic approach to photography introduced a more skillful use of light and shadow. Numerous techniques were used to convey the mood and atmosphere. At that times photography was intended to “express a feeling both sentimental and implicitly magical: they are attempts to contact or lay claim to another reality” (Sontag, 2002, p. 16).
One of the most notable representatives of early 20th century art is Man Ray. I will discuss his photograph “Compass” and evaluate the general contribution of this artist to photography.
Man Ray started his artistic career by creating various collages and it was Alfred Stieglitz who introduced him to photography. He sought to define a new range of expression that challenged what could be considered as art and to make use of all the means at their disposal (Glueck, 2003). Man Ray is referred to as “the most formally creative photographer of the 20th century, who invented new methods such as the Rayograph and straddled the two worlds of the avant-garde and fashion photography” (Jones, 2001, para. 1).
A typical feature of his art was the photographic portraits of artists, poets, and literary figures pivotal to the dadaist and surrealist movements. As a departure from general artistic practice, he derived his forms from his own ideas, not from nature (Baldwin, 2000). “Compass” features a magnet with a gun attached to it: it is a bright example of surrealism and reconstruction of meaning. So we see that the techniques and features typical of surrealism and dadaism are also evident in photography. The relation between image and reality is still strong, but the desire to rethink reality through art became a leading trend in photography.
Late 20th century was the epoch of brand-new visual inventions; quick development of new computer-based technology enabled a great variety of tools for collage and photomontage. Montage owes its creation and evolution to the men’s desire to reflect the complex nature of reality. The ultimate goal and the artistic criterion is the integrity of the final montage. With this technique, the photographer can easily manipulate the representation of what is truly real. Collage is a peculiar trend in photography for the ample reason that it centers the photographer’s role and the act of composition.
Rising from the Dadaist movement, montage emerged as an avant-garde technique of making a picture by assembling or layering photographic images. European surrealists have taken an active part in the development of this trend.
Later tendency was transforming photography into a form of social criticism. Marien (1997) argues that photography was an important social and cultural symbol for modernity and change in several fields, such as art and social reform.
Montage has taken an import place in the history of pop art and postmodern art. Splitting (1974) by Gordon Matta-Clark is a typical example of the use of photography in montage. His philosophy was influenced by the tradition of critique of bourgeois American culture. His focus on dehumanization of the modern world and the use of photographs of abandoned buildings (like in Splitting) suggests that the new role of photography is not to reflect reality but to point out social ills attract attention to problematic issues. Matta-Clark’s work makes use of multiple images, arranged in a way that conveys the message of disorienting nature of demolition. As Ouroussoff (2007) notes, “[f]ew artists could match his ability to extract raw beauty from the dark, decrepit corners of a crumbling city” (para. 1).
Montage has an ability to produce amazingly beautiful, mysterious, and enigmatic results. Montage aims at playing actively and imaginatively with the forms and forces of nature and reality. The connection between reality and image may be not so evident, but we should keep in mind that even modern artists derive inspiration from natural world.
Summarizing all the aforementioned points, a conclusion can be made that the connection between photography and reality has become more and more complex during the course of history of the development of photography. Possible reasons for this are the divergence between the scientific and artistic use of photography, the development of new forms of art, and the influence of the new technologies on the art of photography.
It can also be noted that the development of photography mirrored the development of other fine arts during the 19th and 20th century. Photography, painting and sculpture passed through the stages of realism, Dadaism, surrealism, pop-art and postmodernism. The interconnection between photography and other forms of artistic expression can be explained not only by the influence artists in different fields exerted upon one another, but also by the fact that many photographers worked with other forms as well.
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