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Photography: is it art?

In its first incarnation, photography seemed to be more of a scientific tool than a form of artistic expression. Many of the earliest photographers didn’t even call themselves artists: they were scientists and engineers – chemists, astronomers, botanists and inventors. While the new form attracted individuals with a background in painting or drawing, even early practitioners like Louis Daguerre or Nadar could be seen more as entrepreneurial inventors than as traditional artists.
Before Daguerre invented the daguerreotype (an early form of photography on a silver-coated plate), he had invented the diorama, a form of entertainment that used scene painting and lighting to create moving theatrical illusions of monuments and landscapes. Before Nadar began to create photographic portraits of Parisian celebrities like Sarah Bernhardt, he’d worked as a caricaturist. (An aeronaut, he also built the largest gas balloon ever created, dubbed The Giant.)
One reason early photographs were not considered works of art because, quite simply, they didn’t look like art: no other form possessed the level of detail that they rendered. When the American inventor Samuel F B Morse saw the daguerreotype shortly after its first public demonstration in Paris in 1839, he wrote, “The exquisite minuteness of the delineation cannot be conceived. No painting or engraving ever approached it.”


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Much like a painting, a photograph has the ability to move, engage and inspire viewers. It could be a black-and-white Ansel Adams landscape of a snow-capped mountain reflected in a lake, with a sharpness and tonal range that bring out the natural beauty of its subject. Or it could Edward Weston’s close-up photograph of a bell pepper, an image possessing a sensuous abstraction that both surprises and intrigues.


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