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Are we losing the artistic significance of photography?

By Megan McManus

 Exploring photography from its inception to the present day.

Throughout history, people have used and distributed artistic images of themselves in order to control how others viewed them. From the first Roman Emperors, who had their faces hammered onto coins to the portrait painting of royalty and nobility at the Tudor court, images of individuals have always been powerful tools. Historically, photography has slotted into this narrative easily. From its conception in the 1830s and 40s, the photographic image has been frequently utilised by the great and the powerful to promote their public image. Queen Victoria, a famously popular monarch and celebrity of her time, employed photography as much as her ancestors made use of the master portrait painters of yore. The photographs taken of her in full mourning, late in life, have become some of the most iconic in British history. The artistic significance of a photographic portrait was certainly not lost on the subjects in such instances, as the poses of the sitters in many earlier photographs clearly emulate traditional portrait paintings. 

For a long time, photography remained the preserve of the very wealthy and the upper classes. Throughout the 20th century, however, it became accessible to pretty much all members of western society. As cameras became more widely available and affordable to purchase, increasing numbers of ordinary people were able to take their own photographs, inevitably in more relaxed and arguably less “artistically conscious” settings. This being said, the photography of this era also gave birth to many of our most iconic pieces of art: Warhol’s polaroids alone attest to this. This trend of accessibility continued throughout the 20th century, with disposable and then digital cameras becoming common household items, packed for holidays and documenting nights out. With the introduction of camera phones in the 00s, taking photographs every day became normal and accepted behaviour, as no longer something exclusively for special occasions.

Beyond this, photography has also continued a tradition of aiding social commerce. Today, as in many other times of national crisis over the past 100 or so years, photographs are working to connect those that feel isolated and lonely during this time. In the first and second World Wars, sweethearts would send their photographs to comfort each other; in 2020 photographs of friends and family members no doubt bolstered the spirits of those isolating and working on the frontline during the pandemic. The sharing of photos on social media and over messaging services helps people to connect in a shared sociability. This is something that has become undoubtedly necessary and helpful during the pandemic we currently find ourselves in, but does this detract from the artistic significance of photography? I would argue no – if the true purpose of art is to make people feel, then surely this breed of photography must be one of the most artistic. 

People are now taking more photographs than ever before as photography has steadily become more popular, available, and consumable. The equipment of the digital era allows people to photograph and video whatever content they want, whenever they want. Most people have thousands of photographs and video recordings on their phones, often capturing new material every day. Some would argue that this too has “cheapened” photography and that the artistic significance of the photographic process and its results have been lost. Whilst this is a valid point, doesn’t the very accessibility of modern photography also encourage a boom in artists using this form? Whilst 100 years ago the study of photography as an art form remained almost exclusively the vestige of upper-class White men, now a more diverse range of people are able to explore and create within the context of the photograph. Arguably, an increase in accessibility has in fact had the opposite effect of cheapening photography; instead of a decrease in artistic output, a vast increase has been the inevitable result. 

The harvest of photographic art is currently richer than ever before, as work from people of all cultural and social, ethnic and economic backgrounds has become increasingly prolific, facilitating the consumption and enjoyment of this art form to a wider and more inclusive audience. Photography – and the art created through it – shedding its exclusivity to the rich and powerful can only be heralded as a good thing. As photography distances itself from its elitist roots its artistic significance grows, nurtured by increasing inclusivity across all facets of society. This is most definitely something to be valued, especially in the world of art. 


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