When Photos Started Lying

‘Artists use lies to tell the truth, while politicians use them to cover the truth up.(V for Vendetta)

Is photography an art form? Most people with or without an interest in art will probably answer ‘yes’ without stopping to consider their answer. But is all photography art? Is a perfume ad in a glossy magazine art? Is a police record of a crime scene art? Is an Instagram selfie art? At what point does the utilitarian use of photography as a means of documentation turn into art?

Tate Britain’s exhibition ‘Painting with Light’ tries to address this conundrum by presenting a surprisingly coherent narrative of the epic relationship between photography and painting that began almost 200 years ago. The scene is set: 1839, photography is born.

To the modern eye photographs from 1839 to 1890s look like bad Instagram images of boring cityscapes with faded sepia filters. However, to the eyes of people living in 1839, these were incredibly detailed images that showed the real world as it was. Before photography, the only way to see and experience a place was to visit it or to have an artist draw it. Replacing the artist with a camera meant that you received a more objective picture uninfluenced by individual artistic tastes.

View of the Boulevards of Paris, 1843 By William Henry Fox Talbot,

View of the Boulevards of Paris, 1843
By William Henry Fox Talbot,

First of the five photographs, taken by Elsie Wright in 1917, shows Frances Griffiths with the alleged fairies

First of the five photographs, taken by Elsie Wright in 1917, shows Frances Griffiths with the alleged fairies

In the early days of photography, it was simply used as a tool. The artist no longer had to spend days outside drawing a building – they could take a photo instead. A process that used to take hours, if not days, now took only a few minutes. What’s more, a photograph would not forget, miss details, or make miscalculations. The photograph showed the reality without being selective. Photography showed the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

As any good story, half way through Tate Britain’s exhibition ‘Painting with Light’, the conflict begins. Photos stop becoming the subject of study. Artists begin experimenting with photography; first by setting up imaginary scenes from poems, and plays and photographing them. Photography starts to be used not just for documentation but also for the creation of imaginary worlds and realities. Photography begins to lie, no longer solely documenting what is ‘real’, but becoming a medium to bring the imagination to life.

Naturally, this new experimentation with photography created much confusion amongst the people. People were so certain in the ‘truth’ of photographs that when the notorious Cottingley Fairies photo appeared, many including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed that it was proof that fairies exist.

The process of bringing the imagination to ‘life’ and creating that which did not exist in reality, gained momentum and photography rapidly advanced. Photography became a stand-alone medium, becoming influenced by fashions in the wider world, imitating Whistler and the fashionable Japanese prints at the turn of the century.

The exhibition concludes that photography is indeed an art form, citing Fred Holland Day:

‘The photographer no longer speaks the language of chemistry but that of poetry!’

Painting with Light. Linbury Galleries, Tate Britain

Painting with Light. Linbury Galleries, Tate Britain

However, 177 years on the relationship between art and photography is more complicated now than it has ever been, as each generation of artists bring something new to photography. From photography as a tool for documentation, to the creation of imaginary worlds, to collages and photomontages, to Picasso’s painting with light, to Robert Frank’s documentary, to Richard Prince and Jeff Koon’s commercial photography, to Amalia Ulman’s Instagram performance.

Photography is a full-fledged art form. However, such a debate that has raged on for over a century is now on the verge of being eclipsed by a new reality. The relationship is no longer solely between painting and photography. With the advent of video art, new media art, performance, installation and even social media, the creative interchange of ideas and influences has created such a dynamic that ‘art’ is now mainstream and no longer a past time for the few.

And rather than solving the age-old debate, time has only brought new questions to the fore; what about video games? Indie games, light installations and even some websites?

Where do we draw the line?


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