Fotograf Magazine

The Relation of Photography and Art in Practice

The Relation of Photography and Art in Practice Podle přírody! (After Nature!) by the historian of photography Petra Trnková addresses the relationship of photography and the arts in the 19th century, working mostly with material derived from Czech collections. She nonetheless does not restrict her scope only to the type of photographic output which in its day aspired to the status of a work of art sui generis. Apart from the “art of photography” the book also explores “art after photography“ and “the photography of art“ – to cite the chapter headings.

In her introduction, Trnková cites the debate around the “theory of the (immediate) prefiguring of the invention of photography in painting” originally proposed by Heinrich Schwarz, but later popularized by Peter Galassi via the 1981 exhibition Before Photography (1981), and perhaps even more so through the critique by Rosalind Krauss in her essay Photography’s Discursive Spaces (1982). Trnková nevertheless does not attempt to resolve the argument over whether the notion of “photographic seeing” may in fact have preceded the invention of photography. She is also evidently removed from the idea that the assimilation of photography to either Modernist or academic aesthetic norms represents a corruption of the medium, whose nature is essentially different – or even indexical. Without explicitly articulating her premise, Trnková’s approach to photography is non-essentialistic and pragmatic, based on a detailed research of surviving period sources, tracing the story of the medium during the era in question. Perhaps most importantly, Trnková shows that the relation between art and this newly discovered technique for the production of images was not simply a one-way process moving across a trajectory “from painting to pictorialism.” Neither is it limited to simple and straightforward cases of tracing photographs on vellum paper or the overpainting of portrait photographs. Soon after its invention, photography started to be used by painters as a tool. Art academies also used it in lieu of paintings and plaster casts for students to copy. Trnková pays special attention to the Munich Academy of Arts, which was particularly progressive in terms of the use of photography in pedagogy, and at the same time played a key role for the Czech art scene. Julius Mařák, an artist and landscape painter who owned a large collection of source photographs for the purpose of copying was also an alumnus of the Munich Academy. It is thus for a good reason that Trnková dedicates a separate sub-chapter to the role of photography in Mařák’s oeuvre in painting. She succeeded in finding evidence of a case where Mařák used a photograph from an album popular at the time, Studien nach der Natur für Maler und Architekten in Photographien, as a direct source. But perhaps it is even more interesting to compare Mařák’s series of drawings Lesní charaktery (Sylvan Character Studies, 1878) not with a single concrete photograph, but rather with the formal features of photographic source material in general. Intimate woodland scenes from the heart of the forests testify to the mediation of photographic “sketches” not only in the precision of detail, which does not leave a single leaf unrecorded, but also in the richly nuanced tonality of the grey range.

I highlight the passage on Julius Mařák also as it stands out in the book for its felicitous close focus on the visual qualities of the artifacts in question. Although on the whole, it must be said that one of the book’s greatest merits is its most meticulous tracing of relationships and facts based on archival research rather than comparative or stylistic analysis. This happily liberates the conclusions from being simply a fluid hypothesis, but on the other hand also renders the actual visual material secondary. And yet the application of the notion of style to photographic source material can be surprisingly fruitful. Rosalind Krauss notoriously denied the photographs of Timothy O’Sullivan any claim to style by arguing that they belong to a separate discourse. The Harvard historian of photography Robin Kelsey reinstated them to this status in a book by the wittily polemic title Archive Style (2007). However he does not endorse the notion of the artist as someone ahead of his time, but rather shows through detailed research the ways in which the clash of various interests and purposes constituted certain distinctive visual qualities within O’sullivan’s work. The contribution of the final chapter, dedicated to photographing art, in particular merits a future sequel in a similar vein. For while the photographing of landmarks for the Zentralkomission implies a documentary-type detachment, we also know how little detachment there is in the Gustav LeGray photographs made for the French department of preservation of monuments. This raises the question of whether it might be possible to trace the constituting of certain specific features of style determined by the clash of intentions and purpose (documentation, the creative ambition of the artist, promotion of historical or artistic collections, etc.) and whether it might in fact be possible to define it as a “monument preservation style” – the thin ice of attractive-sounding theses unsupported by exemplary research in the field of art history, such as Trnková offers in her most valuable book.

Josef Ledvina