Exercise 1.4: What is a photographer?

Notes on De Zayas:

  • Nature inspires us in the idea. Art, through the imagination, represents that idea in order to produce emotion
  • Once art had ceased to represent religious ideals, it instead focused on form. Form started out as “fantastic” but has evolved to a “conventional naturalism” – I think the point here is that art had ceased to be original and was instead following earlier work and established conventions.
  • Picasso is given as an example of an artist looking for a new “form”, but he is described as “de-solving” rather than “resolving”.
  • As humans have developed art has become less about imagination, about the decorative forms, and more about the factual representation of form.
  • Imagination is not merely the attention which contemplates things, nor the memory which recalls them to the mind, nor the comparison which considers their relationship, nor the judgement which pronounces upon them an affirmation or a negation. Imagination needs the concourse of all these faculties … gathering them and combining them, creating in that way new images or new ideas.”
  • Photography strips away the imagination and allows the “beauty of real truth” to appear. Art shows us the “emotional truth”, photography the “material truth”. Photography in this sense is not art.
  •  However, there is a distinction between photography, which seeks “objectivity of Form”, and “artistic-photography” which seeks to use that form to express ideas and convey emotions. The latter is a personal representation rather than a subjective investigation.
  • Steichen is given as an example of the high point of a realistic representation of form. In contrast Stieglitz is given as an example of expression rather than representation of an object.


I have written many times over about the veracity of the claim that photography represents fact – in my view it does not: despite its indexical nature it is as much a representation of a particular point of view as any painting, because the photographer chooses what to include within the frame. However, De Zayas seems to be making a slightly more nuanced point, in his distinction between material truth and emotional truth. In his view only emotional truth is within the scope of art – taking landscape as an example one might say that much photography is really topography i.e. science rather than art. Art seeks to do more than record, it seeks to enlighten. However, I have a question mark over the concept of “emotional truth” – for example I have just been considering how the pictorialists used particular conventions to illustrate a world of social harmony, this was clearly art in that they were not seeking to represent material truth, quite the opposite they were portraying a fantasy. Yet surely it would be wrong to consider this fantasy as an “emotional truth”? Was Constable not an artist, but more of a politician?

The examples De Zayas chooses to illustrate his distinction between photographer and artist photographer are interesting. For the former he cites Steichen; when I think of Steichen’s work I usually think first of his image of the Flatiron, which is anything but objective, and far more in keeping with the pictorialists. De Zayas doesn’t indicate which work he was referring to; the most objective images I can find are those taken after this essay was written, but nevertheless they illustrate the point – see for example “Spiral Shell” (1921) or his Sunflowers series (1920 – 1961) (1).  These are detailed studies of form, much like Edward Weston’s work from around the same time. I feel uncomfortable denying these the status of art – certainly they are aesthetically very beautiful, though they may have no emotional point to make beyond the beauty of nature itself.

The contrast is with Stieglitz, who oddly enough was Steichen’s friend and mentor (and perhaps notably also the editor of Camera Work in which De Zayas’s article first appeared!) Stieglitz’s own version of the Flatiron is far more objective than Steichen’s, which leads me to struggle a little with the categorization given by De Zayas. However much of Stieglitz’s other work is both pictorialist in style and political in nature (his classic “The Steerage” being a good example). My impression is that photographers in this period were experimenting, learning from one another, and that any attempt to categorise them would be too simplistic.

We are asked whether this discussion remains relevant today. I have to say that I think it is of philosophical interest only. I started my studies with the OCA fixating on the definition of “art”, but as I have worked through the courses I have come to realise that it doesn’t matter what labels one applies, what matters is how you feel about your own work and what others can take from the work. When De Zayas was writing, photographers had to bring their work within the ambit of “art” in order to get it exhibited, and ultimately in order to make any money.  That is no longer the case – in an era where an unmade bed or five minutes of silence can be exhibited and favourably received there is no need for arbitrary labels.




Reference: De Zayas, M, “Photography and photography and artistic photography” in Camera Work no. 41 (1913)

Image credit: Stieglitz: “A wet day on the boulevard – Paris” (1894)

(1) https://www.nga.gov/feature/artnation/steichen/thepainting_2c.shtm (accessed 19th April 2017)


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