Exercise 1: What is a photograph?

What, in your view, makes photographs unique as an art form?

Photography as a genre looks really difficult to pinpoint since photographs are everywhere and everybody can easily take them, artists and not artists, for all sorts of different reasons and purposes, and exactly because it is so pervasive at the end it becomes elusive. After all the basic tools photography uses are largely available and simple to get: light, the world around us and a more or less sophisticated camera. This immediacy and straightforward simplicity could partly be what makes photography so unique and popular as a medium: in contrast to drawing or painting or sculpture, even without any technical knowledge or skill photographs can be taken by anybody.

The relative easiness of photography is certainly a factor that explains its success and a quality unique to this medium, as Talbot had already argued right from the start, even if in itself does not account for or explains the specificity of photographs as objects. Certainly though, I think, this immediacy allows for what is unique in photographs: a fixed image of a fraction of time of a specific place, the captured ‘momentness’ of André Cartier-Bresson.

In this sense the photographic image really seems the medium of choice for dealing with the main themes of time and place in contemporary arts around which this course revolves. But I think that if this freezing a place in time is certainly unique to photography as a medium, it also is less innocent of what it looks: on the one hand it is highly satisfying because the captured image saves that moment of that place from being lost and forgotten – it fixes it in our memory and makes it present after it is past – but on the other hand the image is also unsatisfactorily only a fragment and an illusion since it offers a very partial view or aspect of the many possible and continually changing conditions of that moment of that place.

And I think that this intrinsic ambiguity of photographs is also what makes them so suitable to our shifting postmodern attitude, in which nothing is certain or explained forever and everything seems condemned to being transient or only partially true and open to further interpretation. Perhaps this is why so many contemporary artists choose photography as a medium: because photography is multi-functional, unsettled, fluid, adaptable and compliant, fit to whatever purpose and extremely elusive.

Perhaps also this impossibility to contain photography within prescriptive boundaries, its same fluidity, make photography a very special if impure medium, that allows for an intrinsically hybrid use, artistic and non artistic, high or low, everyday or functional, whatever one chooses. So maybe the photograph as an object – an image that is flat, framed, taken from a certain angle – tends to disappear as if making place for the partial view of a moment of the world fixed by somebody, which can be candid, casual, unintentional, staged, manipulated or even made up (as allowed for by digital photography today).


Think about what we mean by ‘photographic image’. Does it have to be something permanently fixed? Does a photograph have to exist in hard copy? Is there a difference between a printed photograph and a digital image that sits virtually on someone’s device, for instance?

Following from this reasoning it seems to me that the freedom of photography as a medium can also mean that a photographic image may have a life outside a printed or a hard copy without renouncing its nature: it may have a virtual, potential if impermanent life stored in a device or digitally floating in the cloud, projected on a screen or transmitted via radio waves.

Digital images can be altered and so manipulated pixel by pixel, but after all also conventional photographs could be and have been manipulated by different means, as shown for example by Fading Away, a 1858 arranged print which was obtained by H. P. Robinson out of five negatives, or by the daguerreotyped portraits coloured by hand.





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