Art mimicked life and photography captured it. Then photography mimicked art until it too became an art form. But will it follow the trajectory of paint and canvas trends?In 2019, photography feels old. It's ubiquitous in modern society with the ability to enjoy and create photographs now often predating speech in children. But really, it's a modern invention that is still going through its early motions. Is it possible that we're likely to see photography follow the drastically shifting trends of art? Do trends really matter that much to the health of the industry?
If you look at a brief and criminally cursory look over the board history of art, it followed a traceable trajectory. That is, simplistic etchings originally attempted to mimic life. The prevalent theme thereafter is a refining of the same overarching goal: realistically recreate that which the artist sees. The pursuit of perfection in form, scale, perspective, color, technique and so on, took hundreds upon hundreds of years — arguably longer. But it did indeed get to a point where the realism (with a capital R at this point) of paintings was breathtaking. Then, the trends shifted to more experimental alternatives. Artists bent and bowed the rules until it was difficult to see how Realism lead to this point. Impressionism dipped a toe in expansive and open waters, and Post-Impressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism dove deep in to the Mariana Trench. Then, in the boggy darkness came the polarizing movement of Abstract Impressionism and with it Jackson Pollock.
It's Pollock's drip paintings that sparked this thought initially, but I could never put my finger on why I thought it was relevant to photography. The trajectory of art (or the trajectory of art's key movements and trends I ought to say) spanned centuries and were borne of different aims and different skill-sets. However, I felt the loose panel in the fence was in my assumption that art and photography had "different aims". Then, by chance, one of my favorite video essayists and YouTubers, Nerdwriter1, released a video today titled "How Art Arrived at Jackson Pollock."
Two things happened after watching it. Firstly, I realized what had bothered me about separating out art and photography so cleanly: it was patently a false dichotomy to do so. Secondly, one of the top comments on the video unearthed my original sticking point. This comment by Jesse D read: "It is no coincidence this all began when photography was invented."
In many ways, photography has followed comparable paths with art. The aim was to create as realistic depictions of what the artists sees as possible. Eventually, art got to the point where the best of the craft were essentially as close to life-like as is possible. So, they had to find new ways to impress, captivate, and evoke. Cameras, since their inception, have worked hard on creating the highest quality and most realistic (to what the eye sees) images they can. And this is where my question formed: as we arrive at a similar point to the end of Realism in art — that is, the closest replication of real life we can hope to achieve — will the artists go different directions? Has this already begun? Does this premise hold water?
There will always be realistic photography as by virtue of being instant, it has myriad applications. But with trends, is it likely to veer away from the pursuit of recreating what the eye sees, and starting to bend, bow, and break the rules like art did? We all see feedback on images of "this is so sharp" or "this is so clear," but when that's commonplace, will artists using cameras still aim for it? This of course only applies to photography as an art form, and historical documentation (even artistic ones like wedding photography) will be largely unaffected one presumes. Abstract photography already exists, but it's far from a trend. Given the intention of the camera as a tool, does it make sense to use it in unusual ways? Could that be said too of the paint brush and canvas? After all, they were also originally conceived as ways of conveying a message, and then capturing the world around us.
This article is not the presentation of some grand theory; I'm neither an art historian nor a savant. I want to know what you think. Will photography hit a ceiling of capturing and reproducing realism, and see artists using their camera to go far off-piste?
Lead image a composite of Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic) by Thomas Eakins via Wikimedia used under Creative Commons and Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950, by Jackson Pollock. Enamel on canvas (1912-1956) Metropolitan Museum. Photo by "rocor" via Flickr, used under Creative Commons.