Is photography a medium of fine art? This question has plagued the arty world for almost two centuries. The world right now, is so over saturated with images, that we can’t blame anyone for being sick of the sight of them. Certainly considering that, with the emergence of the smartphone, we all carry great quality digital cameras around in our pockets. So when the world looks at a photograph and shouts “any one could take that!”, “all you have to do is press a button!”, “it’s just not art!” – we understand where they’re coming from. But do we agree? No! We want to throw all these negative responses out of the window, and show you how the combo of a fab photographer, with a camera and a handful of light, is just as brilliant as a painter, with a stack of canvas and some oil paints. In the right hands, photographic processes have created some of our most breathtaking works in the gallery…
An ultra brief history of photography
But before we get into that; a bit of history. The selfie age has rendered the history and scientific processes of photography, invisible. So let’s go for a whistlestop run down. The absolute origin for the concept of taking a “photograph” is believed to have been in the 10th century, described through the Arabian manuscripts of Ibn al-Haytham. He envisaged a technology that could copy the visible world. But realistically it could have been conceived much early by so many different cultures, so its origin is rather hard to pin down. It is believed to have been first put into practise, though, in the 16th century by Dutch engineer Cornelis Drebbel (who also happened to invent the submarine!). The piece of equipment he constructed was called a “Camera Obscura”. This was a dark box, or room, with a hole in the side of it, that would reflect (upside down…) the view that faced the hole. The artist could then trace this image, and accurately depict what the eye could see. So, unlike the photography we know, this was simply an assisting technology, to aid the drawing process.
In 1834 British scientist and inventor Henry Fox Talbot allegedly introduced the first photographic technology that resembles what we know now, by exposing a special paper, coated in silver chloride, to light. We say allegedly, because at the same time a French inventor Louis Daguerre was developing a photographic process that would become the first one that was fit for public use. So, two inventors, similar times; both, essentially, exposing chemically treated paper to light, in order to create realistic impressions of the visible world. The term “photograph” itself, was first coined by Sir John Herschel in 1839, and it stems from the Greek words ‘phos’ and ‘graphê’, which translate to ‘drawing with light’. So, photography, as we know it, was originally conceived as the literal act of producing a drawing with light.
Is photography art?
Most of this suggests that photography is just a mechanical process that captures the visible world and fixes it to paper. Like an electric screwdriver, or a washing machine… one click and the work is done for you! And this means that photography is not art, right? We say a gigantic NO! The beauty of photography, as a medium, is that it is the master of trickery. On the surface it appears to mechanically copy life, and that’s that. What it doesn’t make quite as obvious is that life is so easy to manipulate through a camera. With a camera we can make the boring, incredible; the invisible, visible; and the fantastical, stare us right in the face. It may be the case that “our five year old could have done that”, but as is the case with all art, photography really comes down to materialising an idea, a place, or an emotion. Making tangible those things that speak to you or to somebody else. Susan Sontag produced heart wrenching social commentaries; Andy Warhol made us think about the nature of fame and appearances; Annie Leibovitz created impossibly real fantasies; and Alex Stoddard, he produced an image for every emotion under the sun. The list goes on, but to really bring our point home here, we want to show you what a few of our own photographers have produced with this medium.
The alleyway behind a street of tenements – a sight that most Glasgow residents will be used to seeing on a day to day basis; and definitely a sight that feels anything but special. In his Glasgow Orangutan, Allan Myles manages to capture the reality of one of these damp, Victorian backstreets. He creates a scene that is sucked of colour and warmth; it is grey, dank, scratched, and wholly evokes what it feels like to leave the refuge of your flat, on a soul-destroying winter morning. However, Myles reworks this bleak landscape into something quite magical. The orangutan and the meerkat, on a literal level, refer to Glasgow as a centre of the British Empire in the 19th century, where exotic animals were traded and exhibited, to showcase the city as a prolific cultural capital. As a result of this, exotic animals escaping was a regular occurance. Yet, these two creatures do not seem to be out of place in the damp Glaswegian alley, rather, they inject something bold, warm and almost comical into the scene. Maybe it’s too cheesy a comparison, but it’s kind of what it does feel like to be in Glasgow – through the endless dark days and damp everything of winter, our resilience comes from our weird and wonderfulness. So juxtaposing our streets with something fantastical, does seem to be the perfect picture of us. It is through the (quite literally) photographic realism of Myles’ work, that he has been able to create this affect on us.
Emma Skeldon has quite a different style to Myles – but in just the same way, her use of photography, specifically, is what makes her art works so powerful. Her God’s Offcuts series is an intimate, still-life collection; whose delicate observation, amplifies the beauty of these so-called “offcuts”. She plays upon the word “offcuts” – a word suggesting flower cuttings, but at the same time, implying discarded waste. She is using the searching lens of her camera, to perfectly present the beauty of these flowers; coating them with the satisfying texture, and surface quality, of still-wet paint. Yet, she reminds us that, despite their perfection, these are just “offcuts” – a miniscule, decaying part of a thriving, breathing world. What is more, the thick paint that has smothered these flowers will – just a few seconds after each picture is captured – crush each perfect “offcut”. So, a simple photograph of a flower, can become a profound reminder of the fleeting nature of beauty; the unceasing passage of time; and the decay of everything on this earth…. Woah (time for a little lie down after that one…)
Now – something to lighten the mood… David Gilliver, again, takes the medium of photography and uses it in an entirely different, and totally refreshing way. His Star Wars series wittily renews the famous figures of Star Wars, in miniature form; as characters in comically benile, everyday scenes. Jabba the Hutt wallows on the sofa, with a tunnocks caramel wafer and a bottle of Sauvignon (just an average Saturday night); Darth Vader becomes the ultimate domestic God, with an adorable At-At Walker side-kick; and Stormtroopers warm our hearts, and woo with carnations. Gilliver arranges each miniscule element of his scenes, to create works of art that will absolutely make us laugh. Their realist sharpness – facilitated by photography as the medium – ensures that his comic arrangements (the visual equivalent to a comedian’s comic timing) is expressed as clearly as possible. And his use of warm lighting, and colourful interiors also makes these works aesthetically beautiful pieces in themselves. Ultimately, they reminds us that art is to be enjoyed; it exists to bless our walls with treasures that we love, and can make us genuinely laugh.
So – if you haven’t got this impression already; we absolutely love photography. It is a unique and exciting medium, that – whilst being a part of our everyday life now – has so much still to give. We believe that we have some of the best contemporary photography around, in our midst – and we hope that, by delving into a little bit of it here, you will begin to agree.