Byline: Peter Plagens
How is that even remotely possible? The medium certainly looks alive, well and, if anything, overpopulated. There are hordes of photographers out there, working with back-to-basics pinhole cameras and pixeled images measured in gigabytes, with street photography taken by cell phones and massive photo "shoots" whose crews, complexity and expense resemble those of movie sets. Step into almost any serious art gallery in Chelsea, Santa Monica or Mayfair and you're likely to be greeted with breathtaking large-format color photographs, such as Andreas Gefeller's overhead views of parking lots digitally montaged from thousands of individual shots or Didier Massard's completely "fabricated photographs" of phantasmagoric landscapes. And the establishment's seal of approval for photography has been renewed in two current museum exhibitions. In "Depth of Field" -- the first installation in the new contemporary-photography galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, on display through March 23 -- the fare includes Thomas Struth's hyperdetailed chromogenic print of the interior of San Zaccaria in Venice and Adam Fuss's exposure of a piece of photo paper floating in water to a simultaneous splash and strobe.
At the National Gallery of Art in Washington, "The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888-1978" (up through Dec. 31) celebrates average Americans who wielded their Brownies and Instamatics to stunning effect.
Yet wandering the galleries of these two shows, you can't help but wonder if the entire medium hasn't fractured itself beyond all recognition. Sculpture did the same thing a while back, so that now "sculpture" can indicate a hole in the ground as readily as a bronze statue. Digitalization has made much of art photography's vast variety possible. But it's also a major reason that, 25 years after the technology exploded what photography could do and be, the medium seems to have lost its soul. Film photography's artistic cachet was always that no matter how much darkroom fiddling someone added to a photograph, the picture was, at its core, a record of something real that occurred in front of the camera. A digital photograph, on the other hand, can be a Photoshop fairy tale, containing only a tiny trace of a small fragment of reality. By now, we've witnessed all the magical morphing and seen all the clever tricks that have turned so many photographers -- formerly bearers of truth -- into conjurers of fiction. It's hard to say "gee whiz" anymore.
Art and truth used to be fast friends. Until the beginning of modernism, the most admired quality in Western art was mimesis -- objects in painting and sculpture closely resembling things in real life. William Henry Fox Talbot, who produced the first photographic prints from a negative in 1839, immediately saw the mimetic new medium as an art form. Talbot wanted only to be able to "draw" more accurately than by hand. In fact, he called his first book of reproduced photographs "The Pencil of Nature." For at least a century thereafter, any photograph with a claim to being art had in its DNA at least a few chromosomes from Talbot's "The Open Door" (1844), a picture of a tree-branch broom leaning just-so-esthetically against a dark doorway. Of course, great photographers have never merely recorded visual facts indiscriminately, like a court stenographer taking down testimony. They've selected their subjects carefully and framed their views of them precisely, in order to give their pictures the look of "art." Later in the 19th century, "pictorialist" photographers used soft focus, toothy paper, sepia tones, multiple negatives and even scratching back into the image as ways of getting photographs to look more like paintings.
Soon, photography escaped the exclusive grasp of the professionals and moneyed hobbyists who could afford its cumbersome equipment, and the public began to take its own pictures. In the 1920s, small, inexpensive fast-shutter cameras like the Kodak Brownie appeared. …