When a Parisian photographer named Warnod showed a work called Ships Entering the Port of Le Havre in 1862, the Revue Photographique ran a wet tongue over pointy teeth. Casting a lupine glance at Claude Monet - who was in the process of painting the same scene himself - the magazine observed that Warnod's image had "just as much harmony as the canvases of the most highly esteemed painters, and an absolute truth which artists of the utmost genius would be powerless to attain". The heirs of Messrs. Monet and Warnod have spent the subsequent 140 years slugging it out, and a new show at the Saatchi Gallery suggests that they're at it still.
The contest has not been entirely one-sided. Monet may have sat down grim-faced at the easel to ape photography's quickness and objectivity - le style Kodak even found some impressionists making paintings that looked like photographs - but the relationship had changed by the time Chuck Close came along a hundred years later. Instead of being special, photography had become anti-special.
The billions of images we regularly consume by way of the camera had not simply democratised the whole idea of image-making, but had debased it. Close's photorealist portraits were painted in a spirit of anxiety rather than of homage, and he was not alone. You might argue that the phenomenological doubt about what we see and how we see it that underlies most recent art - Postmodernism, the ironising of the YBAs, those oh-so- naive snapshots of Wolfgang Tillmans - is underpinned by a 150-year-old unease about the banalising influence of photography: an unease that has recently begun to be as worrisome to photographers as it has been to artists.
Which could have turned Saatchi's "I am a Camera" into a curatorial mess, with any old thing thrown in to fit an impossibly broad brief. That the first artwork you see in the show is not a two- dimensional piece at all but one of Duane Hanson's uncanny waxworks - the disconsolate-looking Man on a Bench - fills you with foreboding. What has this got to do with cameras?
To tell the truth, the answer is: nothing, or at least nothing at first. By the time you leave the show, though, you'll see that Hanson's waxen Sad Sack is all to do with ideas of authenticity - about the differences between realism and reality - that are themselves bound up with questions about how we have come to view truth in a photographic world.
This realisation comes about through the clever interweaving of images in "I am a Camera". On the photographic side, the show displays all kinds of internal self-doubts. …