170 Years After Its Birth, Photography Must Refocus on Its Identity for the Future. What makes photography alone such an equal-opportunity art form?
Merry Foresta, director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative, says that the medium is broad in its embrace now “because it was broad in its embrace in the beginning.” From the moment of Louis Daguerre’s announcement of photography’s birth in 1839, people have wondered whether it would turn out to be art or not, which of its images would matter and which wouldn’t. “It has that kind of questioning embedded in it,” says Foresta. We’ve inherited that open-mindedness, she thinks, to the point that her project, which is looking into the millions of photos held by every branch of the Smithsonian, can afford to ignore the entire art/non-art question.
In today’s “high” art world, content is supposed to matter more than style, and that has given a boost to the straightest of documentary photography. Just-the-facts-ma’am photos by prominent artists such as Dan Graham and Alan Sekula have a foursquare attitude that brings them close to images from newspapers or annual reports. And it’s that attitude — what my colleague Philip Kennicott calls the “fetish for raw data” — that makes them read as credible art.