By Kim Grant
Associate Professor of Art History, University of Southern Maine
I was delighted to be asked to teach a mini-course on Pictorialist photography and the Group f/64 for the Portland Museum of Art. Not only does the course provide an opportunity to show and discuss a great many beautiful photographs from the early 20th century, it also directly addresses an issue that I find fascinating: the debates on what makes a photograph a work of art. Nowadays, when many people (although certainly not all) have accepted that pretty well any sort of object might be considered a work of art, it seems incredible that for over 100 years people argued vigorously about whether or not photography could be an art form. The Pictorialists and the Group f/64 disagreed on many aspects of what made a photograph an artwork, and their debates renewed earlier 19th century debates on the same subject.
Where do science, technical concerns, and mechanics stop and art begin? There really is no final answer; each time finds its own solutions. In the first half of the 20th century people often seemed more certain of what art was and what it wasn’t than they do now. Another striking difference from today was the respect given to amateur photographers in the early 20th century. Then it was the amateurs who were artists, while professional photographers were often viewed as commercial technicians. Of course, in reality the distinction was often blurred, and professionals made artistic photographs as well as producing commercial images to order. Now we might find their commercial images more interesting, and sometimes even more artistic, than the photographs they considered art. Tastes and attitudes have changed. What once seemed like a revelation of beauty becomes stale and is replaced by something completely different. I wonder as I look at the photographs of the Pictorialists and the Group f/64 which style would most appeal to people today.
Professor Grant will be teaching a three-part mini-course at the Museum on Thursday, September 30, October 7 and 14, from 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Price: $40.00/$30 members/Free for Museum Docents, K-12 teachers, and Maine college students. Learn more.