The Invention of the Photograph
Photography began in the 19th-century. Inspired by an age-old drawing tool called the camera obscura, inventors worked to discover a way in which to make a lifelike depiction of a scene permanent by using light to imprint the image onto a treated surface. The first ever “successful” photograph was taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in France in 1826; it is commonly known as View from the Window at Le Gras. Though blurry, this picture was monumentally important. Niépce referred to his invention as a heliograph - meaning “sun-light writing” (click here for more information on his process). Elsewhere in France, Niépce’s contemporary, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, was also working to perfect an image-capturing device. What he developed - aptly named the daguerreotype - produced a unique and astonishingly detailed image on a metal plate, a process which became quite popular in the following years. His invention debuted to the public in early-1839. In that same year, the medium was dubbed photography (“light drawing”) by a British scientist interested in refining the process - John Herschel.
But is it Art?
Since its inception, the photographic medium has been subjected to public critique as to whether it is an art form or purely a mechanical creation. In fact, in many early exhibitions, photographs were shown alongside crafts or mechanical technology rather than grouped with works of art. The argument that photography is not an art form originates with the perception that art must be created by hand and that photographs, conversely, are the product of a mechanical scientific process. There is a pervasive belief that, since a photograph can be created in an instant with the simple push of a button - especially in our modern world of technology and convenience - it is not “high brow” enough to be considered art. However, painting is unequivocally considered a fine art form, but can we not teach elephants to replicate predetermined motifs? Painting can be a trained series of movements, easily just as mechanical as the movement of a shutter. Art is not found in the ease or ability to produce, but in the quality of the end-product. Art is in the composition and the soul of the work. Just as some paintings are genius and some are contrived, some photographs are art and some are not.
Bruce Barnbaum - A Lifetime of Photography
Bruce Barnbaum’s work forms an expansive portfolio that is unmistakably art. Barnbaum has been professionally producing striking images of the natural world and man-made structures for over four decades. He pioneered the photography of breathtaking locations and has authored several books on the medium. Barnbaum began photographing as a hobby in the 1960s, simply recording places where he'd been. Thanks to a serendipitous connection with a coworker at the Department of Defense, Barnbaum purchased a camera that used 4x5-inch polyester-based film negatives (similar to the 35mm that many of us are familiar with, but larger) and fell in love with the format for his black-and-white photographs. Telling of how he came to favor this method, Barnbaum tells us, “Once I got into photography and learned how to expose black-and-white negatives and then make prints, I immediately said ‘I don’t want to do this with 35mm,’ and I have never exposed a 35mm black-and-white negative.”
A particularly notable image in the show is Circular Chimney, Antelope Canyon, from 1980. This is Barnbaum’s favorite photograph and marks an important moment for him as an artist. Circular Chimney opened up Arizona’s slit canyons to photographic exploration that our artist pioneered. This image marks his departure from pure realism and his debut into the world of abstraction. As the lens points up from the canyon floor, the undulating canyon walls become a swirling enigma of light and shadow. Place and time are essentially lost - only forms exist. Since creating this photograph, Barnbaum has continued to find ways to abstract the forms of his otherwise traditional subject matter. Part of his motivation for this, other than pure aesthetics, is to communicate with his audience on a deeper level. He says, “When I first got into photography, it was to show the places that I had seen … What I’ve been doing for a long time now is not trying to show what I’ve seen, but trying to show what I feel about what I’ve seen, which is a very different thing.”
Years later, as is the case with so many artists, he continues down this path that he had not originally imagined for himself. Following the appropriate education, Barnbaum began his adult life in mathematics and physics, but he has lived his life for art. “I started it as a hobby, and after 46 years, it's still a hobby. In other words, I still do it because I love doing it.”
Bruce Barnbaum is the author of numerous photography books, which will be displayed in the gallery alongside his artwork through May 2, 2016.
Harry Ransom Center - University of Texas at Austin - View from the Window at Le Gras
The Metropolitan Museum of Art - Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History - Daguerre
National Geographic - Milestones in Photography
Bruce Barnbaum's Website
Some Historically Notable Photographers
Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon)
Julia Margaret Cameron
Henry Fox Talbot
View from the Window at Le Gras - Wikimedia Commons
Boulevard du Temple - Wikimedia Commons