Photography As Fine Art by Brian Stater

Our Society celebrated our 40th Birthday in September, using our new name which adorned the cake and examining photographs of our activities over the years.

We began our new season with our new name, with a relatively new Art.  Photography.  Brian Stater asked us whether photography was equal to the old masters, or may even surpass them on occasion.

Photography As Fine Art was perhaps a different concept for many of us, but Brian was very convincing.  He began by telling us that we British are the most photographed nation in the world - there are 5.9million CCTV cameras around the country.  But, we have only recently begun to accept photographs as being worthy of inclusion in our national art collections.  

The United States and Europe have accepted photography for quite some time, but not us.  Leading to an outburst by David Bailey "The Brits don't understand photography".  The National Portrait Gallery now does include photographs.  

Even dictionary definitions are either lacking or confusing.  However, the Oxford Dictionary of Fine Art in the 18th century defined Fine Art as "appealing to the mind, or to a sense of beauty".  We have to admit that many of the splendid photos reproduced in our newspapers appeal to both.

Before Brian began to really try and convince us he talked about Brockenhurst Station and Julia Margaret Cameron, who lived on the Isle of Wight and took many local photos.  Her pictures of the Station for many years decorated the waiting room at Brockenhurst.  These were seen by an art historian who was passing through and suddenly Julia Margaret Cameron was famous; asked to take portraits and compared to Rembrandt.  All this was in the mid nineteenth century.

Brian then skipped to the mid twentieth century and talked about Arnold Newman, (left) an American who concentrated on artists and politicians.  We were asked to examine the portrait of Stravinsky, framed by triangles formed by a grand piano and his arms.  It was a fascinating composition which would not have worked in conventional painting.  Another of Picasso, with his hands represented by bread rolls on the table.  A familiar face in an unfamiliar setting for a portrait, informal by effective.

From these famous names Brain turned to genres.  Landscapes first took our attention.  Ansel Adams, also American, founded the Fine Art Photographic Department in San Francisco's university.  His technique was to adapt the negatives to ensure that the nature he had photographed looked untouched by human hands.    Unfortunately the end results were so beautiful that people flocked to see the sites and promptly ruined them with roads and buildings.

Bill Brandt lived in Britain and photographed the Isle of Sky and a meandering river in the wilds of West Sussex.  Brandt waited three months to get exactly the picture he wanted.

Richard Moss was a journalist as well;

he photographed the Civil War in the Congo.  

One picture taken using infra-red film was a

dramatic bloody representation of disaster.

Our next genre was Still Life.  We were treated to a close up of a leaf by Ansell Adams and a leaf in a puddle by Ernst Haas.   Haas had lived in and photographed Vienna during the war which led us on to the last category, The Human Condition.  Martin Parr and Andreas Gursky were two of the late twentieth century  photographers he mentioned.  A copy of one photograph by Gursky, The Poverty of Affluence, was sold for $3.5m.

Our final name for the evening was Henri Cartier-Bresson.  A prolific photographer, Cartier-Bresson never cropped his images, ensuring that the picture he took was the picture he wanted.  From Wall Street to the coronation of George VI his works are still famous.

Brian Stater ended his talk by emphasising the concepts which influenced those photographers whose work competed with, or possibly surpassed, the works of the fine art painters.  The Narrative gleaned from the picture and the importance of the Composition were important.  The last images he showed us were the iconic picture of St Paul's during the blitz, the tanks in Tiananmen Square and one from Vietnam.  Taken during the racial struggles of the United States it shows a wounded black soldier moving compassionately towards an even more wounded white officer.   That touch of red centralises the viewpoint, on to the wounded black soldier.

Brian Stater started our season well, giving us a great deal to think about and showing some splendid photographs in the process.