British photographic history

Information and discussion on all aspects of British photographic history

Course: A concise history of photography / London: 9-10 November 2019

Investigate the fascinating history and theories of photography in this weekend-long course hosted by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and delivered by Professor Mark  Rawlinson. 

In 1859, Charles Baudelaire famously described photography as “art’s mortal enemy” and argued its proper function was to be the “very humble servant” of the sciences and arts. For Baudelaire, photography’s ability to reproduce nature exactly was its genius but also its fatal flaw. Unlike art, for Baudelaire, photographic representation could not elevate its subject – the sitter of a portrait or the view of a landscape – because it simply mirrored them and made a copy and photography should be to art what the printing press was to literature: a tool.

Such criticisms require us to ask some important questions about photography: what is it? why does it exist? what is it for? And, of course, is photography art? It also asks us to consider the relationship between photography and the arts more widely. For example, how has non-photographic art and architecture influenced photography, and vice-versa?

Photography’s aspiration to be considered equal to painting is obvious in images from the 19th and early 20th centuries which echo and mimic painterly compositions and artistic styles. The emergence of painterly abstraction was paralleled in photography, but rather than simply copy painting, photography explored new visual territory, and on its own terms becoming avant-garde. The 20th century witnessed the birth of self-conscious modes of photography: straight, staged, abstract, collaged, and camera-less photographic techniques were reinvented. So too were the processes of making, printing, and exhibiting photography. Even the truth claims of documentary photography – the genre best aligned to ‘copying’ reality – continue to be reasserted and challenged.

To better understand these questions and relationships, this course explores photographic histories in relation to art history’s own complicated relationship with the medium. Sessions will consider a variety of historical moments where art and photography collide, points in time where art, photography and criticism were irrevocably altered.

From the 19th Century Eadweard Muybridge’s work in photographic studies of motion to the contemporary David Hockney's artworks, the course traces and illuminates the productive relationship between photographic practices and art.

London: Royal Academy
8-9 November, 2019
See more and book here.

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