Still a case of 'neither fish nor fowl'

December 12, 1997

Photography. The way we conceptualise pictures, the media's use of disturbing images, and surreal selling

THE CURIOSITY and puzzlement that greeted the arrival of photography is being examined as part of a wide-ranging study of the practice and impact of the medium in Britain in the 19th century.

Open University researcher Steve Edwards says that for many onlookers during the early period of the medium, photography was a conundrum: "Viewers of photographs, at least until the end of 1860s were deeply perplexed by images that appeared to be 'neither fish nor fowl'. They wanted to think of photography as art but at the same time photographs did not fit existing notions of art. They were seen as kinds of drawings and yet they did not fit any of the models of drawing."

Dr Edwards believes that developing a deep understanding of these first reactions to the medium and making an issue of viewers' perplexity may allow a reconsideration of the ubiquitous and seemingly natural images of the late 20th century.

In the main, research on 19th century photography has been "antiquarian", involving the random collection of data, or "connoisseurial", with emphasis on the celebration of a few great artists. In contrast Dr Edwards's approach has been to study the early years of photography as a way of exploring the development of some powerful ideas that continue to exert a strong influence on contemporary thought and practice. "Central here is the split, which developed very early, between photography as a 'subjective art' and as an 'objective' representation," he says.

Many early photographers were themselves keen to elevate photography to a fine art in the belief that it would in turn raise their social status - they dreaded slipping down into the world of workers. But then there was the problem that the actual basis of their documents was objective, such as portraits, prized dogs and houses.

A major problem that 19th century viewers seemed to have with photography was that it appeared to belong to a series of mutually exclusive worlds: art, science and work. Dr Edwards is attempting "to take these curious overlappings as a way in to examine the relationships between fields of knowledge that are usually seen to be separate or even antagonistic".

His forthcoming book, Allegories of Labour: Photography, Art and Work in England 1835 -1875, due to be published in 1999, will examine the relationships in detail.

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