It has taken 180 years but the National Gallery has finally recognised photography as an art form and organised an exhibition to mark this mind-shift. Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present doesn’t go as far as laying out a survey of photography, from Fox Talbot to Andreas Gursky by way of Nadar, Weegee, Arbus, Penn… (where do you stop?). But like a parent with an over-inquisitive toddler, it keeps the upstart medium on a short rein. The theme of the exhibition is photography’s debt to painting.
The gallery’s point is that from photography’s invention in the 1830s, photographers looked to the examples provided by painting as they started to explore what their new medium could do. Almost all the genres were the same: still-lifes, landscapes, nudes, portraits. The only thing photography couldn’t represent or capture, thanks to early exposure times, which were in the minutes rather than seconds, was an object in motion.
So for the best way to show a face, look to Van Dyck for style and lighting; for a still-life, turn to Dutch 17th-century pictures bulging with fruit and flowers; for landscape, just go to Constable; for the nude, Classical statuary was, in its un-cellulited way, the best guide.
Photographers using paintings as inspiration
The exhibition has two and a half strands: the pioneering photographers who turned to paintings for instruction and inspiration; the modern practitioners who are following in their shutter clicks; and a display of a cluster of paintings from the gallery’s collection alongside related modern photographs.
A Martin Parr photograph of a Thatcher-era suburban couple, self-conscious and ill at ease in front of his lens in their immaculate sitting room, hangs alongside Gainsborough’s celebrated portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews, the ultimate painting of rolling acres and entitlement. The pairing neatly encapsulates shifting aspirations and social change: autres temps, autres moeures.
Sam Taylor-Wood’s Still Life, a time-lapse video of a bowl of peaches and pears decomposing over weeks but reduced to under four minutes, is contrasted with the imperishable fruit painted by the 18th-century Spaniard Luis Meléndez.
Richard Billingham’s huge modern photograph of empty sea and sky is seen as the descendant of the mid-19th-century photographer Gustave Le Gray and his painter peer François Bocion.
There is a nothing-new-under-the-sun feel to this, perhaps. But the photographs, old and new, are independently of great beauty. For example, the work of Julia Margaret Cameron (the woman who photographed Tennyson, Thomas Carlyle and Ellen Terry) is notable not just for its historical association but for its formal qualities.
Light and Love, 1865, may be a reimagining, bordering on pastiche, of a traditional Madonna and Child painting; but its stillness, subtle lighting and careful manipulation of depth of field are signs of the care she took with every aspect of making the photograph. That hasn’t changed.
Nor is there is any doubt that the photograph of Lieutenant-General Sir John Campbell and the remains of the Light Company of the 38th (1st Staffordshire) Regiment of Foot (1855) by Roger Fenton, the first war photographer – showing a row of soldiers on a barren plain in the Crimea – is poignant because half the company were killed. But it is also arresting for its formal, toy-soldier composition.
The exhibition leaps virtually the whole of the 20th century and intentionally eschews stellar names such as Andreas Gursky and Cindy Sherman – whose photographs relate to the high-art tradition – or indeed Warhol and Gerhard Richter, whose paintings rely on photographs.
The practitioners they do include, however (Reineke Dijkstra, Tacita Dean et al), have an equally deep involvement with the traditions of both photography and art.
The difference between a snap and a proper photograph was neatly encapsulated by Oscar Rejlander, who asked in 1866: “If my maid of all work, after I have posed myself before the looking-glass, takes off the cap of the lens when I cough, and replaces it at my grunt, has she taken the picture? She thinks ‘she did it’.”
This exhibition is about the photographers who have had no doubt that they “did it” themselves, and they thought about it long and hard first.
Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present is at The National Gallery from 31 October 2012 to 20 January 2013