Henri Matisse was one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. He radically changed our view of painting, and gave America a model for the kind of liberated painting Pollock and others were known for. His challenging work was not the only radical aspect to Matisse. He also held strong beliefs as to what constitutes art. For instance, Matisse believed that the photograph was an apt "document," but nothing more. He elaborated in an interview with Alfred Stieglitz in 1908:
"Photography can provide the most precious documents existing and no one can contest its value from that point of view. If it is practiced by a man of taste, the photograph will have an appearance of art. But I believe that it is not of any importance in what style they have been produced; photographs will always be impressive because they show us nature, and all artists will find in them a world of sensations. The photographer must therefore intervene as little as possible, so as not to cause photography to lose the objective charm which it naturally possesses, notwithstanding its defects. By trying to add to it he may give the result the appearance of an echo of a different process. Photography should register and give us documents."
-Henri Matisse, Camera Work, Number 24, October 1908
This is my response...
Dear Monsieur Matisse:
I write to you in response to your interview with Alfred Stieglitz published in Camera Work, and I must say, I strongly disagree with your dispute with photography as art. As a man of such prolific vision, how are you so blind to see a burgeoning art form?
You mention photography as the most precious document in existence but neglect to identify painting as serving a similar historical role. Prior to the photograph, paintings were the most apt document. The bourgeoisie commissioned painters to represent their likeness until a more accurate form of documentation came along: the photograph. The naturalism found in photography outdid your ilk and pushed painters to move from Realism to abstraction in order to maintain prestige. Photographers eventually moved to abstraction, which pushed painters to photorealism (The Baltimore Sun: Photography and Painting Influence Each Other, February, 1998). So you see, it is this game of cat and mouse that pushes art into new and exciting directions (created by the advent of the photograph).
I will agree with you on one point, however. By your definition of photography as the most precious documentation, “the photographer must intervene as little as possible, so as not to cause photography to lose the objective charm which it naturally possesses.” Where we diverge is the term on which this definition applies. What you described is not photography as a whole but rather photojournalism. It is in this field of photography where the photographer’s assignment is to be the impartial documentary observer; the fly on the wall, so to speak. I also agree with you that these images can have an appearance of art when done tastefully (which they always should), but are not in fact art. These image-makers are the predecessors of photographic art. The bold pioneers proving that a photograph can be more than mere documentation. They portrayed reality with a unique, artistic vision and conveyed intentional emotion to the viewer, but again, this is not art.
In the photographic sense, to have artistic vision is to employ the techniques derived predominately from painting and drawing. Composition, proportion, contrast, pattern, variance of tone, balance, cropping, leading lines, contour, texture, and choice of printing medium (e.g. canvas, paper, wood, etc) all apply to artistic vision. Furthermore, photography has advanced the artistic vision of painters by influencing the concepts of a tilted horizon line and cropping subjects partially out of the frame. This is clearly shown through the work of Edgar Degas who embodied the candid snapshot aesthetic in painting.
The point at which photography becomes art is when the photographer is no longer an observer but a puppeteer carefully orchestrating the scene. These images are often achieved by utilizing the style of tastefully done photojournalism but in fact are purposeful compositions.
We must remember that there are two kinds of photographs: those that capture a moment and those that capture the viewer. Occasionally these two can overlap, but when images are carefully composed, purposeful and artfully executed, the photograph is nothing more than the medium the artist chooses to get his/her point across. It is no more or less a form of art as painting, drawing, sculpting, or song.
Ryan Harrison Gould