Exercise 1.4: What is a photographer?

“Marius De Zayas (1880–1961) was an essayist, intellectual and curator of modern art and was closely allied to the 291 gallery. His essay ‘Photography and Photography and Artistic- Photography’, first published in Camera Work no. 41 (1913), makes a distinction between the ‘artist photographer’ and ‘photographers’. Read the essay closely, summarising De Zayas’ key points. In your learning log, write down your responses to his point of view, and consider whether these questions are still relevant today. As a practitioner yourself, where do you stand on this issue?”

De Zayas begins by saying that photography heralds a new era in art.

Having stated this, he then draws to differentiate between the traditional arts and photography.  He asserts that art is an interpretation of an idea, whereas photography is a facsimile of something that is real. On this basis, photography is not an art, going as far as to say that the difference between art and photography is fundamentally the difference between an idea and nature itself.  Although different disciplines, he concedes that they are linked in that the idea behind artistic expression finds its inspiration in nature, as does photography.

He looks into the history of how art evolved and believes that the original stimulus for art was the expression of the ideas of religion (arguably even cave paintings, rooted as they are in ancient Shamanic and pagan invocations to the gods to provide a good hunt, for example).

Over time, this has diminished due to the growing secularisation of society in favour of the expression of Form.  The ‘soul’ of art has been lost since form is restricted to worldly visualisations where things like mystery and fantasy have diminished status in modern life.


Since physical capability is almost always the limiting factor in expressing our imagination to its fullest extent, art cannot ‘fully recognise the preconceived idea’.  i.e. a work of art will never be as good as the real Form – or Idea – it is derived from.  In this way, art is analysed to extremes – finding differences between ‘similar’ and ‘identical’ that would not have been discerned in previous eras.

He draws parallels with African and Western society to make this point.  By contrasting ‘less developed’ cultures from Western culture we note that they still interpret form in the decorative and abstract compared to the West, giving prominence to things like buttons themselves, and not to the placement on the garment of the wearer.

We in the West now rely more heavily on analysis to ‘see’, having culturally been on a journey through Impression then Observation to get to Analysis.

He claims that ‘form’ has been expressed in different ways through the ages and that currently – the most advanced time in human development – form is actually nothing new, but an amalgamation of all the previous ones.

Having been led on this cultural journey through history and society, we are now at the point where art actually represents what we have already analysed as having already given us pleasure in other works of art. It is no longer truly original and creative in the way that the caveman’s paintings were but derived from what came before it.  As such it is now detached from Form and no longer represents it.

We fill the void with rules and dogma about Form – instead of actual, first-hand unadulterated Form!  Art ‘experts’ will promote their feelings about art to fit their particular way of seeing Form. In reality, nature’s Form might actually be very different. If we can reconnect with that original force – our imagination – feelings about true Form would again arise within us.  This is where we find our true creative expression, based purely on our expressive portrayal of how we (not other artists) perceive form.

Since imagination is always therefore detached from Form, in order to make progress towards understanding Form again we need something new, a tool that is objective rather than subjective about Form.  He proposes the camera to be the perfect device through which we can achieve this ‘perfect consciousness’ through.  Photography has removed that ‘veil of mystery’ around representation of Form that was erected by Art.

His argument thus far can be summed up in the quote: “Art presents to us what we may call the emotional or intellectual truth; photography is the material truth“.  He continues, ‘”Art has taught us to feel emotions in the presence of a work that represents the emotions experienced by the artist. Photography teaches us to realise and feel our own emotions.”


I tend to agree up to a point.  Level 1 has taught me to shift my thinking to see that the power of photography is that it is literal, believable, something that existed before the photographer’s lens for a moment.  Life triggers emotions in us and these elements of life can be captured and represented in visually verbatim form – in a way that the skills of a painter never can.  

Yet there is another aspect to this where I disagree with De Zayas.  The photographer does make many of the same creative decisions to inject his own emotion into the image. The most obvious way is through selective framing and composition. But there ay many more – especially in this age of digital manipulation.


In the following section of the essay De Zayas moves on to make the same argument – ‘photographs can be made to be art‘.  He describes it as an ‘experimental science of Form’. He introduces the concept of Photographer and Artist Photographer as separate disciplines.  The former occupies the first half of his essay, the domain of the natural history, social, documentary (perhaps) and forensic photographer.

On the other hand, the Artist-Photographer turns his attention to pleasure, not knowledge.  To subjectivity, not Objectivity.  This opens up photography as the next major paradigm for artistic expression.  Contemporaries of that time, he cites Steichen and Steiglitz as examples of this happening – Steichen through using a camera for ‘painting with Form’ and Steiglitz seeking the ‘pure expression of the object’ for example in Clouds which I explored in Level 1 Identity & Place.

This was written around one hundred years ago.  So what has changed since?

I would argue that time has shown De Zayas to be correct.  Far from being alone in this field, we now have a photographer – Tillmans – winning the Turner prize with work that, I would argue, follow Steiglitz’s approach to ‘pure expression of the object’ while ‘painting with form’ too.

Paper Drop (New York) II, Wolfgang Tillmans 2008






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