Is Photography Art?

Photography – Is it art?

This question has troubled the art world since the very first photographic images were created and fixed in the 1830s. There are those (mainly painters) that argue that since the images were formed mechanically they were of a less ‘fine’ form such as tapestry or fabric printing. The argument rages around the creativity and human endeavour required. As the twentieth century progressed and art changed dramatically it is clear that photography became very serious art indeed. Those that wish to further their understanding of this debate (and fry their brains at the same time) should tackle Walter Benjamin’s great essay of 1936, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

This digression  however is really only to introduce a second painting from the recent Ashmolean exhibition: America’s Cool Modernism. I was taken by the simplicity and directness of Edward Steichen’s Le Tournesol (The Sunflower) in the first room.

Le Tournesol (The Sunflower)

Edward Steichen, Le Tournesol (The Sunflower), 1922, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Edward Steichen (1879-1973) was born in Luxembourg, but moved to USA in 1881. He was heavily influenced by European Modernism and spent time in France before the First World War. The painting of 1922 evokes that period of modernism inspired by the machine and the crisp lines and vibrant colours are typical of a movement called precisionism. Whilst vaguely figurative Stecichen wanted to streamline nature into its basic form. I simply love how the artist has rendered the tone of the vase but most of all the brilliance of the flower. Does it represent the sun, or maybe the flash of the camera. Hence my digression on photography.

As well as being a very accomplished modern painter, Edward Steichen was a truly great pioneer in the world of photography. His biography could be regarded as the definitive study of photography as fine art in twentieth century America. He had developed a partnership with Alfred Stieglitz as early as 1900 and worked on photography in magazine work through to 1917, when he entered the war. He became depressed after the war and in 1923 abandoned painting completely in a fit of rage which saw him destroy many of his works, turning entirely to photography. The Sunflower only survived as Steichen had lent it temporarily  to a friend. So despite his undoubted quality as a machine age modern painter it was his photography and understanding of America which made him.

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Edward Steichen, Flatiron, 1904, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

His full career in photography is well worth a read but highlighted by being a photographer for the fashion magazines Vogue and Vanity Fair, and from 1947-61 was the Director of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art in New York.

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Edward Steichen, Gloria Swanson, 1924, (for Vogue Magazine)

So where am I in the debate? Well as (I believe) Art is a mix of creativity (construction) and dexterity (technique), then clearly it must be an art form in its own right – I just do not go out of my way to hunt out photography exhibitions. Now digital imaging, which I see as more akin to painting, well that is different and well worth seeking out. Maybe Steichen’s Sunflower foresaw the digital age. You decide.

Stained Glass at Gloucester

Fotheringhay was a great day out and made me think a little bit more about dead kings and cathedrals. Leicester Cathedral is quite an attraction since the bones of Richard III arrived. But are they really the last Plantagenet’s relics or a very elaborate modern hoax. You must be your own judge. Well at least Gloucester has a genuine King buried in its great Cathedral. Well if you believe that one…good luck. There is no proof it was even the alleged murdered sovereign at his own funeral, let alone whose body it is in the tomb. But oh what a tomb – probably the finest example of existing fourteenth century masonry and alabaster carving anywhere in the land. Do go and see.

Of course this short post is not about imaginary dead kings. It is about twenty first century stained glass. Well away from Edward’s tomb at Gloucester is the Thomas Chapel in the south east corner. A small chapel with fairly unexciting architecture compared to the rest but containing Thomas Denny’s 2014 stained glass windows depicting Thomas meeting the risen Christ, and the Creation of psalm 148. The window is dedicated to the Gloucestershire poet, Ivor Gurney, and reveals all manner of images in different lights.

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Thomas Denny’s triptych of Windows for the Thomas Chapel, Gloucester Cathedral (2014)

It is perhaps fitting that Denny also produced two windows for Leicester Cathedral. Inspired by the life of Richard III.

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One of the Thomas Denny windows inspired by King Richard III at Leicester Cathedral (2016)

I found the Thomas Chapel on a visit earlier this week to Gloucester Cathedral. This magnificent building has so many great architectural delights to take in but occasionally it is worth avoiding the big stuff and just sit and enjoy a quiet corner. Let everyone else go and hunt for the great Norman nave, the important history of the Perpendicular, or the Harry Potter cloisters and just take in the quiet solitude of the pilgrims church.

A question – Which is the largest Great East Window; Gloucester or York?

Fotheringhay and Royal History

Sandy Denny, while with Fairport Convention, wrote her very haunting Fotheringay in 1969 about imprisonment. Was it about Mary Queen of Scots or was it an allegory of the medieval, or general captivity of women? Virtually nothing exists now of Fotheringhay Castle. The Great Hall where the Stuart pretender Queen met her executioner in 1587 is gone; only the old keep mound, part of the silted up moat and a railed up piece of stone are there for the tourist. But the quiet solitude of the site and the village just hint at that lonely event so long ago. Do go to see Mary’s tomb in Westminster Abbey next to Queen Elizabeth’s to understand the importance of her life though.

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Artists impression of the sixteenth century castle at Fotheringhay with The Great Hall

Fotheringhay throws up another delight however, and the reason for our visit. The Church of St Mary and All Souls must be one of the finest examples of the fifteenth century English Perpendicular style as well as being the mausoleum for the Yorkist Dynasty of the Wars of the Roses a hundred years earlier. The collegiate church at Fotheringhay was founded by Richard, the second Duke of York, killed at Agincourt. Buried together at the altar are the third Duke and his brother Edmund, Duke of Rutland, both killed at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460 pursuing the Yorkist cause. The Yorkist symbol of the fetterlock and falcon is everywhere. The most interesting being at the centre of the fan vault below the tower. Look for the wonderful painted pulpit, given to the church by Edward IV. 

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Interior of Fotheringhay Church with Fan Vault and Yorkist Falcon and Fetterlock

The real delight is the architecture. The fifteenth century parish church is pure English Perpendicular with a marvellous lantern tower at the western end. The York Window at the east end displays the symbols and arms of the Yorkists and was donated by the Richard III Society in 1975. What makes the building even more significant is its undoubted influence on St George’s, Windsor (Harry and Meghan). King Edward IV, who was brought up at Fotheringay was the major sponsor of the fifteenth century chapel at Windsor and it is impossible not to see the influence. How does this come about you ask. The parish church we see now is only part of the original fifteenth century structure. It was built on to the Duke of York’s collegiate church and cloisters, subsequently destroyed during the Dissolution. A model shows the original fourteen bay Perpendicular chapel with complete Nave, choir and lady chapel. The influence is complete when you learn that St George’s chapel was also to have a lantern tower. The fortunes changed after the Battle of Bosworth and the Windsor money ran out as the royal building programme moved to King’s at Cambridge, the Tudor project from Lancastrian (King Henry VI) origins. The lantern was never constructed.

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Model of the Duke of York’s full Collegiate church in its fifteenth century glory.

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St George’s Chapel, Windsor, 1475-1530.

So go to Fotheringay and have a drink or meal in the Falcon (named after the Yorkist symbol). Wander around this quiet village and consider the turmoil of the past. The wars with France, the Roses Civil war, the birthplace of Richard III and the religious conflicts of Tudor England. Imagine what an important castle stood above the River Nene, and where all the stone has gone from it and the college. Where are you with the polarised positions of Richard III or Mary Queen of Scots? And then… all this should inspire the tragic Sandy Denny to pen her beautiful allegory of imprisonment.

How often she has gazed from castle windows o’er,
And watched the daylight passing within her captive wall,

Tomorrow at this hour she will be far away, Much farther than these islands,             Or the lonely Fotheringay

 

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The Church of St Mary and All Souls Church, Fotheringhay, Northamptonshire, c1434.

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The York Window, donated by the Richard III Society 1975. Note the boar, Richard’s symbol.

Modern Oxford

Walked around Oxford looking at modern buildings. Have spent so much time looking at medieval Oxford and skipping past the modern it was good to give them a proper viewing. Started at St Catherine’s College, Arne Jacobsen 1962 masterpiece, bringing together modern materials within an Oxford college layout. Jacobsen designs are so complete that they reach right down to the cutlery in the dining room. Alan Bullock was Master of St Catz when the new buildings were commissioned. I remember reading Bullock’s biography of Hitler, Study in Tyranny when I was thirteen and thought it the best history text I ever read at school. Despite the atrocious weather we walked past the English and Law faculties (Martin and Wilson 1964), Psychology and Zoology Lab (Martin 1971), Biomedical Sciences (Hawkins Brown 2008), Rhodes House (Baker 1929), Keeble Arco Building (Mather 1995), Nuclear Physics Lab (Ove Arup 1970), and finishing in the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter with the Mathematical Institute (Rafael Viñoly 2013) and Blavatnik School of Government (Herzog & de Meuron 2016). A great range from the natural feel of St Catz and the English Libraries through the brutality of the zoology lab to the calm of mathematics institute. The climax was undoubtedly the Blavatnik School of Government – Frank Lloyd Wright in Oxford in 2016, with the Window to the World, the largest single pane of glass in Europe. I now have a new set of buildings to show off to visitors in Oxford and how they intermix with the medieval and Victorian.

St Catherine’s College, Oxford, (Jacobsen 1962) in the sunshine.

Zoology and Psychology Lab, Oxford (Martin 1971)

Interior of Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford (De Herzog and De Meuron 2016)