When George Eastman introduced the Kodak camera in 1888, he also coined the slogan, "you press the button, we do the rest."
Photography had already drawn criticism from other artistic disciplines for being a medium based predominantly in science, not art. It also had a dual relationship with itself, in that it served as both a document and an art form.
Now Eastman had provided photography with another adversary: the amateur photographer who simply had to purchase a camera, expose the preloaded film and send the camera back for the film to be processed and printed. Photography soon became a fad and would continue to be a medium that would be hard to define because of the diverse practices of the medium.
One hundred and twenty-five years after the release of the original Kodak camera, photography is still not easily defined or categorized. The digital revolution in photography has made the medium even more affordable and accessible. We live in a time when most Americans always have some sort of a camera in their possession. There are more photographs being made on a daily basis than in any other time in history.
This fact brings forth many questions about the medium that have previously been asked, but never easily answered, such as: What makes a photograph art? What qualifies a photograph as being professional? Can a document also be considered an art form? These questions and many more may be impossible to answer because of the diverse nature of the images being created and the intents with which they are made. Perhaps photographs can only be measured based on this varied intent.
The Pictorialists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in an effort to establish the medium as an art form, adopted techniques to emulate the paintings of the Impressionists. Some may argue that in doing so, they ignored photography's true defining characteristics of being able to record realistic details and reveal truths by capturing moments in time. Should these Pictorialist images be excluded from the history of the medium because they do not adhere to a particular group's opinion of proper practice? I think not.
I received my first camera at the age of 7 and have been fascinated by the medium ever since. My first photographs were typical of a person new to photography, and cliche at best. Flowers from my mother's garden, family, friends, pets and the like made up most of my subject matter. My parents praised me for my efforts, as any parent would encourage a passionate interest of a child, but certainly the images did not deserve praise for their aesthetic prowess. I have spent the better part of my life since that time trying to define what photography is to me and how I might use it as an effective form of communication and expression.
Arnold Newman said, "We don't take photographs with our cameras, we take them with our hearts and our minds. They are a reflection of ourselves, what we are, and what we think." This quote resonates in me because it gets at the heart of why anyone who has ever taken a photograph does so. There are moments in our lives that move us to pick up a camera, regardless of what type, and "press the button." I believe that one element that makes a photograph great is when the creator recognizes what truly created the impulse to push the button and is able to reveal something more than the physicality of the subject matter. Certainly there are technical and aesthetic considerations, but if an image does not speak from the heart, it is likely that it will not truly be seen.
Come and see some of the diverse images created by the students and alumni of the professional photography program at the CMC ArtShare Gallery this month. The show runs through March 2.
Derek Johnston is the program director and an associate professor in Colorado Mountain College's professional photography program, which is now part of the Isaacson School for New Media.