Seduced by Art: Photography's nod to the Old Masters

The National Gallery’s first major exhibition of photography is a stimulating, challenging and thought-provoking affair. Quite a departure from normal proceedings one would think, but worry not, it’s grounded in art, amazingly so.
Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present is an extensive show that examines how photographers in the mid-nineteenth century looked to the work of the Old Masters to frame, compose and explore their own version of art.
Though this was the early days of the medium, many of its practitioners were keen to see how far they could go. Alongside its very real ability to document real life – by amazingly capturing genuine moments in history with figurative accuracy – photographers also wanted to create art through a lens.
To survey this, photographs from all the ages have been placed alongside their painterly counterparts across portraiture, landscape and still life. And then, like the anticipation of fireworks on Bonfire Night or New Year’s Eve, we sit back, waiting for the magic to happen.
What results is a dazzling rapport, as if the works of art – photography included in this description – were a metaphorical personification of a wise old man and a precocious youngster with nothing but time on their hands to enjoy.
There are no pretentious displays of the wisdom of age, or the arrogant assertions of youth. It is an open-platform and a space for egalitarianism, no conceit, no absolutes, just endless possibilities through discourse.
The dynamics are fascinating. Here we see Martin Parr’s barbed photography contrasted against Thomas Gainsborough’s masterpiece Mr and Mr Andrews (1750);  Julian Margaret Cameron’s religiously themed portraits paired with the conceptual works of Helen Chadwick; while the lingering influence of Anthony van Dyck is explored in the imagery of Oscar Gustav Rejlander and Richard Learoyd.
Is photography art, we ask ourselves? Why shouldn’t it be? From Henri Matisse to Ai Weiwei, everything, every conduit, every material, however insignificant – Cornelia Parker used fluff from the House of Commons in Doubtful Sound (2010) – is up for grabs. It’s what you do with it that counts.
The argument against photography being art comes down to how it is used. If the image is conceived as a matter of record, capturing history, reporting the news or observing the many little idiosyncrasies of life, then it doesn’t exist as a work of art.
However, another counter-argument can be imposed. Every item of art, in all its variants – film, music and literature included – might well have no higher purpose other than to entertain, inform or educate, but, through criticism, new meanings can be established.
“Somehow, the conversation here is too polite,” comments the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones, as he debates whether the exhibition says as much.
“Yes, photography can be art, but photography that is not art can, paradoxically, be of more artistic interest – as Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol understood when they used police mugshots or photo-booth portraits in their work.”
While Mr Jones concludes that Seduced By Art doesn’t justifiably assert photography as art, suggesting that it “celebrates the more civilised side” of the medium, it does at least offer a base from which to further explore the matter.
What is perhaps lacking is the real avant-garde side of photography, which can be seen in FUTURELAND NOW – Reflections of the post-industrial landscape at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle.
Looking at the work of John Kippin and Chris Wainwright, the show is predominately based on an assessment of contemporary photography’s ability to reflect and highlight the issues of our time. But, set within the framework of a cultural establishment, and in close proximity to the gallery’s permanent collection of eighteenth and nineteenth century painting, something special is realised.
The curators of the National Gallery’s might just fall short of something truly spectacular, but they are just about there, on the cliff edge of perfection. Still, for a first time adventure into photography, they really have done rather well.
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