Photography is constantly changing and hard to define. Its discursive and somewhat promiscuous nature has tended to confuse many people as to its status and value as an art form. The trouble is that it lends itself to many varied uses. We see photography in newspapers, surveillance, advertising campaigns and art galleries, and as fashion shots or family snaps. Meaning can slip and slide depending on context, and the fact that photography lacks any kind of unity and seems to have no intrinsic character makes the insistent cry of 'but is it art?' a constant refrain throughout its relatively short but complex history. Susan Bright 2005 'Art Photography Now', p. 7.
It is popular belief that the photograph was something to be believed, it was a moment frozen in time, an unquestionable product of authenticity. Photographs have never been evidence of absolute visual truth; double exposure and splicing, amongst other techniques, have been photographic processes used to manipulate perception as early as the 19th Century.
Bright follows on by saying that the early reservations about photography has been exacerbated by the invention of digital technology, and now the question is not 'is it art?', but 'is it photography?' "One reason why digitization makes many observers uncomfortable is that it takes us away from reality and into the realm of fantasy, an area which at first seems at odds with a seemingly objective and descriptive medium. However, the photograph's role as a conveyer of 'truth' or as a trace of reality has long been contested; and photographs have always been manipulated" (ibid, p. 9).
Walter Benjamin's The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936) discusses the affect of modernity on the art making process, in particular the invention of photography, and how that has changed perception. He talks about the loss of the aura in art work that is reproducible, where authenticity and originality of a work of art cannot be reproduced with the image.
The Work of Art had an immense influence on artists working in the 1960s and 70s, such as Andy Warhol, Dan Graham and Robert Rauschenberg, who questioned photography's supposed evidence of reality; and as a result challenged aesthetic conventions.
Postmodernism "exposed how photography was used and understood as a medium, as a material and as a message; ... a work was no longer seen as the creation of a single 'author' who retained the monopoly on its meaning but as the product of a certain context with a multiplicity of meanings" (ibid p. 13).
Bright, S. 2005, Art Photography Now, Thames and Hudson, UK.
la Grange, A. 2005 Basic Critical Theory for Photographers, Elsevier, Burlington. (electronic resource available from VU library)
Australian Photography and Photographers: Contemporary Australian Photography By Anne Marsh
Photography Reborn: Image Making in the Digital Era by Jonathan Lipkin