On Photography and Graphic Design

The art world, for all its open-minded and revolutionary rhetoric, has not always been accepting of new media. Court painters during the medieval period were considered craftsmen instead of artists. Performance art met with hesitation and distrust. Photography, until fairly recently, was considered more of a craft than an art. The same has been true of graphic design – it was and is seen as a vocation by many, rather than a form of “fine art.” It is possible that graphic design is currently in the adolescence of its development; it is possible that the “commercial art” label will soon be replaced by widespread acceptance into galleries as well as the communications arena, much like painting, performance, and photography.

With photography as an example, one can see the various stages of development that have led to the medium’s acceptance as fine art. In several instances, such advances did not come without disrupting the status quo.

“In the nineteenth century a series of inventions in the reproduction of words and images had similarly far-reaching effects. The artist felt them especially. The perfection of photography by Daguerre, in 1839, was a simultaneous shock and challenge to the painter. Inexpensive color lithography (chromolithography), introduced in 1827, made it possible to reproduce a fairly wide range of colors and tones, especially in outdoor posters” (Feldman 148). As Edmund B. Feldman points out in The Artist: A Social History, these few small technological advances caused some very large ripples in the art world. Unfortunately, the ripples themselves wouldn’t be readily recognized as art until quite a while later.

With the Daguerreotype, photography brought to art an amazingly accurate recording device. Though many further developments would be necessary before the camera would be an accessible and convenient medium, this invention immediately began to change the face of portraiture, landscape painting, and other genres that required accuracy and precision, according to Philip B. Meggs’ A History of Graphic Design (137). Paintings that would have required several hours of labor and relatively great expense were effectively available from a photographer in considerably less time and for considerably less money – not to mention that these early photographs were more accurate than what even the most skilled of painters could produce.

Painter Francis Bacon once stated in an interview published in Art in Theory: 1900-2000 that, “photography has altered completely this whole thing of figurative painting” (Harrison 638). Photography allowed (and/or forced) painters to focus less on perspective and representation and more on their own artistic ideas. Photographs also took a fair bit of the portraiture market from painters (Meggs 142).

Osip Brik, in his essay “Photography versus Painting,” originally published in 1926, commented that “the photographer is enormously impressed by the fact that the painter does not work to commission but for himself, that paintings are presented in large exhibitions with varnishing days, catalogues, music, buffet food and speeches… and that such exhibitions are regarded as cultural events. All this confirms him in the idea that painting is true art, photography merely an insignificant craft” (Harrison 472).

Photographers did not receive the recognition of having their work in galleries as other artists did. They worked off commissions from patrons rather than from their own ideas and theories. Most photographic theory of that time was based on technical processes rather than creative ones.

But, “new forms of art are created by the canonization of peripheral forms,” according to Viktor Shklovsky, a Russian Formalist critic and novelist (Sontag 189). Indeed, who is to say that what is now not considered art won’t be better understood and accepted in the future?

As it happened, photography became gradually more welcomed in art, gaining considerable respect in the latter half of the twentieth century. “The customary separation of photography into a specialty medium with a discourse apart from the general course of contemporary art largely disappeared as more artists turned to the camera,” (Fineberg 384). In the late 1960s and early 1970s artists began to rely more on the camera to get their ideas to a broader audience, especially when working “in conceptual art, performance, temporary installations, and works in remote settings” (Fineberg 384).

“The aesthetic of photography also entered painting around 1970… Painters used opaque projectors, slides, and other mechanical aids to produce [images] that seemed technically precise and had [their] point of reference in photography (the reproduced image) rather than in nature” (Fineberg 384). Thus photography gradually won itself a place of recognition, as more and more artists became comfortable with the medium. Painting had moved far enough past the realms of precision and documentation to no longer feel threatened by a chemical process and a light-tight box.

Photographs became more and more creative and experimental as the technologies continued to advance. “With computer programs to alter photographs, the presumption of objectivity in photography is increasingly questioned… In the meantime photography has moved closer to the fictions of painting” (Fineberg 488). Now that photography had un-established itself as an unbiased journalistic medium, audiences could better understand the creative potential of it.

Photography had become a fine art.

Similar to photography, graphic design had its start outside the realm of the fine arts. Having evolved from the medieval illuminator to the Victorian poster designer to the illustrator to the modern graphic designer, it was difficult to separate graphic design from its commercial origins.

As Feldman points out, “the early perception of illustrators as, at most, artisans, was based on the fact that they ‘embellished’ a writer’s thought. Their craft had originated with the decorations for medieval manuscripts – decorations that were in no sense crucial for understanding the meanings of the words. The medieval scribe and the medieval illuminator were, of course, the same person. However, it was the word, the logos, that mattered most; the image was a lovely adornment of the word. The reunification of artist and scribe, of image and idea, took place only recently under the auspices of the graphic designer” (Feldman 148).

Just as the growth of photography was advanced by various technological developments and various social factors, so was illustration, and therefore graphic design. According to Feldman, “the growth of illustration in the nineteenth century was set in motion by technological, demographic, and political forces: improved methods of printing, a vast enlargement in the reading public, the evolution of publishing into a mass-consumer industry, and the democratic idea of bringing news, ideas, and visual stimulation to the general public… Yet no matter how talented, the illustrator could not claim the status of ‘high’ or ‘fine’ artist” (Feldman 150).

Fine art status was defined by the motivation for the work, just as it was for photography. Commissioned “craftsmen” were not going to be regarded as highly as those who answered to no one but their own will to create. “The focus of romantic art is with the artist. Illustrators, however, cannot afford that luxury. The emergence of the modern illustrator, followed by the professionalization of visual communication in the art of the graphic designer, has had revolutionary implications for business, industry, education, even the environment” (Feldman 165).

Referring to Norman Rockwell’s Triple Self Portrait, Feldman dubs it “a clever parable of the fine artist and the illustrator – as Rockwell saw their relationship. Fine artists, he seems to say, confront and announce who they are. Illustrators (who can be anyone they wish to be) are uncertain about their identities. They hide behind their creations” (Feldman 155). Even as one of the most recognized illustrators of his day, Rockwell did not consider himself a fine artist – his profession was not merited that level of respect. The irony lay in our appreciation of his work today.

However, “the [commercial] success of the illustrator and the poster artist leads to the profession of graphic design – the comprehensive art of visual communication in printed or electronically reproduced form. Graphic designers preside over a complete visual strategy embracing words, images, and their relations to particular publics… Formerly, writers and editors made the controlling decisions. They are still involved in graphic design, but it is now realized that effective communication of an idea requires sensitivity to the way a special public perceives that idea. And perception, like thinking, is mainly a visual process” (Feldman 161). The medieval role of the illuminator had been reversed. The word was no longer considered more important than the artwork, or the overall design of the page. While this afforded designers more creative control, they did not yet have the artistic standing of, say a painter or photographer.

“Until the Second World War, graphic design was better known in the United States as commercial art. Performed by printers and typesetters, it was more vocation than profession, more a reflection of the economic realities of a newly industrialized culture than an opportunity to engage the creative expression of an individual or an idea… Commercial art was a service industry” (Helfand 137). This visual medium was recognized for its effectiveness, but not yet for its place in the art realm.

“Fifty years ago illustrators would have been honored to exhibit in an art gallery, to see their work in museums. Today their successors in graphic design work at the cutting edge of visual art. The best designers are the shock troops of art’s avant garde. And the gallery painters and printmakers know it” (Feldman 166). Just as one can now find Rockwell’s work in museums across the globe, alongside photographers, graphic designers are occupying more gallery space than they used to.

Originally published in The New Republic, Jessica Helfand’s article “Paul Rand: the Modern Designer,” described how graphic design is so inextricably linked to the rest of the fine arts. “Graphic design is the most ubiquitous of all the arts. It responds to needs at once personal and public, embraces concerns both economic and ergonomic, and is informed by numerous disciplines including art and architecture, philosophy and ethics, literature and language, politics and performance… Graphic design is a popular art, a practical art, an applied art and an ancient art. Simply put, it is the art of visualizing ideas” (Helfand 137). What are the other media, but alternative methods for the same process? Should the commercial applications for graphic design continue to set the medium apart from these disciplines? That didn’t stop photography.

“Visual memory, the duration of sensory excitation, the connections between optical and tactile feelings, the processes of symbol formulation, sexual and educational influences on vision, subliminal perception, the stimulation of latent imagery, the interactions among media – all these factors impinge on the work of graphic designers. They are the tools and the objects of research conducted by specialists in graphics information. Let us call them artists” (Feldman 166)!

Works Cited

Feldman, Edmund B. The Artist: A Social History. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1995.

Fineberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Harrison, Charles, and Paul Wood, eds. Art in Theory: 1900-2000. Malden: Blackwell, 2003.

Helfand, Jessica. Screen: Essays on Graphic Design, New Media, and Visual Culture. 1st ed. New York: Princeton Architectural P, 2001.

Meggs, Philip B. A History of Graphic Design. 3rd ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 1998.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. 3rd ed. New York: Picador, 1977.

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