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The art (or the impossibility of it) of visual documentation

Updated: Nov 19, 2022


Writing, represented in different artistic forms, is considered as an art form. This does not mean that all kinds of writing can scale the standards and literary aesthetics of what we understand as creative writing. The introduction, thus far, does little to relate directly to the title but I hope the gradual progression will help the readers to see its significance. Here, it is important to note that writing or visual arts needs a medium of exposition, books, pages, easels, walls, pieces of cloth (may be), and even web-‘pages’. Let us start using this match-cut scenario to bring in photography, which requires a medium of exposition as well (small screens mostly these days). It is important to remind ourselves here that the word photography derives from the two Greek words – phōtós = light and graphê = writing. This small etymological evidence somehow lays the necessary ground for the relation that I am trying to establish between photography and it being considered an art in itself. But this is not enough, and more so, in a time when digital cameras have given the potential opportunity to almost everyone become an artist of photography. The question that still finds relevance in a larger discourse reads like the following:

Does the idea of creating (taking) a photograph, where we tend to document the perceivable reality around us in a crude form, qualify as an art form and can it be compared to the other visual art-forms with the similar aesthetic standards?

The relevance and validity of the question is found in the medium which we use most, to see, share and appreciate photographs, i.e., our social media platforms. Those spaces are filled photographs that describe, in detail, our crude celebrations of narcissism and the consequent voyeurism. A good lot of photographs is also used for promoting products and services, some of which are digitally crafted, edited, morphed and even curated. The essay will not, on purpose, address those photographs. Instead, we will focus of the fact that the idea of photography was started to document time, movements, development of civilization and cataloguing the diversity of nature. In that process of documentation, if we can define and consequently find the standards of visual art, our question will have a less subjective answer.

Case Study 1 :Eugène Atget

Eugène Atget once claimed that he could safely say that he had captured all of old Paris. The expression in that statement marks the idea of documenting the images of Paris or the essence of a city which has a character of its own. This idea imposes a sense of creating feelings or imagination, extrapolating the images beyond the frames. This makes it art. The fact that he inspires imagination for reality or from reality makes him an artist of photography even when this action of taking photographs was just meant for documentation. It is important now to remember the time of Atget’s life – 1857 to 1927. The modern ideas of photography were not even in their nebular state. His biography tells us how little he even made from those photographs and the respective and varied clientele of his. It is then he somehow carried out this adventure of capturing apparently ‘real’ in an artistic manner. This essay will not dive into the life and times of Atget beyond a certain limit, for the purpose of maintaining brevity and focus and will use only five out of his innumerable photographs to argue in favour of their artistic quality. In the book Revisiting Eugène Atget’s Paris, Clark Worswic mentions, “It is utterly impossible for the modern viewer to look at Atget’s Paris without feeling nostalgic for what we have lost.” This is quite a strong statement and if a body of work, albeit carrying the label of documentation can evoke such feelings, then of course there is something more to it than just visual data. And there is the seed to find the art in those photographs.

Let us look at the first image taken in the essay. In Figure 1, creatively titled as Departure of Stairs in one of the oldest hotels of Paris we see a part of those grand staircases. There is a highlighted (over-exposed, if you wish to use that term) beginning which then suddenly turns while going upwards into a shadowy zone. There is no human being in this image, none at all. But the odd balance of the highlighted zone to the dissolving darkness somehow gives the image a sense of motion. And hence the title finds significance in its own right. One can look at the railings, the broad design starting from the volute and rising upwards carries a sense of ascendency, perhaps to the grandeur and pomp of the classist hotel. The Victorian (or Edwardian perhaps) railings carries floral motifs and the light that is shining on the base appears to be symbolic to the values that age held. One can argue that these are mere suppositions of an imaginative mind, but the source being this simple photograph makes it the essential artistic piece for anyone to build a story around it, the story of the time, the people who walked up and down, the history those stairs held in their steps. Lastly one might also pay an attention to the darkness that lives beneath the stairs. It is a time when the politics and society of France saw gradual descent of classic aristocracy and rising of republican ideas. Alongside there came the Belle Époque, where new ideas of amusement and art took the center stage. The darkness beneath the stairs probably hid the time that went by and also the somewhat anxious anticipation of a newer time. The staircase and its departure give a sense of time.

Départ d'escalier, Hôtel de Montmorency, 5 rue de Montmorency, Paris Departure of stairs, Montmorency Hotel.

The second photograph (Figure 2) that I wish to discuss is the hallway of the Museum of Carnavalet. The photograph has a binding geometry with arches carrying on through the depth of the photograph and parallel lines giving them the relief on the top part. On either side we see the works of different masters. This, one must remember is the oldest museum of Paris. The subject of the photograph itself is a testimony to appreciation and preservation of art. A careful look at the photograph will make us aware of the solemnity of the subject. This is indeed a frame where time has to stop and tell us the stories of that corridor. The light in the corridor is the perfect contrasting balance to the shadows behind the statues. The ability of storing history, preserving it through a way of life is the hallmark of a city of Paris. It’s that truth which somehow Atget captures through this frame. Since then, greatest of the artists came to Paris, museums were built to hold the most important arts and artefacts of the human history and more such corridors were walked by innumerable human beings. There is almost a prophetic ballad one can hear, immersing deeply in this photograph.

Figure 2. Musée Carnavalet 1898, Museum of Carnavalet

It is well documented how Atget’s, (almost impossible) ambition revolved around preserving everything in Paris that was slowly disappearing from the ancien régime. Before we go on to see the next photo, let us take a small detour and remind ourselves of a film, made in 1955, by Satyajit Ray – Pather Panchali. Indians, more so people of Bengal have clung on to the film to share its pride as perhaps the first film that made Indian films respected and revered in the West. That film also reinstated in many theorists that Cinema could be an art form in itself. This film received The Best Human Document Award at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, in 1956. One must now take note of this contextual detour and realise that a piece of human document transcends in to art naturally, based on its conception, craftsmanship and presentation. The next photograph (Figure 3) in this series is such a document. We can see a man sitting in a horse carriage in the streets of France, 1898. The man appears to be grave in his composure, perhaps a nobleman or could also be the owner of the carriage. That mystery hangs in that frame and the viewer can not but decide to live with it. The trees behind the carriage, again, poses the conflict of nature with urban civilisation. The man and his solemn composure (purposefully placed at the centre of the frame) is the main theme of the photograph but we have enough evidence and suggestion to know of the horse which is there to pull the carriage. That sort of suggestion can be compared to broken words and phrases in poems where a poet gives the dangling straws to build a larger abstraction around the written words. The fact that there is no name to this photograph sparks more in our imagination to find the word that could compliment it.

Untitled 1898

The next photograph (Figure 4) in this series is that of an apple tree. The symbolic usage of apple through moving images in cinema along with mythological and religious texts makes an important part of our collective consciousness. It now should amuse us to think why would Atget choose to photograph a barren apple tree and name it the same? It’s almost hinting towards absurdity (an idea that would come later in human history) and stoicism at the same time. It’s that inevitability of time that takes a full and richly grown life towards a barren quietus and leaves a possibility of continuing into another form. This tree, framed in front of layers of plain land behind it, somehow holds that truth. It can be argued that I am hanging more on the naming of the photograph than to its craftsmanship merits and there will be some truth in it. But that doesn’t take way from Atget’s imaginative adventure of looking at a tree and marking it in time to speak of what is transient in human life. One can also be tempted to compare this Photograph to a few paintings of trees by the famous Dutch painter, Piet Mondrian (Figure 5). In his paintings we can see the trunk and branches are condensed to a (almost) mesh of vertical and horizontal lines. He was of course inspired by nature but mentioned as well, ‘I want to come as close as possible to the truth and abstract everything from that until I reach the foundation of things.' The photograph of the tree taken by Atget can have that sort of impact on the careful eyes of an aesthete.

. Pommier Before 1900, Apple Tree
Tree Studies, Piet Mondrian, 1908-1913

The last photograph in this essay captures the passion of Atget in the most holistic form. Atget wanted to hold on to what was receding: a time in human civilization, practices, architecture, people, the spaces and the ways to inhabit those space and mostly the connection of all that to a personal existence. His entire collection of architectural photographs are huge in number. The way the streets were in Paris, the corner houses, the staircases, the doors, the parapets, the cornices, the engravings on walls and pillars and many more of that sort got caught in his camera. Going through his catalogue is like walking through a door of a museum’s section and interacting with things of that time. He gives that door. That door is open and inviting at the same time. Photography gives us that opportunity to creating those temporal doors. Figure 6, as we can see is coincidentally and quite surreally named as the ‘door’. The door is half open and we can see the doorway leading to the stairs may be. The small mezzanine type of balcony windows almost crowns the door on either side. The arch is the symbol of the contemporary architecture, along with the thick stone lines on the wall. It’s the doorway to life of those who lived on that road. They had stories, perhaps of some music and rhythm like the designs on the door. Quite like the other images, this one has an abstract appeal that consists of a sense of time, belonging and loss.

Porte, 21 rue Thereze, Door, 21 Thereze Road.

To conclude this chapter of the essay I choose to quote from Tolstoy’s argumentative book - ‘What is Art’, where he writes:

To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling - this is the activity of art.

Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings, and also experience them.

If we try and take a pause and see where with mechanised way of capturing the forms of what nature offered to us and what we built, Atget could transmit his feelings about the transient times he lived in, he then quite evidently made a body of art pieces. This takes us back to question I have posed about the standards and aesthetics that is required to make photography an art form. The question is not fully answered but perhaps will be looked in greater detail in following chapters.


Images taken from





1. Revisiting Eugène Atget’s Pari, With essays by Clark Worswick, Alison Nordstrom, and Rosamond Bernier, Princeton Architectural Press, New York.

2.What is Art, Leo Tolstoy, Translated from the original by Aylmer Maude, New York, Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1904.

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