What is a Photograph?

"...unless an image was created with a camera, it is not photography."

"Photography, by definition, is to draw with light or to make an image with light onto a surface. It does not require any specific technical apparatus to form these marks."

The above quotations come from a discussion that happened on LensCulture's Facebook page, scant days ago. Yet these same kinds of discussions have been echoing around photography for well over a century. Since the medium's inception, people have been arguing about its definition, its boundaries, its materiality and its limits. The arguments continue all the way to the very words, "medium's inception". Did it begin with the first photographic device? The first light-sensitive material? The first camera obscura? Was the first photographer Johann Heinrich Schulze? Thomas Wedgwood? Joseph Nicéphore Niépce? Or was it the first person to use a camera obscura, some thousands of years ago? Does it really matter?

Art, in all its forms, always strives to question itself, redefine itself, and chart new territory. While some would argue that photography must remain tied to its technological, material roots, not everyone agrees.  

Enter the International Center of Photography's latest exhibition, "What Is a Photograph?" In the words of the show's curator Carol Squiers, “The show does not answer the question, it poses the question. It is an open question, and that’s why I find this period in photography so exciting.”

This major exhibition brings together 21 emerging and established artists who have reconsidered and reinvented the role of light, color, composition, materiality, and the subject in the art of photography. Can a photograph be taken without a camera? Well, yes, if we consider the art to be simply "drawing with light". 

These artists, whose work spans the past 40 years, have not only stretched the limits of photography's physical materiality but also confronted the digital revolution in the medium. The results are imaginative re-examinations of the art of analog photography, the new world of digital images, and the hybrid creations that both systems can produce.

“Artists around the globe have been experimenting with and redrawing the boundaries of traditional photography for decades,” said ICP Curator Carol Squiers, who organized the exhibit. “Although digital photography seems to have made analog obsolete, artists continue to make works that are photographic objects, using both old technologies and new, crisscrossing boundaries and blending techniques.”

Among those included in the exhibition is Lucas Samaras, who adopted the newly developed Polaroid camera in the late 1960s and early 1970s and immediately began altering its instant prints, creating fantastical nude self-portraits. Another artist who turned to photography in the 1970s was Sigmar Polke. Although better known as a painter, Polke explored nontraditional ways of photographing and printing, manipulating both his film and prints in the darkroom and often drawing and painting on his images.

More recently, Liz Deschenes has used camera-less photography in a subtle investigation of nonrepresentational forms of expression and the outmoded technologies of photography. And, James Welling has created a heterogeneous body of work that explores optics, human perception, and a range of photographic genres both abstract and representational. 

If nothing else, the show promises to provoke, stimulate, and call for a reaction. Whether it's a positive or negative one, is really up to you.

—Alexander Strecker

Editor's note: The exhibition "What Is a Photograph?" will be showing at the International Center for Photography from January 31 to May 4, 2014.