Document or Art? Photography in the Long 19th Century, 1839-1914

Friday October 17, 2008 - Sunday December 7, 2008
Document or Art? Photography in the Long 19th Century, 1839-1914

George N. Barnard (American, 1819-1902), Columbia from the Capitol from Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign, 1866, albumen print. Friends of the Davison Art Center funds, 1995.13.1 (photo: R. J. Phil)

In "The Salon of 1859," French critic Charles Baudelaire denounced photography as "art's most mortal enemy." Baudelaire argued that photographs could provide factual records, but he reserved the realm of art for painting and other products of the imagination. At the same time, however, photographers such as Oscar G. Rejlander carefully composed and combined negatives to assert their skill as artists. Over the course of the long 19th century, the debate over the nature and use of photography continued, as photographers explored the technical and artistic possibilities of the evolving medium.

This exhibition explored shifting uses and interpretations of photographs from the announcements in 1839 about competing inventions by Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot to the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Selected from the Davison Art Center collection, the show highlighted works by Thomas Annan, Julia Margaret Cameron, Francis Frith, Alexander Gardner, Eadweard Muybridge, Jacob Riis, Alfred Stieglitz, Carleton Watkins, and many more.

From the invention of photography in 1839 to 1914, photographers documented the American Civil War, the American West, and urban poverty. They also created narratives and promoted the aesthetic opportunities of the new medium. Document or art? In the 19th century, a photograph could be either or both.

Caption for home page image: Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916), Glacier Point, 3,257 feet, Yosemite, California, ca. 1868-70, printed after 1874 by I. W. Taber, albumen print. Weedon Endowment and Friends of the Davison Art Center funds in honor of Juana Maria G. Flagg, 1982.43.1 (photo: R. J. Phil)

Related Events


Thursday 16 October, 5:00-7:00 p.m.
Jennifer Tucker, Associate Professor of History, and Clare Rogan, Curator, gave a gallery talk at 5:30 p.m.
Open to the public free of charge


Carleton Watkins: Photography in the Eye of the Beholder
Douglas Nickel, the Andrea V. Rosenthal Professor of Modern Art, Brown University
Thursday, October 30, 5:30 p.m.
Center for the Arts Cinema
Open to the public free of charge

One of the leading historians of photography, Douglas Nickel has organized traveling exhibitions devoted to Ansel Adams, Lewis Carroll, and snapshot photography, and he has published extensively. Prior to his appointment at Brown he was director of the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson and curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. This lecture examined the work of Carleton Watkins, a carpenter from upstate New York who traveled to California during the Gold Rush and became the most accomplished American landscape photographer of the 19th century. Nickel organized a retrospective of Watkins' career for SFMOMA; it traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.