The debate over whether photography should be considered the artistic equal of painting, drawing, and printmaking reached a climax in France in 1856. The Academy finally decided that photography was an art form due to the fact that photographers have the same motivations as other artists. (Remember- the motivations from the first discussion - to document life and history, to represent religious visions, to express feelings and emotions, and to create alternative realities.) 

 

Henry Peach Robinsonís Fading Away, 1858, communicates a narrative equal in poignancy to that in any painting. A young girl is dying. Her sister stands by her bedside; her mother sits to the left, and her father gazes out the window.

Feelings and emotions are conveyed through the body language and poses of the actors. In this discussion, we need to make a distinction between photographs of scenes staged by the artist and those that are handed to the artist by happenstance.

But beside the narrative aspects, what else makes a photograph artistic? Robinsonís photo contains the elements of design and a carefully wrought composition. Due to the manipulation of high and low values, our focus rests on the girl. (High value attracts our eyes first.) Areas of high value are rhythmically spaced across the surface: to the left, the motherís face, to the right the sisterís body, and at center, the view outside. Shapes and line directions repeat: circles in the four heads, verticals in the curtains and furniture, and diagonals in the womenís skirts. If you were to draw a line down the center, the composition is well balanced with the mother balancing the standing daughter, curtains on left balancing curtains on the right, rounded table between mother and dying daughter equal in mass and distance from the center line as the rounded table next to the father. Variety is also apparent in the fact that the mother is dressed in low value fabrics while her head appears high value due to her bonnet, and the standing daughter is dressed in high value fabrics while her dark hair is obviously low value. The dying girl is high value while the father is low value. In conclusion, this photograph is very staged with the photographer being very conscious of the selection of every shape, its placement and the way light transforms objects into high and low value shapes.