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Fine Art Photography: A Brief History

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If a picture supposedly paints a thousand words, is the message it conveys considered a form of artistic expression? If a photograph can convey ideas and move its viewers to certain emotions, is it considered fine art? Or is it merely a facsimile of the true expression of art?

Photography has a storied history and is widely considered one of the most divisive movements in the art world. In its infancy, photography was considered unimaginative and lazy when compared to traditional methods of creating art.

Nowadays, photography is universally considered an art form – especially well-crafted pieces that wind up as photos on canvas. In fact, the works on many famous photographers are considered fine art. In this post, we discuss a brief history of photography and how it evolved into the art form it is today.

The Birth of Photography

The photographic camera was first invented in 1839 as a refined successor to the camera obscura. It didn’t take long before tinkerers and artists began experimenting with this new technology to capture and portray subjects such as landscapes and still life pieces. It was Louis Daguerre, a French artist, who invented the first true photographic process. The Daguerreotype, named after him, used mercury vapor and iodine-sensitized silver plate to develop and print an image captured from life.

The picture above is one of Daguerre’s and was one among three works he presented to King Ludwig I of Bavaria to showcase his photographic process. It’s also the earliest reliably dated photograph of people, which you can see at the lower left of the picture.

Even in its infancy, photography had an artistic quality to it. Daguerre, an accomplished panoramic painter and theatre designer, utilised careful composition when creating his early photographs. When he sent his prints to the Académie des Beaux Arts, they were praised as miraculous for being able to reproduce imagery true to life.

The daguerreotype photographic process.

The French government would present Daguerre’s invention as a gift from France “free to the world”, complete with working instructions. Daguerreotype, and the more refined photographic processes that would follow, revolutionized the art world – just as the printing press made books and literature readily available to people of all social classes, so did photography to art. A new medium was born.

Debates and Disagreements

It didn’t take long for negative opinions of photography to take root and sprout from the art community. France and England were settings for heated debates within artistic circles on whether photography should even be considered as a form of art.

Those who rejected photography, many of which were painters, argued that since photography used a mechanical device and chemical procedures, it had more in common with creating fabrics or manufactured goods. This contrasted with painting which they argued are products of the human mind and spirit; essentially, born from human creativity.

The counterargument believed that photography was like lithography and etching and thus, is just as valid as producing artwork despite the “mechanical apparatuses” used in its process.

A middle point of view emerged soon after and claimed that photography was a medium that can be useful to other art disciplines, but not an art form itself. Painters, critics, and even some photographers who shared this opinion claimed that photography was incapable of matching the innate creativeness of painting or drawing.

An Emerging Art Movement

Between debates on the legitimacy of photography as an art form and opposition from traditional artists who felt threatened with the new medium, photographers were creating like-minded communities hoping to advance the emerging movement as a legitimate form of art.

During the 1850s, the nascent community increased their efforts by creating societies and publications, as well as dedicated spaces for practitioners. The Societe Francaise de Photographie in France and Royal Photographic Society are two photographic societies still operating today and became refuges for photographers.

Charles Thurston Thompson’s Exhibition of the Photographic Society, London 1858.

The creation of these “photography hubs” gave early photographers a place to express and experiment with the medium without sharp criticism from detractors. These sanctuaries also attracted people, majority of whom were from the middle class, and introduced them to an alternative form of art and the art scene in general.

Suddenly, anyone could own a piece of art – a photo on canvas comparable to the austere prints in museums admired by high society. The availability of replications generated a backlash from painters who considered it as “cheapening of art”, but the movement was beneficial for all. With more people becoming interested in photography, many developed a keen interest in the arts and its traditional mediums.

Looking back, the dissidents and detractors to photography ultimately motivated early photographers to innovate and experiment. They were rewarded with their persistence, and by the late 1850s, art galleries began to include photographic prints in their exhibits.

French naturalist Louis Figuier, in an observation of the growing acceptance of photography as art, remarked that:

“The lens is an instrument like the pencil and the brush, and photography is a process like engraving and drawing, for what makes an artist is not the process but the feeling.”

Art had evolved a new medium – the lens, and the early photographers were its pioneers.

Photography as Fine Art

The following years saw a refinement of what it means for photography to be considered art. There was a demand for photo prints to be truthful and inspirational, and these influenced how photographers would capture their still life pieces and portraits.

This was not easy for many photographers though and many struggled on how the medium expresses its unique form of art. Most didn’t know what exactly constitutes as an artistic image and many attempted to innovate with less than satisfactory results.

The picture above is Julia Margaret Cameron’s Parting of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, 1874. Well-known for her celebrity portraits and imagery laden with Arthurian themes, she was not widely appreciated in her time as a photographer. Unlike her peers, she used soft focus and treated photography as much as a science as it is an art form. Ironically, Pre-Raphaelite painters accepted her better than her peers – especially for pieces like this which were artistically arranged and captured to mimic oil paintings of old.

For a movement whose members long battled detractors, it seems strange that Cameron and others like her found division within their inner circles.  Cameron’s photographs remain celebrated though and influential and many modern photographers use styles she pioneered even if they aren’t aware of it. Of note are her portraits, which utilise a then-unique closed cropped technique and is now a standard in both professional and amateur photography.

Left, a portrait of English naturalist and the Father of Evolution, Charles Darwin. Right, Julia Prinsep Jackson, a famous pre-Raphaelite model, Cameron’s niece and the mother of Virginia Woolf.

These two portraits are excellent examples of photography at its best – capturing the subjects naturally and accurately while giving it a unique artistic expression that painting can’t replicate. The strength of photography as art is how it portrays elements of the real world accurately as opposed to the more emotive and stylistic depictions in genre painting. It’s through this truthful depiction of the subject that photography carves its niche as fine art.

Photos, Reproductions, and Society

As photographers experimented and mastered their craft, many realized that if the camera can accurately reproduce scenes from life, it can also accurately reproduce works of art. While many only saw the commercial value in art reproduction, they also realized how it could benefit the general population by giving people public access to master works and the visual heritage of the world.

A new niche was developed, and in a reversal of events, artistic societies welcomed the idea of using photography to reproduce artwork. They believed that by introducing fine art through photographic reproductions, they can enrich the lives of the people and improve their spirit.

Through this medium, photographers would be able to subtly influence how people make decisions when it comes to aesthetics and décor, and even how they dress up in their daily lives. Even today, you can find reproductions of famous artworks from the likes of Van Gogh and Monet as photos on canvas.

Photography Today

Photography has come a long way from its humble roots and tumultuous beginnings. It’s a staple of the art world and arguably one of the most influential mediums available. Photographers are celebrated for their ability to capture scenes from life and even transform that imagery into something more stylized and abstract.

Is photography considered fine art? Yes and no. There is little doubt now that photographs can grace the fine art exhibits, but it’s also transcended the static definition of fine art. It’s now a medium that provides information to its viewers and is an effective tool that sells products.

It can also be used as a tool for propaganda, as critiques of people and politics, and capturing snapshots of tragedies and important events. Advances in technology and the drive to refine and create more innovative techniques mean that photography as an art form will continue to evolve as time goes on.


The Canvas Art Factory proudly continues the tradition laid out by photography pioneers. We offer high-definition reproductions of classic artworks and exclusive prints from local and award-winning photographers in Australia. Each photo on canvas is a window to the soul of the artist and will easily become the most intriguing decorative element in your home.

Visit our showroom or call us today at +61 7 3383 2880 to learn more.