Exercise 1.4: What is a photographer?

Marius De Zayas (1880–1961) was an essayist, intellectual and curator of modern art and was closely allied to the 291 gallery. His essay ‘Photography and Photography and Artistic- Photography’, first published in Camera Work no. 41 (1913), makes a distinction between the ‘artist photographer’ and ‘photographers’. Read the essay closely, summarising De Zayas’ key points. In your learning log, write down your responses to his point of view, and consider whether these questions are still relevant today. As a practitioner yourself, where do you stand on this issue?

See: http://www.camramirez.com/pdf/DI_Week6_PhotoAndArt.pdf (copy link into your browser) or http://www.journal1913.org/pdfs/1913_issue2.pdf

Key Points:

  • Photography is not Art. It is not even an art. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • Art is the expression of the conception of an idea. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • Photography is the plastic verification of a fact. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • The difference between Art and Photography is the essential difference which exists between the Idea and Nature. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • So long as Art only speculates with Form, it cannot produce a work which fully realizes the preconceived idea, because imagination always goes further than realization. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • Form, starting from the fantastic, has evolved to a conventional naturalism. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • Art is devouring Art. Conservative artists, with the faith of fanaticism, constantly seek inspiration in the museums of art. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • Picasso is perhaps the only artist who in our time works in search of a new form. But Picasso is only an analyst; up to the present his productions reveal solely the plastic analysis of artistic form without arriving at a definite synthesis. His labor is in opposite direction to the concrete. His starting point is the most primitive work existing, and from it he goes toward the infinite, de-solving without ever resolving. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • He does not understand the difference between similar and identical, between that which is seen in dreams and that which happens in real life, between imagination and facts; and that is why he takes as facts the ideas inspired by impressions. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • It has been repeatedly proved that a faithful drawing from nature, or a photograph, are blanks to a savage, and that he is unable to recognize in them either persons or places which are most familiar to him; (De Zayas, 1913)
  • Imagination, creative faculty, is the principal law of Art. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • faculty is not autogenous, it needs the concurrence of another principle to excite its activity. The elements acquired by perception and by the reflective faculties, presented to the mind by memory, take a new form under the influence of the imagination. This new aspect of form is precisely what man tries to reproduce in Art. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • That is how Art has established false ideas concerning the reality of Form and has created sentiments and passions that have radically influenced the human conception of reality. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • It is true that nature does not always offer objects in the form corresponding to those ways of feeling; but imagination always does, for it changes their nature, adapting them to the convenience of the artist. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • Memory, that concurrent faculty of imagination, does not retain the remembrance of the substantial representation of Form, but only its synthetic expression. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • In order fully and correctly to appreciate the reality of Form, it is necessary to get into a state of perfect consciousness. The reality of Form can only be transcribed through a mechanical process, in which the craftsmanship of man does not enter as a principal factor. There is no other process to accomplish this than photography. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • The photographer – the true photographer – is he who has become able, through a state of perfect consciousness, to possess such a clear view of things as to enable him to understand and feel the beauty of the reality of Form. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • that is to say, that without the intervention of the imaginative faculties, Form could not express its spirit. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • But when man does not seek pleasure in ecstasies but in investigation, when he does not seek the anaesthetic of contemplation, but the pleasure of perfect consciousness, the soul of substance represented by Art appears like the phantasm of that Alma Mater which is felt vibrating in every existing thing (De Zayas, 1913)
  • Art presents to us what we may call the emotional or intellectual truth; (De Zayas, 1913)
  • photography the material truth.Art has taught us to feel emotions in the presence of a work that represents the emotions experienced by the artist. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • Photography teaches us to realize and feel our own emotions. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • I believe that the influence of Art has developed the imagination of man, carrying it to its highest degree of intensity and sensibility, leading him to conceive the incomprehensible and the irrepresentable. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • he found photography. He found in it a powerful element of orientation for the realization of that perfect consciousness for which science has done and is doing so much, to enable man to understand reason, the cause of facts – Truth. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • Photography represents Form as it is required by the actual state of the progress of human intelligence. In this epoch of fact, photography is the concrete representation of consummated facts. In this epoch of the indication of truth through materialism, photography comes to supply the material truth of Form. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • This is its true mission in the evolution of human progress. It is not to be the means of expression for the intellect of man (De Zayas, 1913)
  • Photography is not Art, but photographs can be made to be Art. (Again) (De Zayas, 1913)
  • When man uses the camera without any preconceived idea of final results, when he uses the camera as a means to penetrate the objective reality of facts, to acquire a truth, which he tries to represent by itself and not by adapting it to any system of emotional representation, then, man is doing Photography. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • Photography, pure photography, is not a new system for the representation of Form, but rather the negation of all representative systems, it is the means by which the man of instinct, reason and experience approaches nature in order to attain the evidence of reality. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • The difference between Photography and Artistic-Photography is that, in the former, man tries to get at that objectivity of Form which generates the different conceptions that man has of Form, while the second uses the objectivity of Form to express a preconceived idea in order to convey an emotion. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • In the first, man tries to represent something that is outside of himself; in the second he tries to represent something that is in himself. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • The artist photographer uses nature to express his individuality, the photographer puts himself in front of nature, and without preconceptions, with the free mind of an investigator, with the method of an experimentalist, tries to get out of her a true state of conditions. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • The artist photographer in his work envelops objectivity with an idea, veils the object with the subject. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • The photographer expresses, so far as he is able to, pure objectivity. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • The aim of the first is pleasure; the aim of the second, knowledge. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • The one does not destroy the other. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • The more analytical man is, the more he separates himself from the subject and the nearer he gets to the comprehension of the object. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • Photography, and only Photography, started man on the road of the cognition of the condition of the phenomena of Form. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • Up to the present, the highest point of these two sides of Photography has been reached by Steichen as an artist and by Stieglitz as an experimentalist. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • The work of Steichen brought to its highest expression the aim of the realistic painting of Form. In his photographs, he has succeeded in expressing the perfect fusion of the subject and the object. He has carried to its highest point the expression of a system of representation: the realistic one. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • Stieglitz has begun with the elimination of the subject in represented Form to search for the pure expression of the object. He is trying to do synthetically, with the means of a mechanical process, what some of the most advanced artists of the modern movement are trying to do analytically with the means of Art. (De Zayas, 1913)
  • It would be difficult to say which of these two sides of Photography is the more important. For one is the means by which man fuses his idea with the natural expression of Form, while the other is the means by which man tries to bring the natural expression of Form to the cognition of his mind. (De Zayas, 1913)



I had to read this essay several times to get a perspective on what De Zayas was trying to say, at first I thought it was an attack on the idea of photography being art, however that is about as wrong a conclusion as anyone could draw.

De Zayas was a wealthy product of the Post Victorian – Edwardian era, some of his ideas and standpoints seem a little archaic now and tend to rub a modern politically correct society up the wrong way. However I think it is important to understand when this was written and to pierce through the ideology of the day to see what was actually being said by De Zayas.

Until the invention of photography there were only the images created by artists, the gist of this essay is that no matter how skilled the artist the resultant image rely’s on their skill with the medium and the translation that their brain makes putting the image on to the canvas or paper. The advent of photography meant that the image was less “man made” and seemingly more true to life, in the same way that printing is neater than hand writing.

He continues to elaborate on the way an artist adds his imagination to the memory of the image before committing it to paper, which in the early 1900’s was not true of photography.

It could be argued that the advent of digital photography and sophisticated digital processing within the camera itself as well as software like Photoshop has made a significant shift away from this stance. Modern digital cameras make all sorts of decisions and shifts to an image changing it from what the sensor saw. This shift could be seen as the artist imagination being replaced by a artificial intelligence that muddies the waters around this essay.

Once the essay gets into its full swing De Zayas arrives at his punchline, that it is possible to be a photographer or an artistic photographer the difference between what De Zayas refers to as the “Artist” or the “Experimentalist” almost the divide between Art and Science referred to in the Krauss Essay.

I understand the need for the distinction in 1913, today photography has its place in art, the technology allows us to be more creative with our photography and modern trends see photographers working on their images to a similar extent as the artist of old.

The key question is as a practitioner where do I stand, I think these questions were valid and needed to be asked in their day, I totally agree with De Zayas when it comes to their being a divide between the Photographer and the Artist Photographer, I prefer to strive for the latter, though I understand why some veer towards the former. I personally want to create images that are not scientific representations of the facts, I prefer to add some emotion. I also think that modern technology has shifted the playing field since the article was written.


De Zayas, M. (1913). Photohraphy and Photography and Artistic Photography. [online] Available at: http://www.camramirez.com/pdf/DI_Week6_PhotoAndArt.pdf [Accessed 4 Sep. 2017].