The Art of Photography

For 180-years, people have been asking the question: is photography art? At an early meeting of the Photographic Society of London, established in 1853, one of the members complained that the new technique was "too literal to compete with works of art" because it was unable to "elevate the imagination". This conception of photography as a mechanical recording medium never fully died away. Even by the 1960s and 70s, art photography – the idea that photographs could capture more than just surface appearances – was, in the words of the photographer Jeff Wall, a "photo ghetto" of niche galleries, aficionados and publications.

But over the past few decades the question has been heard with ever decreasing frequency. When Andreas Gursky's photograph of a grey river Rhine under an equally colourless sky sold for a world record price of £2.7 million last year, the debate was effectively over. As if to give its own patrician signal of approval, the National Gallery is now holding its first major exhibition of photography, Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present.

The show is not a survey but rather examines how photography's earliest practitioners looked to paintings when they were first exploring their technology's potential, and how their modern descendants are looking both to those photographic old masters and in turn to the old master paintings.

What paintings offered was a catalogue of transferable subjects, from portraits to nudes, still lifes to landscapes, that photographers could mimic and adapt. Because of the lengthy exposures necessary for early cameras, moving subjects were impossible to capture. The earliest known photograph of a person was taken inadvertently by Louis Daguerre – with Henry Fox Talbot one of photography's two great pioneers – when he set up his camera high above the Boulevard de Temple in Paris in 1838. His 10-minute exposure time meant that passing traffic and pedestrians moved too fast to register on the plate, but a boulevardier stood still long enough for both him and the bootblack who buffed his shoes to be captured for ever.