In trying to defend the aesthetic and moral value of photography, the "Photographic Evangels" discussed by Susan Sontag in chapter 5 of "On Photography" had to fight for photography's claim to the statues of fine art (as opposed to craft) in light of its dependency on mechanical equipment.
The initial claim posed by the "photographic evangels" was the photography wasn't a mechanical coping of reality but rather a new way of seeing it which matches the aesthetic value of painting. And after being established and acclaimed as an art form, nowadays photography and its current "evangels" can deny that what they are doing is an art. Now they fight of the modernist imposition of artistic nature on photography. For art to remain art, it must oppose what was up until now considered to be art.
But modern "photographic evangels", according to Sontag, still can't shake the artistic view on photography. Moreover, the dialogue with art and especially painting continues to influence the conception of photography (like the tendency towards black and white photography, which is both "artistic" and a break from painting).
According to Sontag, various discussions on photography have had to do with its relation to art and painting – how close can photography come to painting without losing its claim to being unlimited in scope and capacities of representation. But art, Sontag holds, also shelters photography from being a devouring, coping engagement with reality and safeguards it as a selective, interpretative and unique way to represent to world.
The debate about photography as art was publically decided when photography entered museums and galleries. This was, according to Sontag, the victory of the modern taste which sought a loser definition of what art is. However, with photography entering the museum, the problem of distinguishing the professional artistic photographer from the amateur or the functional became more critical. Deciding photography as an art form drew attention to its stylistic variance and history, which again brought about the problem of delineation. Do functionally intended photographs (such as journalistic photography) belong in the museum? Another problem that Sontag notes it that when photography becomes a part of the museum in becomes more about itself and less about its subjects, in a sense it becomes more form than content. Another problem Sontag notes in this respect is that of photographic authorship.
Sontag argues that it is content and not form which determines the viewer's appreciation of a photograph, but it seems that form still dictates photographic taste. While photography's authority is always dependant on its relation to the object, Sontag holds that all claims to photography as art must address its subjective vision. For this, all aesthetic judgments of photography are ambivalent, which accounts for Sontag for the shifts in photographic taste. Sontag describes how an emphasis on technical ability gave way to favoring "photographic vision" in aesthetic judgments of photography.
The subjective component in the modernistic conception of art requires photography to constitute the photographer as "auteur" and his works as a part of an individual style, his own photographic vision. Another problem of photography as art is the scarce vocabulary which is used to describe photographs, a scarcity which Sontag attributes to the short millage of photography criticism. While heavily borrowing its vocabulary, photography according to Sontag cannot borrow painting's aesthetic criteria such as authenticity. Something that photography and painting still have in common in relation to judgment is novelty, and the value granted for new innovative ways of expression.
In regards to innovation, Sontag notes that museums do not offer normative judgments on photography, but rather only various ways of addressing it, refuting the idea of a photographic canon. Unlike painting, photography is very loosely governed or characterized by "schools" or periods. With photography, painting eventually gave up attempts of accurately and realistically depicting the world (leaving this to photography) and allowed it to move on to its next challenge: abstraction.
Photography, for Sontag, changed art in the sense that the Benjeminic "aura" of originality and uniqueness is no longer so important – photography gave up the original in favor or reproduction, and art followed. Sontag furthers holds that photography is not in itself an art form, like language is not always poetry. Photography is not an art, but it has the capacity of turning virtually everything into art, and in this photography is moving art towards a growing focus on medium, not content.
Susan Sontag - On Photography: