Medium Specificity

‘The concept of medium-specificity has had a profound impact on photography. In its early history, photography struggled to establish itself as a legitimate art form. Theorists devised a justification for the art of photography that positioned it against its competitor, painting. Art photographers such as Stieglitz, Weston, and Strand argued that in order for photography to be taken seriously, it must operate only according to its own capabilities: it must not aspire to imitate the aesthetics or materials of painting. The art of photography became defined on strictly medium-specific terms. The first substantial instance of this is Beaumont Newhall’s 1937 exhibition of photographs at the Museum of Modern Art, and his accompanying catalogue, Photography: A Short Critical History. In his modernist retelling of photography’s history, he frames its successes and failures against an assumption that the aesthetics of photography are controlled by a pure use of the medium. He discounts any attempts at mixed media, such as early hand-colored prints, or Man Ray’s darkroom experiments, as inherently non-photographic. He calls photography that is true to its medium “honest,” implying that any other usage is deceitful.

Newhall’s positions have had a lasting impact on photography; his early championing of photography brought it legitimacy. His claims for photographic art have had a legacy in the writing of John Szarkowski, another curator at the Museum of Modern Art. Szarkowski’s 1966 book The Photographer’s Eye describes in detail the properties that define the photographic medium. He argues that the photographs he presents as exemplars have nothing in common but the shared vocabulary of the medium. He disregards the idea that an artist is behind every work, instead arguing it may just be someone who knows how to use the camera effectively and properly. This idea can be seen as the legitimate grand finale of photographic medium-specificity, when the medium is independent enough to be seen as self-operative.’ (Bernstein, 2018)


Bernstein, E. (2018). Medium specificity. [Blog] Chicago School of Media Theory. Available at: [Accessed 22 Jan. 2018].

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