Lecture by Alfred H Wall to Edinburgh Photographic Society

"In Search of Truth OR

"On Photography as a Fine Art"

Alfred H Wall, was an Honorary Member of Edinburgh Photographic Society.  He was invited to deliver a lecture to the society on 1 July 1863.

He chose Art-Photography as his subject.  This is a subject:

-  that A H Wall had written on previously for the British Journal of Photography

-  that Edinburgh Photographic Society returned to discuss on several occasions.

A H Wall began:



"Your energetic and valuable Secretary, Mr J T Taylor, having suggested that a paper by your honorary member, my humble self , would be kindly welcomed, I hastened to secure the honour of placing one before you.

As the claims of art photography are now receiving attention in so many quarters, I propose that we devote the present evening to fairly and honestly discussing the same.  Let us, in so doing, avoid prejudices, put aside feeling, and array ourselves on this side or on that  -  separated perhaps in opinion, but most harmoniously united in the desire for Truth."

A H Wall discussed several arguments that had been advanced against photography being considered a fine art.  He refuted each in turn. 

Arguments for Photography not being one of the Fine Arts

1.  The want of colour in its productions is fatal to its claim.

A H Wall replied that this was a very weak argument.  "Some of the greatest masters' works now preserved with careful pride by the most refined nations are without colour, having been executed in black or brown and white only.  Besides, engraving is an acknowledged fine art."

2.  Photographic Productions are too truthful.

A H Wall replied that this was a "fruitless controversy that had divided artists and art-writers since earliest times" and that "the modern school of truth-loving artists are in very wholesome and healthy condition. of mind."

He added:  "It is , at the very least, rank heresy against Nature's beauties to say that she is never fit to appear in good society until she has been doctored and altered and improved by the poor skill of feeble humanity."

3.  Photographic is not sufficiently truthful.

A H Wall accepted that "photography does not as yet render certain qualities of natural scenery with actual truthfulness.  Air, light and space have yet to be secured in their integrity.  The all important quality called tone, although sometimes seen in the best works of our very best photographic artists is, as a rule, also absent from our productions."

A H Wall added:  "But the art is in its infancy, and, considering its present aspect in connection with its present age, we must indeed be poor, sickly desponding advocates if we are not full of strong hopes and hale, high-soaring aspirations."

He continued:  "Has painting no disadvantages?  Ask the poor enthusiast, sitting with his palette and colours under the mighty dome of Nature's own academy, and scramblingly striving to imitate this glorious effect of colour, or that glorious mass of clout form ... "

"But despite these mighty difficulties the painter's and the sculptor's arts are not degraded from their high estate.  Such defects, it is well known, are overcome by the talent and experience of artists in both branches.  And photography's defects are also overcome by the talents and experience of photographers ..."  A H Wall praised the work of H P Robinson (Bringing Home the May) and Rejlander.

In contrast, A H Wall said:  "... photographers have their difficulties. and for every one that succeeds in producing genuine artistic pictures we have hundreds, nay thousands, who never soar above the lowest level of mediocrity.  It is the same in painting:  thousands can use brushes and colours with tolerable manipulative skill who never yet produced a picture, and never will. 

4 Photographic is easily learnt and so cannot be a fine art

A H Wall said:  "The absurdity of making an art dependant for its rank in public esteem not upon its high intellectual character, not upon the exquisite beauty of its productions, or the refining influence of its teachings, but upon the simple fact that it took a long time to learn it, scarcely needs refutation."

5 Photography cannot reject, create nor combine objects.

[This was before the days of digital imaging.]

A H Wall said:  "I think it a very frequently a sad thing that most of our painters are not in the same predicament."   ...   ...   "In the hands of a master, such power is invaluable, but it is so only in the hands of a master, and s abused or misused in all other hands. 

He advocated "waiting for that one moment in which the objectionable this or that was toned down, lost in shadow, ... or concealed by an alteration in the angle of view."

6.  Photography is scientific and so cannot be fine art.

A H Wall said that this argument was irrelevant.  "It is not how I do my work, but what my work is when it is done, that should decide its claim to admiration and respect."

7.  Photography is the work of a machine, so is not fine art.

A H Wall said others had asked "Can the work of a machine ever bear comparison with the work of a creative processing heart and brains?".

However, he countered this, arguing that "cameras do not of their own sweet will and power take photographs." 

He added:  "That there are men with heads nearly or quite as empty as the camera they use is  a very unfortunate fact, but wha of that?  Are there not also men who, unfit in their intellectual capacity for the meanest mechanical work, nevertheless daub canvas or stain paper? ... But does this prove that painting is no fine art?

A H Wall concluded by praising the work of Rejlander, Robinson, Lake Price, Bedford and Wilson, adding


The Influence of Early Photographers

"Who would have dared, in the absence of their works, to make for photography the claim now occupying our attention?  For myself, I can assert that, had I never seen such pictures as have ben produced by the real artist-photogaphers, I should never have ventured to use either pen or voice in support of the art's most ambitious and honourable aspirations."

Discussion encouraged

A H Wall encouraged discussion of his paper:

"And now I will retire from the field Gentlemen, leaving in your hands the discussion of all I have advanced in this unpretending paper.  Those who support me - if any do so - will, I hope, be strong and able, inasmuch as I should not like the ignominy of a fall;  and those who oppose me will, I also hope, produce stronger arguments than those it has been my task to deal so briefly with this evening.  And so - Heaven defend the right!"


A H Wall added that since his boyish days, he had enjoyed the work of Sir Walter Scott and had pined to visit Scotland.  He had intended to visit Edinburgh to deliver this paper to the Edinburgh Photographic Society, but unfortunately this had not been possible due to illness, press of business and a combination of accidents.

[British Journal of Photography 1863, pp.285-286]



Alfred H Wall

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