Aaron Scharf (1922 – 1993) was an American-born British art historian who contributed in particular to the history of photography in which he had developed an interest while studying at the Courtauld Institute. His investigation uncovered links between painting (and other artforms) and photography, and evidence for artists using photography for reference and other purposes, as well as the way photographers with aspirations as artists referred to painting in their work. He thus pioneered a new field of art history when Pop Art and other movements in the 1960s were reincorporating the medium of photography (which developed separately since the 1930s, and which hitherto art historians in general treated separately from painting) and reference to popular photographic images, into mainstream artistic practice. Scharf popularised his study and discoveries with publication of his profusely illustrated hardback Penguin volume 'Art and Photography' (1968) and through his work at the UK Open University in producing innovative thematic educational videos on the history of photography and its relation to society.
Professor Aaron Scharf was born in 1922 in the USA. During World War II he was a bomber navigator, afterwards spending some years as a painter and potter in Los Angeles. He studied art and anthropology at the University of California. In 1950 he married Ruth Dunlap Bartlett (1921 – 2009). An accomplished actress, Ruth owned and ran The Beachcomber, a small theatre on Muscle Beach in Santa Monica. Helena Stevens was her stage name. She was also a committed communist and became the first to play the part of Mother Courage in an English-language production of the play of the same name by the German communist playwright Bertolt Brecht. Her husband meantime, was refused work or study in American universities, blacklisted because of his own socialism.
At the Courtauld
In 1956, Scharf and wife arrived in the UK as political refugees from McCarthyism, with an invitation, provided by the communist academic (and spy) Anthony Blunt, for Aaron to study at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London providing their ostensible reason for leaving America.
Scharf’s doctoral thesis at the Courtauld was eventually published with revisions and additions as Art and Photography (Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 1968), the expanded version of his Creative Photography (Studio Vista ; New York : Van Nostrand Reinhold, London, 1965). The book reveals the hitherto uncredited influence of photography on the creation of artistic images in painting. The emphasis is the photograph as used in the service of painting, or imitating painted images. Scharf does not here give the same emphasis on photography as an artistic medium in itself as much as he did in Creative Photography, though he does recognise the greater acceptance of photography as art in chapters on the Twentieth Century. At the time of publication, Aaron had become head of the History of Art and Complementary Studies Department at St. Martin’s School of Art, London. The couple settled in Hampstead.
Scharf’s peer was Van Deren Coke, whose own studies into the links between art and photography were published as The Painter and the Photograph a year earlier than Creative Photography, but without the same international reception, revised and enlarged from the 1964 catalog issued under the same title for the exhibition curated by Van Deren Coke which toured the USA in 1964 and 1965. Scharf's articles on photo history were published in the 1968 issues of Creative Camera magazine in his column, Album and he contributed the entry on Henri Cartier-Bresson in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
During this period, Scharf had divorced Ruth and married Marina (née Betts). His own art production consisted of montages made from old photographs and/or 19th-century wood engravings, a selection of which were published by Bill Jay in Creative Camera.
In 1969 Aaron Scharf joined The Open University, Milton Keynes, England, moving to Deanshanger 10 miles away. He stayed there, as Professor of Art History writing art history courses and pursuing personal research, until his retirement in 1982. Also in 1969, he visited the United States to deliver units on Photography in Modern Art and Seminar in Problems in the History of Photography for Stanford University's 1969 Summer School. The BBC’s landmark eight-part series Pioneers of Photography (1975) was fronted by Aaron Scharf and looked at the history and development of photography.
He died on 21 January 1993.
- 1977 `SUMMER SHOW 4', Serpentine Gallery, London, selected by Aaron Scharf, artists include Jane England, Heather Forbes, John Goto, Jim Harold, Paul Joyce, Chris Locke, Peter Mitchell...
- 1971 Royal Photographic Society exhibition: Masterpiece: An Exhibition of Photographs from The Collection of the Royal Photographic Society, an Arts Council touring exhibition that opened on 6 November 1971. Scharf also wrote a statement for the catalogue.
Books, and Book Chapters
- Scharf, A. (1965). Creative photography. London : Studio Vista ; New York : Van Nostrand Reinhold
- Sisley, Alfred & Scharf, Aaron (1966). Sisley. Knowledge Publications, London
- Sisley, Alfred (1966). Alfred Sisley. Purnell, Paulton, Nr. Bristol [Eng.]
- Scharf, A. (1968). Art and photography. London : Allen Lane. 34 editions published between 1963 and 1994 in 3 languages and held by 54 libraries worldwide
- Scharf, Aaron & Open University & BBC-TV (1970). The Image in the cloud. Open University and BBC TV, [Milton Keynes]
- Brandt, Bill & Scharf, Aaron, & Arts Council of Great Britain & Hayward Gallery & Museum of Modern Art (New York, N.Y.) (1970). Bill Brandt : photographs. Arts Council, London.
- Harvie, Christopher & Martin, Graham, (joint comp.) & Scharf, Aaron, (joint comp.) (1970). Industrialisation and culture, 1830-1914. Macmillan, London
- Bayley, Stephen, & Scharf, Aaron, & Open University (1971). Introduction to art. Open University Press, Bletchley
- Scharf, Aaron & Benton, Tim & Scharf, Aaron, & Open University. Arts Foundation Course Team (1971). Introduction to art. Open University Press, Bletchley (Walton Hall, Bletchley, Bucks.)
- Arts Council of Great Britain & Benton, Tim & Scharf, Aaron, & Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain (1971). Masterpiece, treasures from the collection of the Royal Photographic Society : (catalogue of an exhibition) 1971-72. Arts Council of Great Britain, (London)
- Mucha, J., Henderson, M., & Scharf, A., & Mucha, A. M. (1971). Alphonse Mucha: Posters and photographs. London: Academy Ed.
- Scharf, Aaron & Open University. Arts Foundation Course Team (1971). Art and industry. Open University Press, Bletchley (Walton Hall, Bletchley, Bucks.)
- Edwards, Owain & Martin, Graham, & Scharf, Aaron, & Open University. Age of Revolutions Course Team (1972). Romanticism. Open University Press, Bletchley, Eng
- Scharf, Aaron & Scharf, Aaron, & Open University. Age of Revolutions Course Team (1972). Art and politics in France. Open University Press, Bletchley
- Scharf, A., Coe, B., & Turner, A. (1974). Pioneers of photography: Episode 5. London: BBC Education and Training.
- Mucha, J., Henderson, M., & Scharf, A. (1974). Alphonse Mucha. London: Academy Editions.
- Mucha, Alphonse & Mucha, Jiří, & Henderson, Marina & Scharf, Aaron (1974). Alphonse Mucha (Rev. enl. ed). St. Martin's Press, New York
- Benton, Tim & Benton, Charlotte & Scharf, Aaron, & Open University (1975). History of architecture and design 1890-1939. Units 15 and 16, Design 1920s : German design and the Bauhaus 1925-24 : Modernism and the decorative arts, Paris 1910-30. Open University Press, Milton Keynes
- Benton, Tim & Scharf, Aaron, & Benton, Charlotte & Open University (1975). Design 1920s. Open University Press, Milton Keynes
- Scharf, Aaron & Scharf, Aaron, & Open University (1975). The roots of modern art : [and], Charles Baudelaire, vanguard of modernism ; [and], Optimism and pessimism in late nineteenth-century literature and art. Open University Press, Milton Keynes [England]
- Benton, Tim & Open University (1975). The new objectivity: prepared for the course team by Tim Benton ; with contributions from Charlotte Benton, John Milner and Aaron Scharf. The Open University Press, Milton Keynes
- Scharf, A. (1976). Pioneers of photography: An album of pictures and words. New York: N. Abrams.
- Scharf, A., & Open University. (1976). The emerging of modern art in the early twentieth century. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
- Scharf, Aaron & Open University (1976). A new beginning : primitivism and science in post-impressionist art ; Return to nature. Open University Press, Milton Keynes
- Harvie, C. T., Martin, G., & Scharf, A. (1976). Industrialisation and culture 1830-1914. London: Macmillan for The Open University Press.
- Scharf, Aaron & Scharf, Aaron, & Open University (1976). A new beginning : primitivism and science in post-impressionist art ; Return to nature. Open University Press, Milton Keynes
- Scharf, Aaron & Scharf, Aaron, & Open University (1976). The emerging of modern art in the early twentieth century. Open University Press, Milton Keynes [England]
- Scharf, Aaron, & Arts Council of Great Britain & Serpentine Gallery (1977). Summer show 4 : the work of 23 photographers. Arts Council of Great Britain, London
- Scharf, A., & Open University. (1979). The Enlightenment: Unit 7. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
- Scharf, Aaron & Scharf, Aaron, & Open University (1979). William Hogarth. Open University Press, Milton Keynes [Buckinghamshire]
- Hill, Paul, with a foreword by Aaron Scharf (1982). Approaching photography. London ; Boston : Focal Press.
- Enyeart, James & Monroe, Robert D & Stokes, Philip, with a foreword by Aaron Scharf (1982). Three classic American photographs : texts and contexts. University of Exeter, American Arts Documentation Centre, [Exeter, England]
- Blake, Nigel & Harrison, Charles, & Norman, Di, & Open University, with additional material supplied by Francis Frascina, Aaron Scharf and Belinda Thompson. (1983). Impressionism and Degas. Open University Press, Milton Keynes
- Ascolini, Vasco & Istituto di cultura Casa G. Cini, prefazione di Aaron Scharf. (1989). Vasco Ascolini : le fotografie per il teatro. Analisi, Bologna
- Scharf, A. (1994). Arte y fotografía. Madrid: Alianza Editorial.
- Stangos, Nikos, Scharf Aaron (sections on Suprematism and Constructivism) (1994). Concepts of modern art : from fauvism to postmodernism (3rd ed., expanded and updated). Thames & Hudson, New York, N.Y
- Harvie, Christopher T & Scharf, Aaron. Whistler-Ruskin trial [sound recording] (1971). Industrialization and culture. Open University, Milton Keynes
- Scharf, Aaron & Coe, Brian & Turner, Ann & Grenfell, Joyce & British Broadcasting Corporation (1974). Pioneers of photography Episode 4, Famous men and fair women [video recording]. BBC Education and Training, London
- Scharf, Aaron & Coe, Brian & Turner, Ann & British Broadcasting Corporation (1974). Pioneers of photography Episode 7, The fleeting image [video recording]. BBC Education and Training, London
- Scharf, Aaron & Coe, Brian & Turner, Ann (1974). Pioneers of photography Episode 8, Colour and the camera [video recording]. BBC Education and Training, London
- Scharf, Aaron (1989) 'Modernism; Photography; Art', History of Photography, 13:1, 95-102
- Scharf, Aaron (1977) 'One man's fiche ....', History of Photography, 1:4, 352-353. Review of British Masters of the Albumen Print, by Robert A. Sobieszek. International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House. University of Chicago Press (1976)
- Scharf, Aaron (1976). 'Marey and Chronophotography' Artforum, Vol. 15, No. 1 (September 1976)
- Scharf, Aaron (1961). 'Daumier the Painter'. The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 103, No. 701 (Aug., 1961), pp. 356–357+359
- Scharf, Aaron (1963) 'The Art of Photography'. Review of Creative Photography. Aesthetic Trends 1839-1960 by Helmut Gernsheim. The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 105, No. 722 (May, 1963), pp. 217–218
- Scharf, Aaron (1962). 'Painting, Photography, and the Image of Movement'. The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 104, No. 710 (May, 1962), pp. 186+188-195
Notes and references
- Jay, Bill (1993), 'Aaron Scharf:A verbal snapshot'. Creative Camera, April/May 1993.
- As Richard Brettell notes: "With the exception of the writings of Aaron Scharf, Peter Galassis, Kirk Varnedoe, and a handful of other scholars, photography is completely omitted from the history of modern art particularly as it was written as a history of movements. In fact, photography played a considerable role in Impressionism, Nabis, Symbolism, Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism, moving hand-in-hand with painting and the graphic arts." (Brettell, Richard R. (1999) Modern Art, 1851-1929: Capitalism and Representation. Oxford University Press, Notes p.220)
- Scharf’s widow, Marina, posthumously published his wartime experiences as a bomber pilot in Flak (1996) where he recounts how he deliberately botched the targeting of Ravenna, Italy in a bombing raid
- Linda Starkey. "Obituary: Ruth Dunlap Bartlett | From". The Guardian. Retrieved 2013-10-09.
- Proletarian, issue 30 (June 2009)
- "This kind of archaeology, in a relatively new field of study, is very necessary before the relevant philosophical, sociological and, certainly, aesthetic questions can adequately be answered". (Scharf in his review of The Painter and the Photograph by Van Deren Coke in The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 107, No. 753 (Dec., 1965), p. 635)
- There are a number of excellent books on this topic including Volker Kahmen, Art History of Photography, trans. Brian Tubb (New York: Viking Press, 1974), Peter Galassi, Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography (Museum of Modern Art, 1984), Andy Grundberg and Kathleen McCarthy Gauss, Photography and Art: Interactions Since 1946 (New York: Abbeville Press, 1987), Heinrich Schwarz & William Parker Art and Photography: Forerunners and Influences (University of Chicago Press, 1987), Elizabeth W. Easton (ed.) Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard (Yale University Press, 2011), Barbara Buhler Lynes and Jonathan Weinberg (eds) Shared Intelligence: American Paintings and the Photograph (University of California Press, 2011). A useful article is Mark Prince, “Painting & Photography,” Art Monthly 260 (October 2002).
- Thirty-four editions of 'Art and Photography' were published between 1963 and 1994 in 3 languages
- The Painter and the Photograph was reviewed, prior to his own publication, by Aaron Scharf who wrote: "Coke's admirable little book (which was produced also as a catalogue for a travelling exhibition in the United States) makes a large contribution.". The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 107, No. 753 (Dec., 1965), p. 635
- Jay, Bill (1993), 'Aaron Scharf:A verbal snapshot'. Creative Camera, April/May 1993.
- In interviews with Dr Harriet Atkinson (http://www.vivavoices.org/website.asp?page=Tim%20Benton) Tim Benton, architectural historian, worked at Open University and records how he was attracted to both studying at the Courtauld and working at OU because of Scharf's energy and innovation.
- "Aaron Scharf (Modernism: Photography: Art) was Professor of Art History at The Open University from 1969 to 1982. He has now retired. Among his publications is 'Art and Photography', first published in 1968." from 'Contributors to this issue', History of Photography, Vol. 13, no. 1' JANUARY-MARCH 1989, p.107
- He is listed in the 1990 journal 'History of Photography' simply as "Aaron Scharf, Melton Constable, Norfolk, UK" (1990) International Advisory Board, History of Photography, 14:1
- The Photographic Journal, November 1971, p. 426. There had been a note in the Journal (July 1970, p. 278) stating that the Arts Council was considering appointing Scharf to organise the exhibition.