Musings on: photography as art, or not

“Photography is not art…”

What a ridiculous statement!

I’d never, to my knowledge, noticed anyone expressing this opinion until I moved from taking mountaineering snapshots to making photographs for their own sake. Now, since I read a fair few books and on-line magazines on photography, variations on the theme seem to crop up all the time. OK, so not as much as ‘which is the best sensor / lens / film / software?‘ – the prevalence of those debates is in a whole different order of magnitude – but pretty frequently nonetheless. I’ve been resisting the impulse to express a written opinion on the topic for a few months now, but here I shall succumb to that inevitability, and I’ll do so largely to record what I think now, as a relative beginner to photography, in order that I can revisit this and see if my views have changed at some unspecified point in the future.

I shall judiciously avoid attempting to define what ‘art’ might be, but definitions are always handy and one of the best that I’ve found, at least in terms of being comprehensive – though ironically not in its art or poetry – is the opening statement on ‘Art’ from Wikipedia. The following is a selective quotation:

”Art is the product or process of deliberately arranging items … in a way that influences and affects one or more of the senses, emotions, and intellect. It encompasses a diverse range of human activities, creations, and modes of expression, including music, literature, film, photography, sculpture, and paintings…. Generally, art is made with the intention of stimulating thoughts and emotions.”

There are a few important aspects to that definition, but I think the last sentence is especially pertinent, and it conveniently allows for art to be not fully defined by the activity itself; rather, it’s a combination of the activity and the intent to ‘stimulate thoughts and emotions‘. In that sense, my images of various mountains and ice-falls don’t qualify as art – which is entirely reasonable, fine and most certainly true – but my ‘for their own sake’ images do. Whether or not they’re good art is another question, but I certainly arrange the objects within them and intend that they engender an emotion, or perhaps a thought or two; I may fail to do that, but the key thing, from the perspective of fulfilling the definition above, is that I try.

Based on the above, it’s entirely obvious that some photographic images constitute ‘art’.

I really cannot see how it can be reasonably denied that a subset of photographs are ‘art’. Perhaps it’s more revealing to look at this from the the opposite viewpoint? I think that the whole question arises since so many photographs are clearly not intended as ‘art’; they’re intended as recordings of a time and a place; a stimulus for memory or a mechanism for sharing an experience with people not present when the photograph was taken.

When such a vast quantity of photographs exist as do now, it’s easy to forget that a minority of them have been created not as mere recordings but for a completely different reason: as ‘objects to stimulate thoughts or emotions‘. What I’m suggesting here is that the predominance of photographs which were never intended to be ‘art’ tends to conceal the fact that this small minority of photographs certainly are intended as such, and the Wikipedia definition above implies that this intent itself is sufficient to qualify the result as ‘art’, whether they be good or bad examples of it. (Clearly, ‘art’ may be simultaneously a record, but the simplistic division helps [me] in seeing where the argument that photography is not art might stem from.)

Technology dependence…

The real elephant in the room here, however, is perhaps the perceived highly technical nature of most photography: its machine-dependence. Yes, some photography can be very simple to create, technically, but it’s never as intrinsically simple as mixing various coloured liquids and arranging them on a piece of drawing material with brushes; after all, starting from nothing, it’s necessary to first build a camera, which I’ll suggest is more problematic than creating paint and a brush. It appears that some people will never accept something which is so fundamentally reliant on non-trivial technology – the camera – as ‘art’.

This technology-dependence, combined with the ubiquity of cameras, also contributes to photographic art being seen as at best a second-rate art form. The usually-unvoiced argument would go something along the lines of “I can’t paint, but I can use a camera” or “I’m not an artist, but I can take a photo; so a photo cannot be art”. The fatal flaw in this argument is, of course, that most people don’t use a camera to its fullest potential since they don’t try to, in much the same way that most people cannot use a set of paints and brushes to their fullest potential either, though they’re for some reason aware of their lack of skill with the paints and don’t attempt to. The camera, however, is a means of recording things, as well as a creative tool, so the majority of people do use them, just not with the intent of creating art! Famously, ‘familiarity breeds contempt‘, and people in general are very familiar with cameras.

‘Photographer’ is a tool-centric label…

A last point which I suspect strengthens the ‘not art’ opinion: people who make art using a camera are almost invariably called ‘photographers’; an accurate but not entirely helpful label. People who paint on canvas, or paper, or whatever medium they’ve chosen, tend to be called ‘artists’; and, when they’re labelled as ‘painters’, there is usually an extra adjective or two added in there to make it clear that they’re not painting the surfaces of buildings (unless they’re ‘graffiti artists’ or painters of frescos, of course!). The ‘photographer’ label is akin to calling people using brushes on canvas ‘users of paint’ or some such wildly general and prosaic term – unhelpful and misleading in the extreme whilst still, undeniably, accurate. Avoidance of apparent pretension makes it more or less unavoidable that we use the term ‘photographer’ rather than ‘artist’ when describing ourselves, but it’s unfortunate that it’s such an unequivocally tool-centric word. Some sculptors form their work by beating metal into artistic shapes: are they usefully described as ‘hammerers’? I think not!

The camera is merely a tool, just like a paint brush…

In conclusion to this first record of what I think about this supposed debate: photographers with artistic intent must arrange their images by choosing their viewpoint, matching it with complementary light, including or excluding subject matter through choice of lens and framing, and then must process the resultant capture, whether film or digital, to suit their vision and intent in making the image. To me, all that seems to tie in very well with the above definition of ‘art’. The observation that a camera may be used, and predominantly is used, with no consideration of any of the above simply shows that the camera is merely a tool, and that not all tools always produce art – it depends on what they’re used for, how they’re used, and by whom. Conversely, art may be produced with any number of tools, and those include the camera.

Incidentally, the unfortunate tool-centricity of the word ‘photographer’ is why I, after much internal debate resulting from the strong dislike of categorisation I expressed in an earlier article, chose to prefix ‘photography’ on my portfolio site with the words ‘fine art’. It is perhaps, as yet, an aspirational label, but I concluded that I preferred to err by appearing overly-ambitious than to define my endeavours purely on the basis of my use of a particular tool.

And finally, yes, I’m entirely aware of the irony of seeking to refute the ‘photography is not art’ argument whilst also objecting to categorisation… My only defence is that it’s a different sort of category, and that I did say that some categorisation is useful! Nonetheless, please do comment on any other contradictions which I may have missed.

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