I’m actually not sure if I’m qualified to talk about this, because until very recently, I never even considered the question – is photography art? But sometimes I get lots of thoughts about something and well. . .writing is where I go to sort it all out.
Welcome to the chaos.
I used to think, it doesn’t matter what people think about photography, because I’m going to do it anyway. And that’s a good thing, I guess. If I worry too much about if what I’m doing is “art” then I might stop. And that isn’t a good thing. Creativity isn’t about perfection, after all. It’s about following your curiosity.
I have been reading a lot photography books lately, and absorbing a lot of Ansel Adams. I’ve flipped through South With Endurance (which I highly recommend because it’s marvelous). I watched a Netflix series following photographers around the world as they photographed cultures and exotic animals. I learned the photography world is so much bigger than my little space and my little camera.
Why Photography Isn’t Art
– or can’t be, according to some
Because photography is such a broad medium, it leaves a lot of room for confusion when it comes to defining exactly what photography is. An art? A science? A reflection of reality? All of the above?
Some say that photography can’t be an art because it’s so accessible. Cameras are available to anyone who wants one, and even if you don’t want to carry around an extra piece – your cell phone doubles as a camera (remember when the iPhone 7+ came out and everyone was chatting about its photo quality?). Editing turns into a quick tap, and viola! – it’s good enough for Instagram. In theory, we could all call ourselves “photographers.” Right?
Others say that photography isn’t art because of repeatability: the ability to make exact replicas of any photo, many times over. On the flip side, you couldn’t do that with, say, a painting. To copy a painting, you’d actually have to “paint” another copy. But even if you did that, your “copy” still wouldn’t be exactly the same as the original.
Even the “copy” is unique – something you can never do with photography. You don’t have to go out and take the same picture again. You can just make another one.
Repeatability applies to film photography as well as digital. Granted, it is more work to produce a print in the darkroom than it is to replicate a JPEG, but it’s still the same concept. You can imagine how widespread “repeatability” is for digital photography.
I can’t cover every variation here, but if you’re interested
here are a few articles + videos I found wildly helpful.
– The Line Between Art and Photography | an A+ explanation of repeatability
– Is Photography an Art Form?
– Photography is Not Creative | he uses the word “creative” instead of “art”, but his point is excellent all the same.
– Harold Feinstein :: Is Photography Art? | Harold’s answer to the question is the best part of this episode.
Photography is Different that Other Art Forms
– but that doesn’t mean it can’t be art
Technology has made photography feel cheap. Too easy – like anyone can pick up an iPhone and become Instagram famous. It’s certainly easy to say that photographs have become “too common” to be art. I agree with anyone who says that the digital age has blurred the lines between “art” and “whatever it is we call people doing – which they say is art.”
The overabundance of photos does diminish the individual image. Photographers have to work harder to create something unique and unforgettable if they want to “make it.” Not to mention that it’s harder to “sell” photographs nowadays unless you work for a magazine, do weddings or something.
I don’t, however, think you can lump all photography into one box and say: none of this is art because photography too common!
Let’s have an example, shall we?
– master of the darkroom
– one of the greatest landscape photographers
– discovered the Zone System (which I have still yet to full understand)
– his prints still sell for millions.
As I read his books, one common thread I found was the emphasis he put on visualization. On seeing what a photograph will look like before you shoot it, and then framing decision you make around that so you create the exact “look” you visualized.
This was news to me, and something I hadn’t thought much about. My photography is almost never pre-planned, instead it goes something like: if I think it looks pretty, I shoot it.
Maybe that works sometimes – and it certainly produces pretty photos. What this method is not, however, a recipe for timeless, expressive photographs. Think about the greatest photographers: Ansel Adams, Stephen Dupont (this is my opinion here), Frank Hurley, and others. Their work is unforgettable, isn’t it? But why?
Think about these photos: What is it about them that draws you?
Here’s what: it’s emotion. Emotion – plain and simple. Sure, there might be a dozen other factors involved: eye-catching composition, proper exposure, visually-pleasing/interesting subject. But emotion, in the end, is what allows them to have a life beyond their technical slices. < < < That I think, might be what separates photography as "art” and photography as a “pretty photo.”
Porter says it best:
“The essential quality of a photograph is the emotional impact that it carries,
which is a measure of the author’s success in translating into photographic
terms his own emotional response to the subject.”
|| Eliot Porter
After all, isn’t this why art matters to us? The assurance that we are not alone, that we do not die alone, that something matters, that life is beautiful? Art speaks: either emotionally or aesthetically.
There is photography that speaks, just look at the photos above. So we can’t lump all photography together, just like we can’t lump all books together because we dislike YA. There are different genres of photography, just like there are different genres of books or music or whatever.
So. . .
Not every photography genre is art.
Not every photograph is art.
I’m not saying that photography isn’t creative (I absolutely believe it is). Creating things is creative – whether that’s painting or music or writing. It certainly takes creativity to put together a bookstagram photo or a flat lay. But it is “art“? Eh, I don’t think so.
. . . .
So. These are my preliminary thoughts on a matter. I really do apologize if they are jumpy or random, as I’m not 100% fluent in what everyone has to say about photography as an art. This is just what I’ve seen and read and heard. *shrugs*