Art is one thing that can go on mattering once it has stopped hurting. —Elizabeth Bowen
[Ed. note: the following article is from our archives. It was originally published February 7, 2008 and is presented here, for better or worse, unedited. My opinions may have changed on a point or two, but that is likely irrelevant to the overall thesis of the article.]
CAVEAT: The following article addresses a highly subjective topic for which there is little authoritative documentation. Opinions expressed herein are based on research, observation, and experience, but are ultimately just one person’s thoughts on the matters addressed. Readers are encouraged to explore the topic thoroughly through this and other sources, being reminded that all opinions, regardless of source, contain some measure of validity in their argument.
Henri Cartier-Bresson. Robert Mapplethorpe. Ansel Adams. Helmut Newton. Eve Arnold. Jock Sturgis. David LaChapelle. Petter Hegre. Dorothea Lange. All these names represent photographers whose work behind the camera is legendary and awe inspiring. Many of their works have been framed and hang on the walls of prestigious museums. Some have been sold at auction for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Yet, despite how wonderful these images may appear, no matter to what degree the skill and precision is appreciated, society still finds itself needing to ask the question: is it art? While it is understandable that the question would be asked during the 19th century when the medium was in its infancy, that photographers, buyers, and critics still feel the compulsion to add their opinion to the compendium of answers delivers a disturbing realization that we are no closer to definitive decision than we are eliminating cancer.
Many photographers regard the mere raising of the question in a most defensive manner. How dare anyone question the artistic nature of photography? Has the medium not proven itself over time? Does not its increasing acceptance by art dealers and museum curators promote photography’s artistic validation? Has not public and academic opinion of photography elevated it to hang within the hallowed halls of artistry?
Those in opposition remain just as adamant, however, that photography, by its very nature, can never be art, will never be art, and that to consider photography as art is to fail to grasp the very nature of art itself. Changes in methodology and technology only serve to further solidify their arguments. As an increasing number of people pick up cameras and point them at various objects, the argument for photography as art, in the opinion of its critics, only erodes.
From the very outset, one does well to accept that simply because one picks up a camera and takes a picture one does not automatically become an artist any more than does using a paint brush or a chisel. Not all photography is intended to be art, regardless of how it may be gathered and exhibited. The pictures of a child’s party on their fourth birthday, while endearing, are not art. Photographs of the winning score in a championship ballgame are memorable, but not art.
Images of the family pet chasing its own tail, while amusing, are not art.
Consider the following photograph, taken in the staging area of a New York City event back in 2005:
The picture is interesting in that it provides the viewer with the seldom-seen perspective of what happens before the “big show.” Spontaneous and un-posed, the image smacks with the sort of realism that makes for interesting conversation and endless speculation as to exactly what is going on. Without question, there is a story here just waiting to be told. Still, this photograph is, at best, editorial and, in the opinion of those more conservative, pornographic and exploitative.
Given that so many billions of “pedestrian and vernacular” photographs exist, one must immediately modify the question to consider whether perhaps some photographs can be art while others, such as the image above, are not. Applying such discrimination to the medium, however, may not make the argument in favor of photographic art any easier, for such magnified inspection inevitably brings to greater light what some might consider the artistic shortcomings of the field.
Arguments against photography as art are strong, despite the fact they fundamentally have not changed since the camera was invented. When questioned, most critics will point to the following matters:
- Photography is mechanical. No matter what the photographer and/or their staff does to prepare, control and manipulate the set, the fact remains that it is the camera, a mechanical device, not the photographer, that captured the image. Challenging photography as an artistic medium, Ayn Rand wrote:
Photography is a mechanical means of producing whatever is put in front of the camera. When you speak of an “artistic” photograph, what you mean is that the photographer exercised [some] choice in his [selection and] arrangement of the material which his camera is to reproduce …. But the mere process of photographing, the mechanical part of it, is not art because no choice is involved: the camera operates the same way regardless of the nature of the material.[Fiction-Writing. Lecture 1]One might attempt to argue that through the manipulation of shutter speed, aperture, ISO and white balance photographers are exercising at least as much control as a sculptor. Still, it is the camera, not the photographer, making key decisions as to how to interpret color, light, texture and form. All the photographer does is set what are, by any argument, fairly wide parameters within which the camera does its work.Additionally, art historian Edgar Wind wrote:
What precludes photography … from becoming ‘entirely art,’ although it may have ‘something artistic about it’, is the crucial surrender of the pictorial act to an optical or chemical agency which, however carefully set up and controlled by the photographer, must remain automatic in its operation. [Art and Anarchy, pp. 138-140]
Modern advances in photography such as auto-focus and digital manipulation only serve to make the argument of automation stronger. Automatic features, software filters and digital processing submit even more of the act of photography to pre-determined outcome. Rather than the questionably fluid control of chemical processing, modern photographers use technology to apply techniques whose outcome was determined by a software engineer in Palo Alto. Can one truly say they are being artistic when so little actual control lies in their own hands? Photographers do well to lose sleep in answering the question.
- Photography voids uniqueness. With most any other art medium, there is but one original, signed by the artist. There is evidence of the artist’s hand on the art. Photography defies that singleness, the concept that an image may be one-of-a-kind. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of prints can be generated from a single negative. Digital images can be shared electronically with millions of viewers simultaneously. While some might argue that this development brings art ‘within the reach of the masses,” the ability to mass produce images renders them pedestrian and commonplace. There is nothing “fine” about a work for which there are 150,000 exact copies.Walter Benjamin wrote in 1936:The technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. [Illuminations. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”]Benjamin’s argument, which he applied not only to photography but also to recorded music and film, echoes a consistent criticism from the art world that one can never look at a photograph and be sure of its origin nor how many other exact copies of the work are hanging elsewhere in the world. Essentially, photography defies the uniqueness that has long separated art from manufacturing.
This argument does not deny the skill or vision that may be present in a photograph, but equates photography to more utilitarian crafts such as furniture making or rug weaving. A finely produced chair may be quite beautiful in its design and construction, but that that it can be duplicated so as to fill a thousand different living rooms negates its ability to become art. Carpet designers in North Georgia may create intricate templates for astonishing rug patterns, but that one may walk from room to room to room and observe the exact same pattern on each floor and then have that pattern placed in one’s rompus room without disturbing the display denies any pretense of art.
Over the years, some photographers keenly aware of this shortcoming have attempted to compensate by destroying the negative after a single print is made. Indeed, such extreme measures may help to inflate the value of a piece, but with modern digital photography even that option is no longer present. With the technical ability to retrieve even deleted documents and images from a hard drive, multiple copies of an image may exist long before it is ever committed to print.
- There is no selectivity to photography. Photography does not create, it merely captures. Photography is inherently tied to reality in all its detail and, increasingly, high-definition form. No matter what one may do to an image in processing, the fact consistently remains that, at some point, the base element had to actually exist long enough to be photographed. Photographers cannot simply select an image from their mind and transfer it to the camera. What one photographs must be real.This puts photographers at a disadvantage and, arguably, defies art. Painters and sculptors may create whole masterpieces from pure fiction and imagination. While they may use models and even photographs as reference, they are not bound to duplicate what is real, but can alter immediately any form or element they wish.With other forms of art, the viewer may ask of any element, “Why is that there?” and know that the answer relies in some fashion upon the artist’s choice of inclusion. Photography yields a very different answer, however, in that objects exist in a photograph because they existed in reality. While finely composited photographs such as those of David LaChapelle may seem to defy this argument, even those elements of composition must each some how, some where, actually exist before they can become part of his final image.
These are but three primary objections to photography as an art form that persist to present day. Other perhaps less enthusiastic objections are made in terms of the photograph’s relationship to history, the relationship of photography to randomness and its subjectivity to accident, and the argument that photography is ultimately a scientific process that needs neither human intervention nor creativity to exist.
Perhaps one of the most valid criticisms of photography comes in the writing of the late Susan Sontag, whose intimate relationship with celebrated photographer Annie Leibovitz post-dates much of what she wrote on the subject. In her 1978 book, On Photography, Sontag wrote:
Photography is acquisition in several forms. In its simplest form, we have in a photograph surrogate possession of a cherished person or thing, a possession which gives photographs some of the character of unique objects. Through photographs, we also have a consumer’s relation to events, both to events which are part of our experience, and to those which are not – a distinction between types of experience that such habit-forming consumership blurs. A third form of acquisition is that, through image-making and image-duplicating machines, we can require something as information (rather than experience). Indeed, the importance of photographic images as the medium through which more and more events enter our experience is, finally, only a by-product of their effectiveness in furnishing knowledge dissociated from and independent of experience. [On Photography. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1978. p. 154]
To the extent that photography is just that – acquisition – one might make the argument that it can never be art, no matter what intention or inclination might be applied by either photographer or viewer. If all one is doing is to capture an event, a time, a place, a setting, then wherein lies the creativity, the originality, the imagination requisite in any art form? If a photograph can be duplicated by another photographer and the two set side-by-side as identical, how can the medium ever deliver the truly original work of art?
Photographers do not aid the argument regarding art when they themselves attempt to label as art those inferior images so poorly constructed that they would have best died on the camera, or so horribly mis-processed as to generate embarrassment. Novelty is not art. Perhaps the most frequent fatality to photographic art comes at the hands of the amateur digital shutter bug who is overly and unduly impressed by merely desaturating an image, creating a sloppy and ill-conceived form of an image that suffered miserably in color and is only slightly less offensive in black-and-white. Equally destructive is the image to which any number of Photoshop filters are mis-applied across the entire photograph rendering it obnoxiously obscene in its loathsome void of artistic merit. How can one possibly expect the medium of photography to be taken seriously within a well-established and entrenched art community when too many psuedo-photographers continue to pompously claim as art those images so void of even minute aesthetic interest as to cause the viewers eyes to bleed?
Photography cannot be taken seriously as an art medium so long as those who stand behind the camera approach the work in a cavalier, profit-minded, shoot-till-you-get-something attitude. Such a mindset reduces photography to a frivolous past time, an energy-consuming hobby for the busy body with not enough constructive tasks to perform. Photographs taken without consideration for genuinely artistic element have less value than the paint-by-numbers picture sold by a dirt-encrusted child at a flea market.
If photography is to be taken seriously as an art form, it must present to the public a level of aesthetic presence sufficient to overcome the criticism laid against it. While the imposition of strict rules or tests would be largely inappropriate and stifling to creativity, photography must adequately address four very basic and fundamental concerns before it may raise itself to the elevated status of art.
- Form. More than merely a definition of genre, form speaks to the very construction and composition of a photograph. Simply pointing a camera at the horizon and calling it a landscape is not sufficient. Merely undressing a young woman and taking her picture against a black background does not create art. The flowers in one’s garden may be quite beautiful, but stepping outside and popping off a few quick shots does nothing more than create a record of the flowers’ growth.Form is about substance, composition, framing, and presentation of one’s subject. Thousands of people have taken pictures of the arid grounds across the Amercian West, but it is Ansel Adam’s careful attention to form that sets the standard for landscape art. Hundreds of images exist of migrant workers during the era of the Great Depression, but it is the form of Dorothea Lang’s “Destitute Pea Pickers in California. Mother of Seven Children. Age Thirty-Two. Nipomo, California” that brings the image to our attention and wonder how such things may be. Untold millions of pictures of nude women exist, but it is form that sets Helmut Newton’s work apart from the pornography that plagues our senses.Form requires that a photographer actually think before snapping the shutter. Art is not created by happenstance or accident, but through willful construction in studying and understanding the subject, giving due consideration to perspective, how the image will be viewed, the balance of light and shadow, the play of reflection and the tone of color. For photography to be more than just “acquisition” of what exists, the Form of the image must excite us, extend beyond the ordinary of what the eye may casually see and assist the viewer in seeing something more than the mere reality of an every-day world. Without form, all one has is a most vernacular snap shot.
- Function. What is the purpose of a photograph? Whose agenda does the image serve? What message is intended, or inferred, by this picture? Function addresses the question as to why an image exists. Fashion photographs exist to sell clothes. Editorial photographs exist to portray news and events. Scientific photographs exist to document what is.Art, by contrast, must go further in its function. Insufficient to be simply aesthetically pleasing, artistic photography necessarily invokes symbolism, inference and ambiguity as tools for portraying a message or telling a story. Artistic function may certainly be all about the portrayal of beauty, but in doing so the photograph must excel in the manner through which it declares such beauty in original methods not ordinary to human experience.The artistic photograph must hold at its core that its purpose is to first be art. There is no room for blatant commercialization or profit-seeking. Pandering to the unwashed masses with images of depravity, violence and gore run counter to any artistic merit. Whatever the message, whatever the symbolism, the foundational function of art is that it be art first and foremost.
- Quality. Artistic photography must stand out from the mundane, the ordinary, the contrived, and the plebeian. Here is where photography must challenge the criticism of being mechanical and void of selectiveness through the creation of images of sufficient quality as to make evident the hand and spirit of the photographer.Artistic photographs must deny any form of cheap digital trickery or painful attempts to cover a lack of talent and vision. Regardless of the processing methods that may be applied, the base image must be of superior photographic and artistic quality before any processing begins because there surely will not be sufficient improvements to quality applied after the fact. Attention to exposure, depth of field, noise levels, highlight and shadows and print quality are all paramount in creating an artistic image.The quality of an artistic image must be strong enough to allow the viewer to not notice its presence. A quality photograph allows the viewer to ponder, to think, to linger over an image without being distracted by a cumbersome shadow, a blown-out highlight, or disturbing noise. Neither does a quality photograph distract from itself with “hey, look what I can do” Photoshop antics. Th person viewing a work of art should never have reason to wonder how an image was achieved, but given the freedom to marvel in its glory and delight in its presence.
- Value. What makes this photograph unique? What separates one image from all the hundreds of thousands taken from the same location under the same circumstances? What prevents another photographer of similar skill with similar equipment from taking exactly the same shot and achieving identical results?To call an image a work of art is to infer that there is something special about that image, that what exists on the paper is irreplaceable and deserving of careful attention so that it might be preserved. Art longs to be cherished, prized, and set apart from the contrived and mundane elements of life. Therefore, that an artistic photograph establish value is critical.To that end, photographers must first strive to be original and unique in their compositions, a task which is not getting any more simple. Each photographer must explore their own ideas and concepts and not allow themselves to be snagged into duplicating the work of others, or even themselves, simply because the concept is popular, even when it may be profitable.Photographers must also learn to jealously guard against the over- and mis-use of their photographs. Allowing too many copies to become circulated, or excusing the infringement of copyright not only devalues the works involved, but everything the photographer produces, and at a larger extent, lowers the public perception of photographic art as a whole. Art that is too readily available looses its value and dilutes its meaning beyond any hope of repair.
Given such high standards for any photograph to achieve status as an artistic image, one becomes aware of just how few photographs have deservedly earned the title of being an artistic photograph. Without question, truly artistic photography is an almost minuscule proportion of the pictures produced . The number of photographers whose work demonstrates true originality in form, depth of function, attentive quality and legitimate value is significantly smaller than those who dare to claim such a position.
Photographers who think they can foist onto the art buying public myriad black-and-white photographs of what lies between them and the horizon, or clever application of digital gimmicks are playing the role of fools. To those who truly know and understand all that art is and should be, photography is still a questionable medium whose place in the art world, though gaining some acceptance, is still highly suspect. The continued inundation of gross and inferior photographs diminishes the value of all photography and accentuates the criticisms leveled against it as an artistic medium.
There is a strong desire on the part of many in the art world to find artistic merit in photography, and one can legitimately argue that there are sufficient examples to place photography within the hallowed realms of fine art. Since 1993, major art auctions have sold major works of photographic art for hundreds of thousands of dollars. There is a willing and anxious market waiting for truly artistic photographs.
However, the burden is squarely on the shoulders of photographers to create works that rise above the noise of mediocrity and deliver images that are more than mere “acquisition” of a subject. Photographers must bring to their work a sense of purpose, a reason for being, and the ability to extend beyond what simply exists. Without such commitment and attentiveness to form, function, quality and value, photographs are nothing more than image recordings and photographers are merely machine operators and none are anywhere close to art.