Is Photography Art?
Perhaps you were following along in 2014 when journalist Jonathan Jones of The Guardian wrote,
“It just looks stupid when a photograph is framed or backlit and displayed vertically in an exhibition, in the way paintings have traditionally been shown. A photograph in a gallery is a flat, soulless, superficial substitute for painting. Putting up massive prints is a waste of space, when the curators could provide iPads and let us scroll through a digital gallery that would easily be as beautiful and compelling as the expensive prints.”
If you weren’t following then, I strongly suggest you don’t start now because if you are a photographer, the article is sure to piss you off. The comment section of this article is flooded with opposing opinions, most saying that Jones was outrageously out of touch.
“We are encouraged to give it [photography] the same, or more, attention. Today’s glib culture endlessly flatters photography’s arty pretensions. The winning picture in the Taylor Wessing prize at the National Portrait Gallery ‘has clearly been inspired by Caravaggio,’ raves the Evening Standard, as if this meant it was somehow as rewarding as the 17th-century master’s works. Sorry, but it ain’t.” – Jonathan Jones
It ain’t. Except many people, myself included, think it is.
Jones wrote a follow-up article later that same year in response to the photographer Peter Lik selling a photograph of a black and white Arizona canyon (titled Phantom) for a reported 6.5 million dollars. This prompted Jones to double down on his argument hat photography is not art. He argues that photography is instead a technology, and that if it were to be considered art, any “normal” person with an iPhone camera is then an artist. He says of Phantom,
“As a colour picture without any arty claims, this would be a valuable record of nature. Instead, it claims to be more than that; it aspires to be ‘art.’ It is this ostentatious artfulness that pushes it into the realm of the false. For the artistic ambition of this picture is so very derivative from paintings that were created more than a century ago. Just like the very first ‘art’ photographers in the Victorian age, Lik apes the classics in order to seem classic.”
It is worth noting that while Jones’ criticism of photography as art was not directed specifically at Peter Lik, other critics including The New York Times, have questioned the price point of Lik’s work, and his motives as an artist.
“An Australian native, Lik sells his work in tourist-heavy places like Maui and Las Vegas, where travelers are often happy to pick up a handsome, large-scale landscape print that will let them bring home the spirit of their vacation. His buyers generally don’t have an art education, but they do have disposable income, and see Lik’s nonthreatening work as providing easily accessible entrée into the booming art market.” – Art.net
Lik typically produced limited editions of his photos (around 995 in circulation for each photo) and was able to drive up demand as the quantities dwindled. So, the first of the 995 photos to sell may go for $4000, and as the available images drop, the price for the remaining handful become known as “premium Peter Lik.” The remaining inventory can jump to $17,500.
This scarcity model creates high-demand and is a major reason why Phantom sold for $6.5 million. For Phantom, Lik used a new pricing model by “putting the word out to his most prolific collectors that his latest work would be one-of-a-kind.” Art.net was also quick to note that although Lik regards himself as “the world’s most famous photographer, most sought-after photographer, most awarded photographer,” his work has little to no resale value or secondary market presence.
While Jones’ disdain was not addressed directly at Lik, per se, the $6.5 million dollar sale did raise some eyebrows.
The Lik model also presents an interesting dilemma inherent in artistic photography: Does the “artfulness” of a photograph decline the more times the image is reproduced? Is a reproduced photograph still art, or is the title of “art” reserved for the original? A poster of Klimt’s “The Kiss” hanging in millions of dorm rooms nationwide is not the same as seeing the original painting hung in the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere Museum in Vienna, but is the same true of a photograph?
But back to The Guardian debate. At this point, Jones’ colleague Sean O’Hagan had enough of Jones’ opinions (or perhaps the whole debate was orchestrated by The Guardian to get people talking, which it did). O’Hagan penned a counterpoint article of his own titled “Photography is Art and Always Will Be.”
O’Hagan argues that “Photography is as vibrant as it has ever been — more so in response to the digital world, which Jonathan mistakenly thinks has made everyone a great photographer. It hasn’t. It has made it easy for people to take — and disseminate — photographs, that’s all. A great photographer can make a great photograph whatever the camera. A bad one will still make a bad photograph on a two grand digital camera that does everything for you. It’s about a way of seeing, not technology.”
And even if this was just click bait, as so many commenters suggested, it leaves room for society to ponder, for perhaps the billionth time, what is art?
It shows us too, that the debate plods on; people are still wondering how to define art, and moreover, they are questioning what it is that makes for artistic photography.
In 1858, The South Kensington Museum in London held the first ever exhibit of photography. Some critics loved the show, including The Art Journal (published April 1st, 1858), which said,
“There are many singularly beautiful pictures, upon which we gaze and gaze until we find ourselves transported in thought to the scenes so faithfully represented.”
Other critics were firm believers that photography is a science not an art, and some just failed to be moved by the show. The Guardian’s article on the 1858 exhibit details how one of the members of the Photographic Society of London (est. 1953) said the new technique (photography) was “too literal to compete with works of art.”
The question of what is art has been burning for ages. Is an upside down urinal art? Is paint splattered on canvas? Is the drawing of a toddler? And though the question is more recent, still, more than 180 years later, we are questioning if photography is art.
Back in 2009, Richard Eyre wrote an essay for the Arts & Books section of The Independent. He took a stab at answering the unanswerable question, what is art? Eyre posits that something can be classified as art when it contains both ambition and potential.
“Art has always to struggle against mediocrity; it’s nothing if it doesn’t aspire to be excellent, but it’s nothing if excellence alone is its ambition. There has to be an element, in all art, of exceptional skill, of something being done with awesome craftsmanship. But an artist who is only a craftsman is only a craftsman. Art must have form, it must have meaning — like science, art is a way of knowing the world, of giving form and meaning to a society that often seems formless.
There has to be a complexity about art — but that’s not the same as obscurity. There must be mystery, a sense of unknowability in a work of art — as there is in every human. In art, reality must be given the chance to be mysterious, and fantasy the chance to be commonplace.” – Richard Eyre
There is representational photography, and like a work of journalism, it seeks to portray as scene as it naturally occurred — without any artistic interference. This type of photojournalism may be edited in post-production, but its intention is documentation, not art; it is a record of the past and does not intend to present a creative vision.
The Australian Wall Art Prints blog explains the nature of artistic photography saying, “First and foremost, artistic photography has to be transformational, not merely representational. While you might happen to capture an incredible scene on your way to work, your photo can’t be considered art unless it has been changed in some way by your intelligence and thought process. However, this doesn’t mean that artistic photography can only be achieved with complex staging and lighting or digital effects; in fact, some of the most artistic photos ever taken have been landscapes, for example, the work of Ansel Adams.”
The framing, film choice, positioning (vantage point, angle etc) can all make for artistic photography. In the digital age we live in, it is natural to feel some sort of nostalgia for the film photography of the past, and perhaps even to call these photographs more artistic than digital photography. Photographs that have been manipulated by Photoshop and other editing can still be art.
“A photograph that lifts your spirit, alters your worldview, or otherwise affects you can be considered art no matter what its technical or procedural qualification might be perceived to be.” –Wall Art Prints
When people talk about artistic photography, much of what they are referring to can be classified as fine art photography. Fine art photography is often described as having the opposite intention of photojournalism. While the two share the same equipment (i.e a camera), their intentions are drastically different.
You can think of the difference between photojournalism and fine art photography like the difference between cheese and ice cream. Stay with me. While the two share milk as their main ingredient, the final product is so different that it would be fruitless to compare the two. It makes little sense to compare photojournalism and fine art photography.
The My Modern Met blog explains, “A distinguishing feature of fine art photography is that recording a subject is not the main purpose. These artists use photography as a means to express their vision and make an artistic statement.”
For a photograph to be artistic, it must have reason, a vision propelling it forward. An artistic photographer must have a clear vision, a reason for bringing this photograph into the world.
Many photographers fall into the trap of shooting photos that look cool, but fail to tell a story.
One way to make your photographs art is to ask yourself constantly, “What do I want people to feel when they look at this photo?” Is it love, or loneliness? Is it kinship, struggle, kindness, empathy, greed?
If you can’t answer this question, the photograph may not work as a piece of art, which is not to say it doesn’t have merit as a piece of history. As Ansel Adams once said, “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”
It is always a good idea to keep a camera, or at least a notebook on you at all times.
“Photo ops often come when you least expect it. If you can keep your equipment relatively simple — just a small camera bag and a tripod — you might be able to take advantage of some of those unexpected opportunities. Or, if your phone has a camera, use it to take ‘notes’ on scenes you’d like to return to with your regular camera.” –Digital Photography School
Fine Art Photography
Unlike painting or drawing which have been around for thousands of year, photography is, relatively speaking, a new genre to be initiated into the canon of art. In the late 19th century, modernist photographer Alfred Stieglitz worked alongside his wife, Georgia O’Keefe, to push for the movement of photography into museums. It was considered revolutionary when, in the early 20th century, his photographs were shown alongside paintings in the Special Exhibition of Contemporary Art organized by the National Arts Club.
In 1924, Stieglitz donated 27 photographs to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which was the first time a major museum accepted photography into its permanent collection. Steiglitz belief in his own photograph as art was unwavering. An article from the New York Times in 1982 detailed his bravado. The article claims Steiglitz wrote in a letter to Hart Crane in 1923, “I know exactly what I have photographed. I know I have done something that has never been done.”
The inclusion of photography in a fine art museum paved the way for photographers like Paul Strand, Man Ray, Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman, Richard Avedon and of course, Ansel Adams.
Adams, not surprisingly, fought fiercely against the notion that photography was not art.
“I don’t know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is.” – Ansel Adams
Adams also once stated, “Art implies control of reality, for reality itself possesses no sense of aesthetic. Photography becomes art when certain controls are applied.”
The term control here does not mean to wrangle the photo into something it is not. It does not mean to alter it into oblivion in post-production.
The Photography Life blog explains, “A fine art photograph must go beyond the literal representation of a scene or subject. It must deeply express the feelings and vision of the photographer and clearly reveal that it was created by an artist and not by just the camera. It must be clear that it involved an original, deliberate creation and that every aspect of making the photograph in the field and in the photographer’s post-processing digital studio, including the printing, are an individual expression from within the artist.”
But…How Do I Know If My Photos Are Art?
Artistic photography is that which has a purpose and a point of view. The notion that anyone can be a photographer is outdated at best. It is true insofar that anyone with a paintbrush can be a painter, anyone with a laptop, a writer. Not everyone who takes a picture is an artist, and not every photograph is art, but many are.
The best way to make your photography more artistic is to practice more and worry less. Easier said than done, but the more you practice, the more innate your photography skills become. In this flow is where the art lives.
Instead of worrying about making art, think of working to improve your craft. It may take time until you have a body of work that you feel clearly expresses your point of view as an artist. It can help to write an artistic statement, one for your eyes only. This will help you to clearly define, in words, what you are showing through your photos, what your work means, and why it is important. Think of your photos as your voice. What is important to you? Why this particular image? Why now?
Practice regularly, and don’t judge yourself for making art that you don’t love. Oh, and ignore critics.
If your work brings happiness, comfort, a new perspective to even one viewer, then it is art. You’ve done your job.
I’ll leave you with this from Richard Eyre’s Guardian essay, “It’s through the arts that the potential of each of us is fulfilled. And it’s that sense of fulfillment, of common purpose and shared joy, that unique satisfaction that comes from doing something difficult that gives pleasure to others. That’s what should be at the heart of all the arts — the desire to communicate, to share with other people your skill, your knowledge and your joy.”