Is Photography Art?

Gold Arts Award-ee Tobias Holden-Locke discusses photography as an art form, presenting both sides of the argument as to whether all photography is art. 

Is Photography Art?

There are people who assert that a still photograph is never art, while there are others who assert that photography is considered art under the right circumstances, but that not every photograph taken is automatically considered a work of art. My interest in the Arts is focused on photography and so I will be researching the question Is photography art?

The Webster dictionary defines art as: “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects.” The dictionary also defines a work of art as something that is “produced as an artistic effort or for decorative purposes.” So, is photography art? Based on this definition, I believe that photography is and should be considered a visual art. The umbrella of art is far reaching and can encompass any creative undertaking. Despite the inherent artistic value in still photography, there are still plenty of individuals who would argue that photography is not an artistic pursuit.  Here I will research and present oping views before coming to my own conclusion. 

For Roger Scruton, the philosopher in his essay “Photography and Representation” he commented that representation is a necessary quality for all artistic media and artistic works. If a medium doesn’t allow for representation, if its fundamental properties don’t make it such that output can communicate ideas, then that medium cannot produce art. The question to ask of any medium (e.g., brush and canvas, instruments, letters, cameras) is, “Can I use this to produce something that represents?” If yes, then that medium can be used to produce art. 

Yes it is - Before the first photo was captured in the 18th century, lifelike images of what the eyes can see could only be made by talented artists. In modern times and the age of photography, paintings were really special because most of us could just imagine the work and effort an artist spent just to come up with such a realistic image. This is considering that these skilled artists had to compete with an era where photography tools are no longer luxury but a necessity. photo retouching services

Capturing the beauty of nature provides an immense pleasure. You can also start photography with your mobile phone. All you need is a mobile and the best tripod for phone which I have shown earlier is all you need for light art.

Photography brings out the artist in us and you don’t have to be a professional skilled artist to learn and appreciate art. One way to express ourselves artistically is through the lens of the camera. We see a majestic skyline, we take a photo of it. We see our father having a moment with our son, we capture it by just a click. Use these contacts to clearly find the best angles and create the best image of each story. You needn’t look far (below) to find examples of aesthetic photographs that push the bounds of objective reality.

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Maybe we have different reasons when we take photographs, but the common theme here is the desire to create a moment, capture it on a different canvass. That creation, in its raw form, clearly makes us artists. Some argue that it is easy to view the photographer as artist when taking all of the creative photography choices they make into consideration: subject, lighting techniques, camera framing, lens choice, symbolism, technical settings, post-processing, and many more decisions are what makes photography art.  Below we see Dali painting, the argument can be made that the paining is of course art, but this photograph is also a piece of art in itself.

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Photography as an art form can be defined art as a “diverse range of human activities in creating visual, auditory or performing artifacts, expressing the author's imaginative or technical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power.”

By the above definition alone, you can already tell that photography is an art form. It may not require a skill that has an effort like that of painting or sculpture, but the key element here is the intention to appreciate beauty and express emotions. Here are other compelling reasons that photography is more than just a craft.

Photography requires imagination and creativity. Getting that perfect shot requires varying levels of creativity and lots of imagination, and this is a widely accepted knowledge. Photographers know that they should capture ordinary things and find many ways to present it to the world through extraordinary stills.

Photography captures emotions and this is what separates artistic photos from ordinary snaps are the timing and anticipation of small details of the big moments. These small details are where the powerful emotions reside, and experienced photographers capture this. 

Photography required analytical skills and the freezing a perfect moment and preserving them forever require technical skills that every photographer develops through years of practice. Similar to artist painters which use different sets of brushes or mediums, photographers have shutter speeds, apertures, and other number-based aspects to consider when taking shots. I mentioned earlier that the thought process and equipment choices are key for any photographer. Type of lens, filters, and depth of field are also some of the concerns that need to be addressed right away by the photographers. Otherwise, the opportunity to get the shot is lost and may never be replicated again.

Photographers understand physics and any experienced photographers know that they must also have an understanding of how optics, cameras, angles, and lighting works. Utilizing the science behind photography will be a huge advantage for every photographer. This is similar to the paint artists, sculptures, and visual artists who have a keen understanding of the elements that can affect the message they want to convey through their artwork.

Photographers understand abstraction and this is a process where information is carefully but intentionally left out, resulting in a shot that is open for different interpretations. Abstraction also requires an understanding of geometric shapes, texture, lines, colour, and some other related elements. Anyone can develop an artistic eye and great photographers have developed over time their understanding of isolation and seeing beyond the original The perspective of the shots.  And this bizarrely is a rationale for some as to why photography is not art, because anyone can do it.

Scruton argues that the issue with photography, is between what he labels “actual photography” and “ideal photography.” The former refers to pictures produced using all of modern photography’s tricks and secrets, whether in the dark room or using Photoshop. The latter refers to photography’s purest, almost-Platonic form: the simple point, click, develop photography that results in completely unadulterated images of people, places and things.. Scruton doesn’t seem to care about actual photography, believing it to be the chimerical result of various art forms. In generating his analysis he’s solely concerned with ideal photography, the form that must be analysed in discussions centred on the question of photography as art. Scruton comments that the initial question asked in order to derive a thing’s artistic value is whether or not that something represents.Representation refers to the communication of ideas — to the characteristic properties of a work through which it delivers something to its figurative interlocutor. Whether a work represents depends solely on whether or not it transmits ideas to the person engaging with it. This is the central assumption in his argument which is developed further here as I present the rationale as to why photography is not art. 

No it is not – One common stance against photography as art is that photography captures reality rather than creating a subjective reality, which is what “real art” does. Some argue that the idea that photography cannot do any more than capture a moment of real life is quite reductive to the entirety of what makes photography art. 

“I wish photography could be an art form. I love it so much, but it’s just too easy. If only there were some way to mentally cripple the majority of the population from being able to take beautiful photos, or if I could make the craft so needlessly difficult to only be accessible to a tiny few. Maybe then I can trick others into thinking I have talent where there is none. Oh photography, why must you be so simple and uncomplicated!”

The arguments as to why photography is not art are less based on science and technology and more about bias and feelings in my view. Some argue, for example, “We’ve been tricked—all of us—into believing that photography is an art form requiring skill, talent, patience, and “the eye,” when outside of fairy land, it requires no more skill or talent than driving a car, or pushing buttons on an elevator.”  It has bene argued in journals that it cannot be art because it has the following traits

Anyone can do it. While we’ve not proven the infinite monkey theorem for reproducing Shakespeare’s Hamlet, surely a monkey could take a good, interesting photo. In fact, with today’s auto-focusing, auto-metering, easy-to-use cameras, I have no doubt that a monkey, with some practice, could take a photo as good as Sunrays or The Red-Brick House. 

No talent involved. You’re in a good place, you take a good picture. You’re in a bad place; you get nothing. It doesn’t matter if you have passion or willpower. If someone else is in the right place at the right time, they can easily capture the moment just as well, even if they’ve been handed a camera for the first time. You can’t say the same about any real art form, like playing the piano, or drawing, or sculpting, which require years of experience and practice.

No creativity. When you take a photo, you’re using a tool to save a copy of a scene. You’re creating nothing and the camera’s creating nothing. If the camera does create something, it isn’t art—it’s a defect. The more you protest that your badly-composed, out-of-focus pictures bear your unique artistic sensibilities, the more you satisfy your own delusions. Photography is about as creative as mowing the lawn. It doesn’t help you to look at the world differently, no more than painting, or sketching, or kayaking, or any other hobby. If anything, your view of the world narrows, because you’re stuck looking at it through your narrow viewfinder.

It’s an art that’s not a science, and a science that’s not an art. If my five-year-old sister can cover my job on our vacation to Disney world, then what kind of science is that? Normal scientific processes are torturous and difficult to master, like constructing a high-rise bridge or installing an Olympic-size swimming pool. Scientific arts like performing a complex piano piece or crocheting a beautiful sweater require years of expertise and practice. Not photography. Photography is for dummies. Then on the other end, we have the “artists,” like megapixels, lens optics, and sensor reflectivity. They have no idea what this stuff means, nor do they need any understanding of it to take pretty pictures, but they pretend it makes the craft complex, and their jobs, difficult and valuable.

No future. You can’t make money taking pictures. If you do, you’re not an artist, you’re a businessman.  Life as a technician. You can’t get a good photo unless you Photoshop the heck out of it, like going from this awful thing to Leafy Droplets 4. Is that creative?   If you do capture a great photo that needs no editing, it’s because of good luck. No talent whatsoever; you were just lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and disciplined enough to have your camera ready. 

You’re building no legacy, you can’t pass your business on to your children, you work on assignment for pennies, and anyone can replace you at any time. In what other artistic field can anyone do exactly the same work you do, with no talent nor experience?  Consider the ideal, unadulterated photo. What is the thing doing all of the intellectual heavy lifting? A more concrete example might help answer this question.

Here’s a photo of water lilies:

Pink flowers on a lily pad  Description automatically generated with medium confidence

And here’s a section of one of Monet’s famous paintings of water lilies:

A body of water with lily pads  Description automatically generated with low confidence

In the latter, from an artistic perspective, one isn’t interested in the real water lilies that inspired Monet. We’re not interested in the subjects of the painting. Rather, what draws our attention and generates interest is the work itself — the choice of colours, the brush strokes, the framing, the philosophical notions motivating the Impressionist style. A painting is art because of how it represents — how it communicates and transmits ideas. With respect to the photograph, we’re not interested in the picture itself. Instead, what captures the attention, the only thing(s) doing any representation-work, are the subjects — the water lilies themselves. That, for many, is the reason why photography is not art.

What we as an audience are interested in when it comes to photography is not the output of the medium itself. For example a series of mirrors positioned such that a subject is properly framed do the same sort of work as a photograph. A photo is just a window. The subject of the photo may represent, sure, but that doesn’t mean the photo itself represents. We are forever interested in the things photographed and not the photographs themselves. This is rarely, if ever, the case with other creative media. We are not interested in the water lilies when we admire a Monet. The paintings of those subjects in and of themselves capture the imagination. That is not the case with photography, at least in the ideal sense.

However, given the quality of the arguments made by scholars, artists and hacks, and on balance it remains my view that photography is Art. But there are with this analysis, exceptions to the rule.  For example some pioneering photographers recognised straight away was that photographs, like paintings, are artificially constructed portrayals: they too had to be carefully composed, lit and produced.  

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Julia Margaret Cameron made this explicit in her re-envisagings of renaissance pictures. Her Light and Love of 1865, for example, shows a woman in a Marian headcovering bending over her infant who is sleeping on a bed of straw. It is part of a line of nativity scenes that is as long as Christian art, and was hailed by one critic as the photographic equivalent of "the method of drawing employed by the great Italian masters". I Wait, 1872, shows a child with angel's wings resting its chin on folded arms and wearing the bored expression that brings to mind the underwhelmed cherubs in Raphael's Sistine Madonna. Such photographs were not direct quotations from paintings, but they raised in the viewer's mind a string of associations that gave photography a historical hinterland.

It has been argued further by M Prodger in the Guardian that when it came to landscape photography the new medium appeared just as the impressionists were beginning to work in the open air. Some commentators saw photography's real challenge to painting as lying in its ability to capture what the photographer and journalist William Stillman called in 1872 "the affidavits of nature to the facts on which art is based" – the random "natural combinations of scenery, exquisite gradation, and effects of sun and shade". Another practitioner, Lyndon Smith, went further, declaring landscape photography the answer to the "effete and exploded 'High Art', and 'Classic' systems of Sir Joshua Reynolds" and "the cold, heartless, infidel works of pagan Greece and Rome".

The argument goes on and meanwhile the National Gallery exhibits photography as an art in itself.  Experts discuss and disagree and whilst I cannot be considered an expert in the field, my view is there are good strong arguments made on both sides but I come down firmly on the side that photography is art and should have the same recognition as other art forms. 

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