This question is as old as the medium of photography itself. How can something as simple as pointing a camera and clicking a button possibly qualify as art?
As a photographer, I spent decades asking that very question. Before we get much further, it’s important for me to make clear now that the answer that I have to offer is far from conclusive, may not be what you want to hear and is even subject to change further down the road. In order to answer the question, you first have to establish what “is” is.
As simply as possible, you can’t answer the question “is photography art?” objectively because what art “is” is entirely subjective. The answer requires a qualitative standard that is unachievable in subjective questions. This simple truth alone precludes any definitive answer to the question which would be accepted by all. So here, instead of finding the answer I’d like to explore the question.
Distinguishing Arts and Crafts
There is no separation in life between the culture we live in and the art which describes it. You can craft a response, fashion a utensil and even draw a conclusion. Art is a medium we use to describe and comment upon life, but it is so intrinsic to our culture that the distinction between the words we use in the life we live and those we use to describe it blurs completely.
Photography has in some ways a similar paradox. The process, or act, of photography is confused with the expression or language of the same. In fact photography is both an art and a craft. The process of photography – i.e. the lens, the camera, the tripod, the shutter, the aperture, the ISO, the editing and the sharing – is the craft. The product – the image that results from the craft – is the art. That seems reasonably simple, doesn’t it? So why is the question, whether photography is art, even a question?
I think that it is in no small part photography’s inherent versatility that is the cause of the debate. Photography is a useful medium not just for artists but also for documentarians. A photograph for the purpose of creating a factual record, rightly or wrongly, conflicts with our notion of art in the same way that we don’t perceive a story in a newspaper as art in the way that we regard a novel or a poem as art. And yet materially, with both the newspaper and the novel, the medium is the same. It is the written word. Similarly, with the photograph, the image is the result of the endeavour. It is a blend of both the purpose and the content of the image which determines whether that image is art or not.
The Implicit Value of Artistic Labour
To further confuse and conflate, photography is not just versatile, it is also accessible. Who, today, does not have instant and easy access at least to a camera phone? For the past century, increasingly, most families had within them at least one parent who documented the raising of their children. Capturing those moments – assuming kids are willing subjects – is the simple process of pointing and clicking. Today photography is as much part of daily life as breakfast. The days of slideshow evenings by enthusiastic parents and holiday-makers are long gone, replaced by the instantaneous distribution of every first step, spoon fed, high school graduation, dog walk and hearty meal, each trickling down to friend’s and relative’s pockets via Instagram and Facebook.
The accessibility of photography has never been greater, its cost has never been lower, and this is without question a golden era for the craft of photography. But is it a golden era for the art of photography? Possibly. Possibly not. I think it depends whether or not you recognise the distinction, and what it is that you think art “is”.
If you don’t distinguish between the art and the craft of photography then it’s apparent that anyone can be a photographer and therefore by extension that everyone’s an artist. But it might be equally as reasonable to conclude that, because everyone’s a photographer, therefore nobody’s an artist and that the act of photography is not the demonstration of artistry or the expression of art, because it’s so easy to do. The view you take rests on your perception of photography as a craft and also as an art form, and on your perception of the impact that the reduced skills required in the craft of photography over time has had on the artistic labour required to create it.
Whichever view you personally take, the aggregate result of greater accessibility to photography seems to result in a pervasive reduction in the perceived value of photography as an art form. Simplistic though it is, there’s an entirely subjective but undeniably powerful belief that it’s not really art if anyone can do it.
So, is Photography Art?
A definitive answer remains elusive, complicated by the inherently subjective thing that art is. Rather than being informed (by me or by anyone else) whether photography is art, it is instead incumbent on the asker to find within themselves whether they accept photography as an art form or not.
Ask yourself if an artist could express their art through photography. If you believe so then, implicitly, you accept photography as a medium of artistic expression and, therefore, you accept that photography can be art. In doing so, you are not declaring that every photograph is art, merely that the medium itself can be used for that purpose. You do not have to give consideration for whether it is easy for an artist to produce photographic art, only on the merit of the achievement – does the image function in the desired way to express the intended feelings and thoughts of the artist? Is it good art?
I myself have resolved to this position. I believe photography is a medium through which an artist may effectively communicate. Moreover, I feel that photography is probably the most robust and most widely accepted form of modern art to date.
The question should not be whether or not photography is art. That, it turns out, is the wrong question. Is the potter’s wheel art? Is the kiln art? Is a pot of paint art? Is a sculptor’s chisel or a cross-stitcher’s skein of thread?
Instead, the question that should be asked is whether or not the photographer is an artist. And the answer to that question, at least, is: “sometimes.”