Is Photography Art?

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.”

Taking A Camera Everywhere

For the past 20 years one thing I’ve made sure I do is to take a camera with me wherever I go. For the longest time this has meant lugging a not-so-light camera bag everywhere.

These days smartphones mean that you don’t necessarily have to do that, but my experience with smartphones so far suggests that it’s still worth lugging around a weighty bag, just in case. This isn’t a reflection on the quality of smartphone cameras so much as a reflection on my choice of smartphones. My phone is cheap and the camera on it isn’t really all that amazing. Honestly, the camera wasn’t the main consideration when I bought my phone, specifically because I take a camera everywhere with me.

As well as a smartphone I also have a couple of GoPros, a bridge camera and a DSLR, and I even have a dashcam recording every mile in my car. I believe I’ve become addicted to documenting everything that happens, or at the very least having the ability to document everything at all times.

Though it occasionally is a happy accident, not every photo that I take is intended as a work of art. My photography in general has two main facets, one of which is artistic expression and the other which is documentary. Occasionally, and I think these are my favourite photos of my own, my photographs are both. This probably makes sense because, to my mind at least, the best photographs are those which convey a story with an emotion attached, or which invoke an emotion related to the story by virtue of its expressive nature – artistry, if you will.

Not all cameras are created equal. Although the latest GoPro cameras are able to store still images in RAW format, most smartphones and bridge cameras only save images in JPG format. RAW image formats contain significantly more detailed information captured by a camera sensor than JPG, but the extra data results in significantly larger file sizes in an image format which can’t be shared on Facebook, Instagram etc.

For purely documentary photography JPGs are generally adequate, but if your intention is to create art from your documentary photography, beyond very minor contrast/brightness tweaks, then it’s likely that you will want to edit your images after the fact. To do that most effectively requires that you shoot in RAW.

Of the cameras that I own, only my DSLR currently has the ability to store images in RAW format. And because every photograph I shoot, whether documentary or artistic, I want to have the option to create art with, it’s probably inevitable that I will continue to carry a heavy camera bag and lots of lenses everywhere I go.

Drip!

At this time of year there isn’t much light about, even in the middle of the day when the sun is as high as it gets. Photography can get a bit frustrating when you’ve been out shooting, get home only to discover in Lightroom or Bridge that all the images you captured, that you were initially quite excited about, have slight motion blur in them due to low shutter speed. By the end of November, you’re feeling pretty demoralised, and there are still four months of crappy light to go. This is the lot of the British photographer.

The lesson, of course, is to remember to take a tripod with you wherever you go. My tripod is great. It’s solid, able to bend and crouch and get into every situation I ever ask of it. But it’s heavy. Damn, is it heavy. I bought it before carbon fibre was really a thing, or at least an affordable thing. As a consequence it’s rare that I take my tripod out with me.

So we’re well into February and the days are getting longer, but the light is still a bit pants. The other night I decided to grab the tripod and camera, and stay in. The kitchen tap thus became the object of my obsession for half an hour, as I set up a single flash to backlight the tap, and attempted to time photos to capture droplets of water as they fell from the faucet.

17-55mm, 1/160 @ F/8, ISO 100

I used a Nikon D5100, Nikkor 17-55mm F/2.8 @ 55mm, F/8, 160th second. The flash was a cheap Yongnuo YN460 remotely triggered with a pair of RF603N IIs.

I took about 40 images, most of them mis-timed, even having switched to manual focus. The D5100 does have a bit of a delay on shutter release, but with the drip being fairly regular this wasn’t so much of a problem. The problem was my trigger-happy finger competing with a sluggish brain with no sense of rhythm. When all else fails, blame it on the dyspraxia. Ultimately, though, I got shots I was pleased with, and enough of them that were consistently good that the final image selection was not difficult.

As noted by my friend on Facebook, there is deformation in the large droplet. Comparing different shots, where the droplet had reached slightly different distances from the tap, it does appear that the droplet “wobbles” as it falls.

17-55mm, 1/160 @ F/8, ISO 100

This one’s probably half way to the sea by now.

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