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Is Photography Really Art?

Shiawassee River Reflection

Copyright 2009 Andy Richards

I recently had an exchange with a friend, a talented graphic artist, with a formal education in art.  While the exchange was in the context of copyright issues, it struck a chord.  In our back and forth, he commented:

I think it’s tricky with photographs some times, because the true sculptor was nature: the photographer was a patient, observant person in the right place with the right equipment.

There is an implication here that sculpture and painting is original art and that perhaps photographs are not. The writer and I have a deep mutual respect and have had some very in-depth and open conversations about these issues, often in the context of copyright issues.

All of us who are serious photographers have encountered the attitude that beautiful photographs are the result of having a “good camera,” being in the right place, etc. We have all been confronted with the (sometimes unspoken) belief by third parties that, although our images are nice, they are, after all, just photographs and given a camera and the opportunity to be in the place they were taken, any third party could do the same for themselves. Indeed, I am of the firm belief that one of the reasons it is so difficult to sell photographs for decorating homes and offices is that the buyer often sees a painting as a true work of art and a photograph as something they could do themselves. It therefore, creates a “perception of value.”

Reality compels us to acknowledge that there are very significant differences between photography and painting, drawing and sculpting. In those cases, the artist can start completely from her imagination, and create a work. Photography needs a subject in order to capture an image. But the differences blur from that point on.

My friend noted that even most artists do not begin completely from scratch. Most, for instance, do not grind their own minerals and mix their own pigments. But in the end, aren’t all these things, brushes, paint, plaster, canvas, paper, and indeed, the camera, tools the artist uses to create? And does not the painter or sculptor also have to be observant, have patience and use the right equipment?

The photographer does much more than be in the right place at the right time. He also must have the skills to know how to capture the image in the right lighting and focus. But that really is not be art, in my view. That is craft. The art comes with the photographer’s interpretation of the subject before him, and how he renders the resulting image. I have said that 2 or more photographers can stand in the exact same spot and see the exact same subject before them and come away with very unique memories of what they see; and very different image results. I believe we see colors and contrasts differently, largely because we are human and our emotions interpret what we see. And, as Martha Stewart would say: “that’s a good thing.” 🙂

And this rendering is not only as it comes out of the camera, but what he does with it in the “darkroom.” Digital darkroom technology and techniques have further blurred the line between “record photographic capture” and art, in my view. There is much more ability for the talented artist with some vision, to “manipulate” the image. For many, the word “manipulate” has taken on a pejorative slant. I don’t agree. I truly believe that most photography is indeed art.

Copyright 2009 Andy Richards

Some photography, by its nature, is more of a scientific, reporting than an artistic rendering. Certainly, reporting and scientific photography needs to have a high degree of “realism.” But that still does not preclude, in my view, some art in the rendering of the reportage. My own photography, in my view, need not have any bounds of realism. Of course, I want my nature and scenic photography to be believable. But it need not be an actual depiction of what existed as a subject. I prefer to create a depiction of what my own imagination sees in the scene in front of me. I see that as art.

I acknowledge that this is a well-worn subject that has been “discussed” to death. My purpose isn’t really to argue the point, or to whine because people don’t recognize photography as “art.” Rather, I am hoping to stimulate comment and discussion (pro and con) about this topic. No, I don’t expect to resolve it here (or ever). But thoughtful observations will, in my view, add to the thought process behind the art, whether in photography or other art forms.

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