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Is Photography an Art?

I recently had a conversation with some friends about photography, and we ventured into the tricky quagmire of 'Is photography art?' It was fascinating to think about the different arguments that can be made on this topic. In an article in 2021, Peter Fenech writes that there is no definitive answer to this question, but then goes on to suggest that "there is a great deal of misunderstanding regarding the function of an image - it’s this which I believe ultimately defines the divide between a creative work and mere light map of tones in a scene".

So is he suggesting that some photographs are art while others are not depending upon their function? Early perceptions of photography in the 1850-60s were that it was too mechanical, too literal to elevate the imagination and compete with art. I have discovered in my discussions that these ideas still prevail. The suggestion is that the photographer uses the camera to capture what is there, to record a moment, rather than physically crafting a work of art. The finger presses a shutter button, rather than the hands being actively immersed in applying paint or moulding clay. This implies that for something to be 'art' it has to be tactile in some way. So, this 'record shot' of Teignmouth looking towards Exmouth earlier this month is perhaps not art:

But what about when I turned and looked along the coast towards Torbay?

The way the light reflects on the sea, the stark silhouettes of the Ness, the pier and the groynes, give this image more of a sense of a work of art - and yet in both cases I did a quick 'point and shoot'.

Michael Prodger writing a review in 2021 of the National Gallery's first major exhibition of photography , Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present, noted that

"What 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." But that was in the time of huge cameras and darkrooms. Now, the widespread availability of cameras in this age of smartphones means that there is such an enormous volume of images being produced each day, they cannot all be unique and as significant as a piece of art. Can these everyday snaps have the necessary artistic qualities when they lack the intentional creativity and symbolism usually associated with art? And where does commercial photography stand - is it an art form? And what about journalism - the photo taken to record an event?

Another side of the argument is that the photographer is making deliberate choices each time an image is created: composition, focal point, lighting, perspective all contribute to an artistic vision. The aim is often to convey or evoke an emotional response, to tell a story, and photographers use techniques such as long exposure, ICM, black and white, to create a distinctive visual style. The photographer therefore requires both technical and creative skills to achieve this, just as a painter or sculptor would.

Back to Fenech. He suggests that the intention of the photographer is what makes an image 'art' : "By the very nature of my trying to create something artistic, I introduce creative aspects which require effort and intent. I needed to set out with something in mind and apply my skills to make this happen....... "Art has to inspire. It has to tell a story or encourage the viewer to think." And this is where it is again very tricky - some smartphone images captured in an instant as a response to something happening do tell a story, can be inspiring and yet the photographer would not have had time to be 'creative'.

A work of art is therefore something that is produced with artistic intent. The heart of the matter for me is subjectivity and interpretation. As photographers we bring our own perspectives, experiences and emotions to the creation of an image, and so do the people viewing them. This naturally results in a wide range of interpretations and exploration of meaning - as you would when looking at an old master.

The filmmaker Sam Kench in 2021 states that "One common stance against photography as art is that photography captures reality rather than creating a subjective reality, which is what “real art” does." Well, there are a myriad of ways in which a photographer can create a 'subjective reality'. There is also the argument that there is no artistic merit in capturing a moment in time that shows real life plainly. Street photographers, such as Dorothea Lange and Helen Levitt for example, certainly disprove this. Photojournalists, war photographers and sports journalists do take creative decisions in creating their images.

There is also the argument that because photos can easily be replicated through reprints their artistic value is naturally lower than a one-off painting or sculpture for example, that was made by hand. Acclaimed visual artist Roger Ballen holds a complicated view on 'Is photography art'? He believes there is an important distinction between a photographer and an artist who uses photography as their medium. But again this is tricky. Here is an image taken by Carrie Mae Weems in 1990: Woman and daughter with make-up. It could be a record shot, a snapshot, taken in a moment and therefore to many not a work of art. Or it could have been composed, staged, lit and framed, in which case it would be.

When you read the blurb, it is clearly the latter: "In this image, one of 20 in Weem's Kitchen Table Series. the artist sits at the head of the table, applying make-up, with the help of a small vanity mirror. Next to her, a young girl looking at her own reflection puts on lipstick in a parallel gesture, The tender scene illustrates one of the ways in which gender is learned and performed, while also celebrating the private subjectivity, beauty and inner lives of Black women"

Source: The Guardian "What is a feminist image?" 110822

What has been fascinating in researching this article is how every person I have cited here is male. Why are not more women writing about photography!! So I went to Susan Sontag's On Photography (1977) and found this quote:

"The real problem with bringing functional photographs, photographs taken for a practical purpose, on commercial assignment, or as souvenirs, into the mainstream of photographic achievement is not that it demeans photography, considered as a fine art, but that the procedure contradicts the nature of most photographs."

She goes on to say:

“But the very question of whether photography is or is not an art is essentially a misleading one. Although photography generates works that can be called art --it requires subjectivity, it can lie, it gives aesthetic pleasure-- photography is not, to begin with, an art form at all. Like language, it is a medium in which works of art (among other things) are made. Out of language, one can make scientific discourse, bureaucratic memoranda, love letters, grocery lists, and Balzac's Paris. Out of photography, one can make passport pictures, weather photographs, pornographic pictures, X-rays, wedding pictures, and Atget's Paris. Photography is not an art like, say, painting and poetry. Although the activities of some photographers conform to the traditional notion of a fine art, the activity of exceptionally talented individuals producing discrete objects that have value in themselves, from the beginning photography has also lent itself to that notion of art which says that art is obsolete. The power of photography --and its centrality in present aesthetic concerns-- is that it confirms both ideas of art. But the way in which photography renders art obsolete is, in the long run, stronger.”

So, there we are. Left with many more threads to unpick in this debate!

In the meantime, here is a selection of multiple exposure images from my walk along Teignmouth seafront - that I would argue are art. I made deliberate choices in my composition, exposure, AWB, focal length for example, as well as using in-camera multiple exposure to create layers of images. I wanted to convey my subjective reality to convey the story of my joyful cold winter walk by the sea:

And I can also play around with post-processing to change aspects of an image to potentially provoke different emotional responses or stimulate the viewer's deeper interest:

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