Is Photography Art?

Hmmm… is photography art? That question gets asked a lot, it seems. And, here’s the answer: Most of the time no, it’s not. But, sometimes, yes! End of article. I hope you enjoyed it, and that the question has now been answered, once and for all, and to your satisfaction. Now, can we all please stop asking “Is photography art?” and just have everybody go out an take pictures, and make images the way they wish to make them, and for the purposes that they wish to make them?

Is Photography Art? - Mona Lisa

Ok, ok… so, I am going to delve a little deeper into it here, and provide my opinions on the answer I provided above to the question of is photography art. These are my opinions — “opinions” — Got it? As in: I believe there is no entirely objective answer as to whether or not photography is an art. Your opinions may be different. That’s fine! In fact, that’s great! When it comes to such things, the more varied the amount of differing opinions out there, the more varied the types of photography, I believe, we’re likely to see. And, that’s nothing but a good thing. Diversity is wonderful. Non-diversity is terrible.

Now, here’s my take: In some sense, pretty much everything humans do is an art, to at least some degree. Some things are wholly, or almost wholly, “art”, some things are only partially “art”, and in a very small degree. So, lets put aside the very general definitions, and discuss not whether photography is, in some degree, an art, (because it clearly is — almost everything is in some sense) but whether its an art-form in the same way, say, music, or sculpture, or painting, or poetry, etc. is an art-form.

As I said: Is photography art? It is my opinion that photography is, in most cases, not an art, with regards the more strict concept of an art-form as stated in the preceding paragraph. However, sometimes is it art — and, often, when it is, it is an art of equal profundity, integrity and importance than any other form of art. To more clearly understand why, I believe its better to ask not is photography art, but instead to ask: are photographers artists?

My personal opinion is that MOST photographers are NOT artists. Most photographers are documentarians, archivists or even engineers. Or, quite often, some mixture of two or more of those things. But, they’re not artists. Some photographers, however, are indeed artists. And, some of these are artists in league with some of the greatest artists in history — artists working in any medium.

Anyone who, for example, would claim that, say, a Joel-Peter Witkin, or a Man Ray, (for Ray’s photography, of course — Ray considered himself to be primarily a painter, although he’s most well known for his photography) is not an artist, is someone who just simply understands neither photography nor art. You can have your opinions regarding how good, or of how much worth their art is, but to claim they’re not artists would show nothing but profound, abject ignorance. That’s my opinion. These photographers, and others like them, are and were artists who fit exactly comfortably into the same categories as, say, a Picasso, or a de Kooning, or any other artist you wish to name. Your cousin Bob, however, who bought a dSLR at the local electronics store and enjoys taking pictures of his garden, or family get-togethers… or even going on nature hikes and photographing flowers he comes across? Sorry. Not an artist. Bob’s a documentarian.

Photography is not art - photography is artWhat about that guy at the local photography meet-up who’s obsessed with gear and went and got a degree in physics specifically so that he could better understand exceedingly technical aspects of light propagation in order to better incorporate them into his photography? He can bore you with mathematical equations that explain the properties of parralax error, or the circle of confusion. You know the type, right? They seem to know everything about uber-technical aspects of photographic principles, and they can dismantle and rebuild a camera while wearing a blindfold, but spend very little time actually taking pictures. And, when they do, it’s often to test some technique, or new gear. Again, not an artist. That person is an engineer. It’s the technical gadgetry, and how to best use and exploit it, that enamors them. Not, the act of creation.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with those non-artist types of photographers at all. They’re not lesser in any way to an artist-photographer. They’re just different types of photographers. And, thank goodness they are! The more types of photographers we have, doing more types of photography, the richer a place the world is. So, one shouldn’t think that photographers who are truly artists are somehow better, or more important, or worth more than photographers who are some other type of photographer. Thank goodness we have documentarian photographers, and engineer photographers, and artist photographers, and every other type of photographer.

So, is photography art? The answer is, in my opinion, it very well can be. But, it most often isn’t — for the simple reason that most photographers are not artists. But, how do you tell if you’re truly an artist-photographer, or some other type of photographer? I think the answer lies in where your primary interest is. In other words, WHY do you do photography? What motivates you to do it? Primarily, are you interested in the technical aspects of working your craft? Are you excited by the technology of it? Are you primarily into the gadgetry of it? If you are, then you’re probably not an artist-photographer. Are you primarily motivated by the mastery of skill and technique of it, and learning and becoming proficient in the practice of it? If so, then you’re probably not an artist-photographer.

However, is photography itself kind of incidental to you — tertiary, really? Is your main concern in creating something — an image — an image that conveys a message, or is a thing of interest and/or beauty — an image that has some kind of a reason for being? Does your interest primarily lie in expressing yourself, or bringing something from your mind into realized being, and photography, all things considered, just happens to be the most effective way you’ve discovered to achieving that end? And, if there was another method of which you were aware that would more easily and just as efficiently, or more efficiently, allow you to achieve that end, would you likely eschew photography for that other method or medium? If so, then you’re probably an artist-photographer.

Is photography art? Yes an no. No and yes. Some photography is art. Some photography is not art. Some photographers are artists. Some photographers are not artists. As a photographer, maybe you’re an artist. Maybe you aren’t, really. I believe that is the best answer that can be given to the question ‘is photography art?’

Do you have a different opinion? Please comment below and let us know your thoughts!

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