Is photography an art? It’s a good question and if you were hoping for a definitive answer here, I’m afraid I’ll have to disappoint you. This is partly because there is no definitive answer to the question and also because any suggestion one way or another is likely to set off a chain reaction of opinion too large for our comments section can handle it.
And it’s true – art is totally subjective. What one person calls a masterpiece, another scoffs at the kind of chin-chin disdain one usually associates with a reviewer, who wears tartan pants and a bun. But the truth is that there are a lot of misunderstandings about the a function of an image – it’s what I believe ultimately defines the line between creative work and just a light map of the tones of a scene.
After: Opinion: Every photographer should print photos
A quick disclaimer before we venture out – this is not a conversation about good and bad photography. We don’t discuss what makes one image better than another. What follows is simply a mediation on the relative artistic intent of a photograph and how you can turn your own images into something more impactful.
Intention is everything
Not long ago, I finished reading a scientific article, written by a friend of mine. Like many journals of this type, it includes a series of photographic plates, designed to demonstrate the points raised in the text. These images are well exposed, colorful and detailed – the hallmark of all “good” photography. However, I’m sure my friend would scoff at the idea of entering a photography contest himself. There’s nothing wrong with the images, but they just weren’t created with this as their intended destination. It is certainly not art in the common sense of the term.
This raises a confusing issue though – why isn’t it art, but it would be if I were to add a colored background, shoot from a different angle and add a spotlight effect, with a wireless flash ? It’s the same subject, potentially in the same place, so what does it give? The answer is because I, the creator, say so.
I foreseen to create a photo that might be looked on with fondness by my peers, that might work well in articles in my Digital Photographer magazine, and that someone might want to buy. It is more than just a concept. By the very nature of my attempt to create something artistic, I introduce creative aspects that require effort and intention. I needed to go out with something in mind and apply my skills to make it happen.
I wanted people to look at my shot and wonder how it was done. More importantly, I wanted to capture an image that my viewers, photographers or otherwise, might want to create for themselves. And that brings us to the next point.
Perception and reception
Who is viewing your images? Why are they watching? What are they hoping to see and what did they expect you, as a creator, to accomplish with them? This is the second element that separates a record from a work of art – the perception of your images and the way your viewers consume them.
If you send your photographs to an art gallery, you hope to say something artistic with them. You wanted people to spend time looking at them and interpreting them in a way that made sense to them. You were hoping to elicit an emotional response from them, whether it’s a superficial appreciation of the topic or a deeper connection by association: either they liked your cat image because they simply liked cats, or because your photo reminds them of their long lost feline pal, Fluffy.
Either way, your photography becomes art when it is seen as an obvious function of images in the minds of those for whom it was intended. When you look at photos of used cars online, do you think the photographer considered them art?
Beyond the ordinary
Art should inspire. It should tell a story or make the viewer think. When you are going to take a photo, it is essential that you know the reason why you are holding the camera to your eyes in the first place. When taking an image of wildlife or a macro shot, it’s often easy to think of the process as capturing something literal. A photo of a bird or a flower is only a registration of the marks or the color. An artistic impression aims to explore the setting, lifestyle and behavior of the subject, depicting it in a way that the viewer would not necessarily see with their own eyes.
Art is an idealized narrative imagination. It doesn’t have to be precise or natural. As long as it is clear that the intention is to elicit a feeling, rather than a simple evaluation, the viewer must accept it.
Finally, consider the photographers we now consider the “masters” of the medium – like Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, etc. Their images are now considered historical treasures, but their value has likely matured over the years. . One might consider a picture to be art today, but back then Cartier-Bresson, in his strict application of the “decisive moment”, may not have considered his own work as anything other than truthful documentary photography. A recording of a moment.
How we think about an image is what really defines its purpose and impact – that’s all that really matters. However, it is also useful to be aware of this often unconscious thought process on the part of the viewer, because once you understand it, you can learn to identify and exaggerate the true power of art: the ability to communicate an idea.
I’m starting to look like an art critic. I will stop there.
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