Can A Photograph Ever Be Art?

16 Nov 2014
Oh no, not this old debate again! I too thought this argument had run its course, we've had photographs appearing alongside paintings (and other forms of art) in galleries for decades now. Surely no serious art critic still wants to peddle the hoity-toity notion that photography is not art. Then I read this article from the Guardian's chief art critic Jonathan Jones.
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The argument that a photograph can be art is a pretty simple one to make. I won't resort to the age-old practice of dragging up a dictionary definition and hanging the whole argument on that pedantic nail; I think most people can agree without needing to see a definition, that art is all about creativity and expression. It is a form of communication, but one where the message itself is more important than what the viewer does about the message. For example, advertising carries a message, usually that the product or brand is desirable, most people though don't feel that advertising is art. I think this is because the message in advertising is there to encourage the viewer to then go out and spend money on the brand. Does art have too be beautiful too? I don't think so, but some people do think this; that debate isn't the matter at hand here though, I just wanted to ensure you didn't think its omission meant its contribution was being sidelined.

As children we have this view of the artist as being a painter, I think it's reinforced by children's TV programmes, where the artist in his paint-smattered smock is stock character. This isn't a problem though as I can't think of anyone (Mr Jones aside) who doesn't gain a deeper understanding of what art is as they grow. Of course it wouldn't even be correct to say that all paintings are art; many painters earn a decent amount of their income by producing illustrations for textbooks, advertisers and commercial purposes.

Certainly any criticism that can be levelled at photography in saying it can't be art, can be levelled at other art forms too. For example, people will say (and sorry to pick on painters again, but it seems most objections to the idea that a photograph could ever be art come from them) that most photographs don't represent an artist's vision, they are just facsimiles of what is there. But could the same not be said of the thousands of watercolourists who make no attempt to paint anything but a formulaic image of the scene they were looking at. Photography is not alone in having uncreative examples, any particular medium doesn't automatically make something art whatever, and it is unfair to take the thousands of uncreative photographers posting up snaps of family events, pets and nights out as proof that it is an uncreative medium. There are many people who paint, but exercise little creativity; both good painters and good photographers know of the importance of light, and how flat, boring light results in a flat boring image; I see many watercolours of landscapes though painted in flat midday sunlight, which is surely unforgivable since the painter has the luxury of changing the lighting when painting it, whereas the photographer must play the waiting game. Are these painters really artists while those photographers who carefully choose the right moment to shoot aren't?

This isn't even an argument I feel I really even need to have, a quick glance at the comments following Mr Jones' article is enough to see that he is pretty much on his own in his views. However it is an argument which I can enjoy, and hopefully one which will help bring people to my blog (Mr Jones has been accused by some commenters of trolling to get attention, well two can play at that game).

The fundamental mistake is to assume that the only input the photographer has in creating an image is when the button is pushed. That the image was already there, and the photographer just turned up and captured it, but in reality a lot more goes into the creation of a photograph which could be considered creative. Yes a photographer must work with what is there rather than being able to conjure up something totally novel, but the world is a big place, and in any one scene there are thousands of things that are 'there', if the photographer wishes to photograph something that isn't there then they can go out and find it, or even create it, and that's without even going into the ways in which an image can be manipulated by how the camera is used, or by manipulation of the captured image. In any case, I don't believe the definition of art means something has to be created entirely out of the artist's mind, how many paintings or sculptures have been done with no external influences whatsoever? A good photograph is more than a snapshot, and as much time and effort could have gone into creating in as carving a sculpture or painting a canvas.

The biggest disappointment really, is that an art critic, in fact the chief art critic at a national newspaper has expressed this view, whether he holds it or not. If he is just looking to boost his own perceived influence by posting something that will get a lot of responses, then he is only hurting his own credibility, as most of the comments on his article suggest. An art critic surely takes a critical view on art, and by critical I mean subjective, but receptive to what is being offered to critique. To suggest that something isn't even art just because of the format it is in, and not offer any kind of explanation beyond his own gut-feeling that it is 'flat, soulless and stupid', just implies that he doesn't understand what art is, and brings into question whether he actually knows anything at all about the subject he is paid to write about. I doubt it was his intention that a large number of his readers would come away with this view of him, but it certainly can't be doing his reputation much good, there isn't much call these days for elitist writers who turn their nose up in snooty derision at anything that has happened since 1839 (yes photography really is that old). If he was genuine in his article then I fear… not for him, but for the more talented critics he is keeping out of a job.

Jones did actually add, by way of conciliation, 'The power of photography to show and to tell has never been greater, as modern technology takes it simultaneously to the far reaches of the solar system and ever deeper into the heart of daily life.' However this sentence pretty much sums up his mistake. Not all photographs are art obviously, but not all drawings are art either. Snapshots are very different, and valuable in their own way, and Jones accepts this, but he does so without reference to those photographs which have had more creative input, as though snapshots (and in this case the photographs from the surface of comet 67P which were strictly taken by imaging scientists rather than photographers) can stand for photography as a whole.

I am a commercial photographer, and my work involves advertising. I just wanted to add this before I finish, that this isn't a rant about my own work, or me claiming that my own work is art. I advertise, my messages necessarily involve a call to action. My own work on this site falls into the 'don't let the fact that some photography isn't art lead to the conclusion that all photography isn't art' category. I would tentatively claim that some of my work, that which you will find in my self-assignments section qualifies as art. Of course saying something is art doesn't mean that it is good, and 'good' in this sense is mostly subjective anyway. I tried to select my 'artiest' photograph for this blog, but of course I couldn't hold a candle to some of the best fine-art photographers, and if I was going to illustrate why photography can be art I would use their photographs instead. But this is my blog, so I want to use my own.

Blog Self Portrait
Articles about photography, tips and tricks, insights into the world of commercial photography and the marketing industry from a photographer's perspective, and the occasional humorous rant. Brought to you by Will McAllister, a commercial photographer based in God's own county of Cumbria.