Why Isn’t Photography Art?

The other day, I was sitting and brooding, as I am wont to do.  (In fact, I wish I could get paid just to sit and think!  I’d be rich.) I was sitting and thinking about art and photography and wondering why I spend so much time puzzling over these two themes when it comes to my work.  The debate about whether photography is an art form or a method of accurately representing human reality is alive and well as I find almost every time I speak to someone who is NOT a photographer.  People intrinsically believe a photograph.  And they can get mad when it is ‘faked’.  I don’t wish to get into a discussion of artistic license, representation and disclosure in this blog post: Darwin and I have already hashed out some thoughts on this over at Jay Goodrich’s blog.  (Also, see Greg Basco’s thoughtful post on RAW Perfection over at Deep Green Photography.)  My thoughts were drifting more toward the photo contest side of things.  If you have a few minutes, keep reading….

Winning a photo contest can be a big deal in our industry.  I would guess that even photographers who look down on some photo contests would find it hard to turn down the publicity and acclaim you can derive for your business if you win one.  I also don’t wish to get into a debate on the merits or demerits of photo contests; what I’m really interested in is why winning any photo contest, even one issued by your local real estate office, is almost automatically seen as proof to the public and other photographers that you are good?  Why are there so many more contests in photography than in other forms of expressive art?  Why do writers and painters seem to rely less on winning a contest to jump start their careers and establish their worth?

I think one answer to this lies in the nature of photography itself and brings us back to that ‘art and photography’ dynamic.  A camera is a tool, just as a pen or paintbrush is a tool.  But a camera acts more like a machine than a pen or paintbrush.  It is a product birthed through technological breakthrough: the ability of humans to accurately reproduce the visual world around them.  Humans arguably use their sight more than any other sense.  By creating a machine that can recreate the world as we tend to see it, we implicitly trust the image that results as an accurate or ‘true’ representation of the world.  Hence the belief that photography is purely documentary.

But while this can be a powerful belief of the raison d’être of the camera, it also tends to subvert the hidden ‘reality’ of a photograph which is that, while a photograph may tell a truth about its subject, it does not necessarily tell the whole truth.  A photograph can only show us what is contained within the physical parameters of the frame; it cannot tell us anything about what is not in the frame.  While this may seem incredibly elemental, it is actually quite profound.  Remember that humans tend to believe that a machine, which of course cannot lie, is thus necessarily telling us the only truth about the image we are viewing.  We forget that it is ultimately the human behind the lens who chooses which truths to be revealed about a subject and, consequently, which truths should not be shown to the viewer.

For example, the first image in this post suggests a quiet, cool mountain lake.  This is true; I was in the mountains when I made that image.  However,  right at my back was the highway seen above.  Neither image is the whole truth; each tell different stories and reveal various truths.  But the second photograph does moderate the first in a tangible way by providing more context and eliminating some assumptions viewers may make if they only saw the first image.  Arguably, photography is thus as much an art form as any other with the artist/photographer creating by a process of exclusion and inclusion the art/image to be viewed.  (Photographers often concede how much tweaking can be done to an image to make it look like what their eye saw when they took the image, which is ultimately influenced by their emotional connection with the scene.)  There is nothing wrong with viewing photography as an art form, but it can be unpopular with photographers and viewers alike.  The photographer is distastefully revealed as having influenced the ‘reality’ of the subject  when he or she may prefer hiding disingenuously behind the scenes receiving accolades on a successful portrayal of ‘how it is’.  As well, the public may be frustrated or bored if they are forced to look beyond the ‘reality’ of a photograph to what hidden elements might be there (or deliberately not there).  The average consumer does not have the time (and may not have the interest!) in learning more about the nature of photography or its subjects.  It is easier for a person to evaluate whether or not the winning photograph lines up with the viewer’s sense of reality—if it does, and has some impact—then the photo contest host has successfully connected with a viewer and justified its choice of winner.

If I were to put this issue in terms of range, then I would place myself further to the side that favours photography as an art form vs. purely documentary.  But I also understand the money that can be made by starving organizations where a photo contest is an easy way to drum up attention and a few extra and much-needed dollars.  I think it ultimately falls on the photographer to make the difficult decisions about which contests to enter and when in order to advance both his or her business and art.  But my hope is that the question of advancement of one’s art is at least on the table.


~ by Samantha on January 16, 2011.

19 Responses to “Why Isn’t Photography Art?”

  1. The Original reason that photography was not considered ART had More to do with the Lack of Permanence of the image or printed photograph as opposed to a painting or sculpture. As technology has helped us improve that part of the equation, then it breaks down into categories of what type of photography one does.. Journalistic, documentary or Nature or PS manipulated Photo Art as opposed to a Photo Realistic image… and our Maintaining the NEED to stay “consistent” with our use of terms, not only with the public, but also the Art Galleries. Winning a contest is different than a Gallery considering your work “collectable.” Depends on what market you aim for and what style of work you are creating… Best of Luck either way.

  2. Great piece Samantha, your photographs are most certainly ART and you are a great ARTIST. You have been very inspiring to me this year and your view of a scene, I am sure, will continue to inspire both myself and others. I love the first image posted here. The one green tree draws me into the scene and the fallen trees and their reflection then seem to lead me off to wonder what else is near by. The trees and their reflection seem to lead me to the shore line. Great colour, great vision and another great image. I look forward to your future works of art.

  3. I agree with Lee, I also love the first image.
    As to photography and art, photography is the most publicly accessible art form. Almost everyone with a cellphone has a camera, and a lot of the iPhone pix I’ve seen lately are definitely NOT art. While you can buy a “disposable” camera in any convenience store, there is no chance of the disposable easel and brushes showing up at the 7-Eleven any time soon. This along with the automation of the picture taking process created by “technological breakthroughs”, birthed the camera manufacturer’s mantra “Any one can do it”. It’s true that anyone with at least a single working digit can operate a shutter, creating a result that could be called “Art” cannot be guaranteed.
    I think I would be in the Arr Form camp, documentary photography should remain the domain of the journalist and scientist.

  4. Thanks, Lee and John, for the compliments. You’re making me blush.

    Interesting input from Nelcha on permanence…I’ll have to think on that some more. An ice sculpture was not very permanent, but most people would call it ‘art’. I agree with you, Nelcha and with John that the categorization of photography into types has muddied the water a bit. For me, even documentary and journalistic photography are still ‘art’. It’s just their subject matter or point may not be aesthetics which is what most people think of when they think of art. But art can be ugly, and it can have a point.

  5. COINCIDENTALLY, I have posted my thoughts on my blog (2 newest posts) sparked by visiting opening gala at the local art gallery. They are not as deep as Sam’s article and are quite immature, though. Sorry, Sam. It looks like using your blog as an advertisement for my blog. But please take a look them because I am thinking about really similar topic.

    I do not have enough experience about contests, but I think I should try to set up a THEME or a CONCEPT even for nature photography. Then, going toward artistic side or documentary side is up to the my decision [and my skill;-(]. If the photographer wants to capture pollution in the mountains, there must be effective ways to present to viewers. At least, I should think about why I have set up tripod at this location at this moment…once in a while.

    By the way, your top photo is stunning. The long vertical composition, pastel like color, mood…very unique, and yes, I think this is art. We are lucky because such a beautiful place is just a few meters from the highway. That is another reality, isn’t it?

  6. Hi, Samantha. Very interesting read and many thanks for the link to my blog post related to this subject. I’ve read yours and Darwin’s thoughts on the issue, and it’s good to know that there are a number of us out there spending time thinking and writing about it.

    Greg Basco

  7. […] Finally, one of the more popular posts on this blog, whether you agree with it or not, is my article on image manipulation and disclosure, which for me is a huge issue in nature photography today. Besides getting lots of reads here, it’s started to make its way around the web. Well-known Canadian photographer Samantha Chrysanthou gave me a nod in a recent blog post on her site related to photography and art. Check out Samantha’s post here. […]

  8. Thanks for adding to the debate, Greg, with your informed, thoughtful comments.

  9. My pleasure, Samantha. I think it’s a big issue so I really enjoy reading your thoughts too.


  10. Hi Samantha, I completely agree with your take on wither photography is art. I have won a quite a few awards as a photographer in my short three years of picking up a camera, and each time I win it seems to excite my buyers more than it does me. It completely validates their fate in purchasing my work on some level. But I am also an painter and I guess I need less credentials for that art form ,my paintings sell them selves with out awards, But from the other side there are loads of art competitions for painters and my peers are not as impressed with my work unless there are awards and titles to go along with my paintings. And honestly the so called art side are far harsher judges and will shred each other to pieces over each others paintings. I find the public and photography judges to be far kinder to my photography work than my painting work.Even though I have won quite a few so called art awards there as well!So the debate will rage on, but ultimately people will buy art that speaks to them no matter what the form it comes in and that is all that really matters is that they think our work is art and they hang it on their walls and treasure them! Cheers Lorna

  11. Sorry hope that did not come out too pompous. I am still a very small fish in a rather large sea of photographer that far out way my skill. I just want to share the painters side of things and that it’s no picnic over there either! And truly we could drive ourselves insane with what is art and what is not, all I care is that someone wants to take my work home and love it as much as I do! Cheers,Lorna

  12. […] Samantha Chrysanthou – Why Isn’t Photography Art […]

  13. A good deal of thought put into the post Sam I enjoyed reading it. I seem to line up with your view points on the photography as art issue and also lean towards the more artistic approach to photography. A very valid point about the average consumer not having the time or desire to debate the merits of a photograph vs. those of other “art” form, consumers buy what they like, period. I believe most photographers make that debate simply because the feel the need to justify themselves not their work. A true “photographer” photographs for the love of the craft, not to make a “name” for themselves, only when their work is good will the name follow.

  14. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Bryan Hansel, Rich Toma. Rich Toma said: RT @bryanhansel: Why isn't photography art? https://samsrant.wordpress.com/2011/01/16/why-isnt-photography-art/ […]

  15. I love this question and have debated it at length with friends and colleagues. “What is art?” is a slippery question, let’s not go there. How about “what is an artist?” I like to think of an artist as any person who creates art. Paradox? Not really. What matters is the “doing”, the research, the self-reflection, the questioning, and the process. Jackson Pollock did not start out dripping paint from the get-go, he drew, painted figuratively then progressed to drips. These works were accepted as art because of what led to their creation. Photography is art if you treat it as such.

  16. […] […]

  17. […] read a good post this morning over at Sam’s Rant’s blog entitled “Why Isn’t Photography Art”? There have been many views and […]

  18. I think that photography can be an art, but in many cases it is not. Or in other words, the photographer behind the camera can be an artist, but in many cases he or she is not. Ansel Adams once said that “twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop”, and Thomas Hoepker went even further by saying that “you are lucky if you take one, maybe two good pictures in a year”. Nowadays, many photographers that call themselves fine art photographers produce dozens of pictures a month. Then I ask to myself: can those pictures be called art? can a piece of art be created in hours or even minutes? Yes, I know time is not a measure for the value or validity of a piece of art, but it still says something about, I believe. My 2 cents.

  19. […] these were by no means artistic masterpieces, it is a sort of charming reminder of my post just last week on the perception of cameras doing the heavy lifting and the human mind behind the shutter press […]

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