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.