Is Photography “art”?

My wife has been struggling with her health lately, so not much time for shooting or writing.  This is an article I wrote almost three years ago, and decided not to publish. After reviewing it I thought why not?  So here it is.

(To see a larger version of any image, just click it)

 11_04_07DVDevGolf-000903_v02_blogDevil’s Golf Course, Death Valley National Park

Don’t read too much into the title of this post –  I don’t have an answer to this unanswerable question. I’ve read many online debates about this, and though I rarely chime in on those debates I do have my own opinions.  After some recent attempts to sell my work through some “art” galleries, I couldn’t help but put some thoughts down.  As this article has evolved,  it surprisingly led me to some interesting conclusions. (which of course are at the end 🙂 )

The status of photography in the art community has been debated and controversial for decades – or longer – and yet there still is no definitive answer.  The basic problem is any discussion about the merits of photography as an art assumes there is an authoritative and accepted definition as well as an objective method to determine what is art.  Since neither of these exist, claiming whether photography (or anything else for that matter) is or is not art is completely subjective and based solely on individual opinions.  Certainly many types of photography do not claim to be an artistic endeavor nor represent the resulting photographs as art, and perhaps this leads some to the simplistic assumption that no photography can then be art. ( This isn’t different from many other art disciplines). Others are confused about the relation of the camera to the final product, and place far too much value on the contributions made by the camera as opposed to the artist, basing their conclusions that photography cannot be art on this misguided thought.

Recently it seems as though some in the art realm have this theoretical method to define art, that art exists for the sake of itself.  Kind of a “if a tree falls in a forest and there is nothing to hear it, does it make a sound” thought process I guess. Not to get into this concept, but I would suppose that depends on how you define a “sound” … is it the physics of pressure waves moving through the air, or is it the ability to process those pressure waves into some type of usable information? I digress … but this demonstrates how futile it is to debate whether photography is or is not art without an accepted and authoritative definition.

Following this logic of art for the sake of itself further, this would imply that”art” is not required to have a viewer involved to make that determination. Huh?  Perhaps it means great art is created without consideration of  any influences, but this is so idealistic as to be impossible. Even if an artist pays absolutely no regard or concern for any opinions at all, he still creates based on his own views and experiences, and I can’t imagine any artist that is not concerned with being accepted by some type of audience. Overall, this may perhaps be the stupidest philosophy of all time. (I recently read a well done piece by Guy Tal, “Art for People’s Sake” which talks about this odd concept.  He is a great photographer as well as writer).  Anyone who buys into this odd concept needs to get reconnected with reality … if art doesn’t exist to please humans, if it isn’t created at least in part with the viewer and the viewers experience in mind, then it has no reason to exist at all.  In fact, the human experience of viewing and participating in art is probably what best defines it.

Soft Tides in PastelSoft Tides in Pastel

Perhaps I’m not a true art connoisseur, but as I walk around in many art galleries I find much of it seems artificial, often the only redeeming quality is being “unique” … something no one else does.  Not that anyone else would want to. Certainly I find inspiration in many things I see in galleries, work which is absolutely amazing and wonderful, creative as well as unique.  When it comes to paintings,  often I just don’t get it.  Many are terrific and I enjoy and admire them, but many appear to be just paintings from a mediocre photograph.   I really don’t have a problem with this (as long as they also took the photograph), but I’m not sure why a painting from a photograph qualifies as art, yet a photograph cannot be art.  What’s frustrating is many of these galleries state they don’t consider photography art and will not display or sell work from photographers.

Kind of odd, because many art museums collect and exhibit photography, and I frequently hear of photographers having their work exhibited.  I guess there are two types of “galleries”.  Some feature a display of the work of various guest artists for a period of time. This type of gallery is often non-profit, partially funded by benefactors, contributions and even government grants. Many of these galleries invite photographers in on occasion. It seems the main difference between these and a museum is they don’t maintain a permanent collection of any art.

Most galleries are about selling things to decorate a home or office, which they always call art (even if it maybe isn’t).  These galleries typically seem to think photography can’t be art, so they can’t show or sell it. This seems hypocritical, because they really are just in it for the money and they really don’t have to qualify or justify whether or not anything they sell is art. The claim of selling art is about the perception of more value and making more money, not a statement about the artistic merits of what they sell . I’ve never tried to sell my work much, but recently I did contact a few galleries to see if they would be interested in offering my work for a short while, or even leasing me a small space in their gallery and selling my work for me. Sort of like a “eat your cake and have it too” idea … I pay the rent for the space I use, they still sell the work and get paid the commission. The normal response is they take it as an insult … I’d probably get a better response if I creatively presented my 5 year old grandson’s finger paintings.  They seem to think selling photography would suddenly disqualify them as an “art” gallery. They wouldn’t even take the time to look at what I had to offer.

When passing one gallery I saw some images which I thought were photographs … finally a place which might at least look at my work.  They turned out to be paintings (and I was treated by those running the gallery as described in the previous paragraph).   Unless you were within about 15′ it was still difficult to tell the piece was painted.  As I examined it, the detail was intricate enough it was obvious it was painted from a photograph, of not a particularly well done or interesting image. Only on close examination could you appreciate the value was based on the skill for the intricate handiwork of the artist. It seems because the “artist” had the skill to paint a piece from a photograph which was almost photo realistic seemed to qualify him and his work as art to this gallery.  Huh?  Perhaps we’re confusing “art” with “craft”.

I see this quite often in galleries.  The application of a difficult craft which results in a nice piece is interesting mainly because of the skill it took to produce it, yet the artist could have done much more in the creation of the piece to make it visually stimulating.

Another gallery was displaying some western images … cowboys, horses, boots, etc. … actual photographs printed on rustic wood.  I suppose in a particular decor they might have some appeal, but again the photography itself was pretty mediocre.  But transfer it to some wood with some odd effects and suddenly it’s art.  To me it looks like all they did was inkjet onto wood, there are a few printers out there that can do this.  Again,  the gallery owner doesn’t consider photography art and doesn’t sell it (even though that’s what these were) and wouldn’t take the time to look at what I have to offer.  Why does printing photographs on wood make it art?

What about the “paintings” of nature in these galleries which are based on photographs which were not taken by the artist?  So if someone makes a really nice painting using one of my photographs, and the art gallery accepts it, who is the artist?  Many “artists” are using great photographs taken by others they find on the internet for the basis of their paintings.  Who cares about taking credit for someone else’s art, or the fact it was copyrighted.  So the great subject matter and composition which makes the painting nice is really from the photographer of the image they copied. No problem selling that copied painting in a gallery … but not the photograph?

I hear the statement that all photographers do is snap pictures.  It’s just point the camera and shoot.  But almost every art form requires mastery of a craft or a physical skill,  which often requires using some type of “tools”.  Mastering the craft to some degree of competence is required before a person can use those tools to create art, but it is important not to confuse the two. A person can learn to “paint” yet be clueless as to things like composition.  So as long as they paint a photograph taken by someone else which has great composition and other elements their work is really good.  A person can learn to sculpt stone, play a musical instrument, and yet what they produce while technically excellent lacks the element of impact … the emotional appeal that makes us as humans admire the result of a creative mind and indeed cause us to regard their results as art. Just because a photographer uses a “camera” to capture a scene doesn’t disqualify the result as art.  Those that think so fail to realize how little the camera itself has to do with the final image.

Is there a point to this?

Shades of Green

As I worked on this article (more out of venting some frustrations) it has led to me some interesting observations and conclusions.  One is if you are a photographer and want to consider your work as art, it’s important you study and work on all parts of the craft and master them, so when it comes time to capture an image and turn it into a work of art, the craft doesn’t get in your way.  I think it is also important that you don’t let the craft interfere with the results by over use … falling into that trap of trying so hard to be unique what you create isn’t visually appealing.

To this end you must master the mechanical parts of the craft, such as camera, lenses, tripods, mounts, etc. It includes the techniques in capturing the image and the choices you need to make when shooting, such as shutter speeds to affect movement, apertures and areas of focus.  It also includes capture techniques to use in order to get the information you need by using several images combined, for focus stacking (increasing depth of field), stitching (increase  resolution or field of view) and HDR (to handle situations where the dynamic range exceeds the capability of the camera).  Then of course you need to master what to do with the files the camera produces.  How to process the raw data correctly as well as techniques to enhance the viewers experience.  Finally you need to master an understanding of how to do all this in a way so you can create a final piece from the image.  I don’t think putting nice shots up on facebook falls in the realm of art.  To me, art is expressed in it’s final presentation … you create a work of art.  This includes outstanding printing of the image as well as creative, dynamic, exciting and complimentary presentation of the image.

I think it’s important to study all manner of artistic endeavors both past and present, such as great photographers, painters, sculptors and even architects. Analyze what you feel makes their work good. What defines what they do and sets them apart from all the others in their discipline. What audience does their work appeal to and  why. It’s important to study things like use of color, techniques,  presentation and composition.  This last one is especially important for photographers because for some reason the over hyped, over simplistic and lazy rule of thirds is pervasive in photographic circles.  I’m fortunate in that the most influential class I took in college in my work was not in the photography department, but was in the art department, and it was about graphic design. I’ve written about it before if you are interested in my thoughts. Finally don’t confuse the concept of being unique as the most important qualities of art.  Being different simply for the sake of being different is usually just pretty bad, and when it does work, often it’s more of a marketing ploy than the creation of stunning piece of art that will be admired far into the future.  The term fad comes to mind.

I work very hard at both the craft and creative part of what I do. I’ve studied many subjects from books that were written for and about other disciplines. I have many “mentors” in the world of photography … artists whose work I admire and respect greatly.  I frequently view their images to try and understand more about why I feel like I do about those images, and what I’m doing in my own work to instill similar feelings for those viewing it.

I don’t consider my “images” themselves as art.  I don’t consider the versions I put on the internet as art.  In fact, to me art itself is only defined by the final creation …. a work of art or a piece of art.  So the final printing and presentation are all key elements of the work.  I’m not really worried about whether it is art or not … to debate that is a useless exercise. I think it is, and treat it that way. It would nice if galleries would be quit hiding behind the pretense about it being about the art.  I can understand if they get tired because photographers constantly bring in a string of portfolios full of nice shots of famous places and want to sell 8×10 prints for $49.  Or just admit they don’t think there is any money in it.  But quit excluding photography because of an industry attitude based on opinions, with no real way to truly justify or substantiate it.  They don’t know what is and what isn’t art anymore than anyone else … and they really don’t care anyway.  They just want to make money.  After all, most galleries of the kind I’m referring to are nothing more than high end “decor” stores – nothing wrong with that other then the pretense of them being something more.

OK, end of rant 🙂

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