Is photography art? Is all photography art? For over a century people have debated these points. I once thought the matter had been settled with so many exhibitions in museums all over the world , but I am still surprised occasionally when I meet someone with a very different opinion on the matter.
Ten years ago, I had a solo show as part of my Individual Artist Fellowship from the Delaware State Arts Council. It was a very big honor and quite well advertised, especially as I was one of the first photographers to receive the honor. As I proudly shared my handiwork with visitors, a woman came up to me and asked a very odd question: “Where is the artwork?” Confused, I pointed at the three walls filled with my photographs. No, she said, she was looking for the artwork. After some brief inquiry, I came to understand that she was looking for a painter in the building next door.
Clearly, her definition of art did not include my medium. There are those who still see as photography as too mechanical to be art. Many just cannot get past the notion that photography is all done by the camera itself. It’s not art because it involves no skill, thought or creativity from the photographer. So be it.
In another instance, I was at a gallery with a few fellow photographers whose work ran the gamut from thoughtful portraits to dreamy landscapes to much more abstract takes on things. The gallery owners shared with us some recently acquired photographs which were far edgier than anything the four of us did. The owners’ question was,”Is this art?” We all looked at the pictures. Some loved the pictures. I found them rather revolting. All of us had very emotional reactions to them. The photographer had truly succeeded in skillfully making imagery that evoked emotions. While we wouldn’t all have hung it on our walls, the consensus was that yes it was art because it stirred emotion in us all.
Two weeks ago, I caught up with a fellow photographer with whom I am well acquainted. He is part of an organization holding the huge annual photographic exhibition to which we were both accepted and attending. He has a decidedly different approach to his subject matter and methods of capturing the image from my mode of operation . He caught me a bit off-guard when he said the difference between him and me lay in the fact that I am an “artist” and he is an “image maker.” Image maker?
It must be mentioned that this particular show is historically of a very reality-oriented variety. The largest category for this show is an open, anything-goes kind of thing by the rules, where a photographer can make trees walk and pigs fly if she so desires. The vast majority of accepted works are much more subtle, though, making a scene more real than real by highlighting, darkening, cropping, erasing, pasting and otherwise digitally adjusting the image to dramatize, rather than report the absolute truth of it. They are so good, though, that it all seemed like so many well-shot, unmanipulated photos. It gave some patrons pause that day and at least one asked, “Do they lose points if they use Photoshop?” ( The answer is no.)
My conversation with the image maker got cut short and I never got a chance to hear an explanation of his statement. It is possible that the he intends to simply dramatize reality rather than create a whole new one, as he knows I tend to do*, and so that stretch of imagination in my work took me into the art realm.
As for myself, I’d say that even Mr. Image Maker, even if he disagrees, is more of an artist than he thinks. Sure, I am more experimental in my projects. I throw in a bit of imagination where he prefers realism. However, he puts himself into every picture he takes. He chooses his own versions of just the right lens, just the right angle, just the right moment, just the right exposure, and just the right composition to every picture he takes. He goes home and opens up Photoshop and spends probably hours tweaking the pictures just-so to give them the drama and impact he wants to see in them, adjusting vibrance, contrast, saturation, hue, brightness, sharpness, cropping, and so on, then finishing it off, if he prints it, with his paper and printing method choices. The pictures he produces aren’t just snapshots of a passing moment, but the deliberate reflection of how he saw or wanted to see what was around him. He wants everyone to look at his pictures and say, “Wow” — and many do. In the end, though he’s using a different set of skills, I don’t see much difference from a photorealistic painter doing the same thing with a portrait, still life, landscape or anything else. However you want to express it, I think art is not defined by the medium but by the though and soul that are put into the work and its ability to stir something in the viewer.
Ultimately, I guess the question isn’t really, “Is photography art?” but “What is art?” The answer to this is so personal that there are probably as many answers as there are people thinking about it. So, what is art to you?
*Ironically, he was accepted in the open category and I was accepted for photojournalism, which allows only for cropping, and adjusting of brightness and contrast. The realism of the scene, for my category that day, was first and foremost, but even then there is room for the personal editorial touch.