The Art of Photography

Is photography art? In this day and age of instant photography it is a question we hear a lot.

To me, “Art” is an overarching concept that transcends medium. We talk of the art of sculpting, of dance, of music, of writing. We often talk about it as a noun: “that is art” or “that is NOT art,” but I think it is easier to understand when it is used as an adverb: “artfully.”

For something to be done “artfully” it must display an unmistakable level of mastery. It must have a kind of synergy, be greater than the sum of its parts. It must be greater than itself – go deeper (think of the Ernest Hemingway story “Big Two-Hearted River” a story about much more than simply fly-fishing).

To achieve that, there must be intent, control, and purposeful manipulation of the elements. The person, the “artist,” must be able to control significant elements of the process to ensure that the creation meets the intent.

It is not just recording. For instance, if you simply made a Xerox copy of the Mona Lisa, could you call that a work of “art”? Most of us would probably say no. Why? Because the person who made the copy did not have control over any of the elements in any significant way other than to reproduce what is already there.

Reproduce vs. Produce – You reproduce a copy. You produce a work of art. It has to be original.

So something that is “artful” has elements that go beyond reproduction and that is where photography gets in trouble.

In modern photography there is an element of the “push button” mentality. Is it art if you just point and shoot and let the camera make all of the decisions? How is that any different than hitting the button on the copy machine? In this way, photography differs from painting in that you can’t just program a paintbrush to copy exactly the scene in front of it at the touch of a button. If you could, we (I) would not call it art.

So, I would argue that since my definition of art requires the artist to be in control of significant elements of the creation of the original, for photography to rise to the level of art the photography must be shot on manual with the photographer taking control away from the camera and taking responsibility themselves.

Of course, as a photographer you are in control of where you point the camera, how you compose the shot, how much light you let in with your aperture, how long you let that light in with your shutter speed, how much depth of field you want with your fstop.

That is the technical side. But it is not that much different than a painter deciding what type of paintbrush to use or what concoction of pigment to dip that brush in, or what material to paint on.

If your work STOPS there, if your understanding of photography and your goal with your photo, stops there, then I think it necessary falls short of art. There HAS to be something more

A good photograph is a balance between proper exposure and artistic composition. I might better have said “artful” composition because that speaks to the other side of the equation: what story is told by your photograph? What universal themes does it speak to? Love? Fear? Intimacy? Insecurity? Courage? Beauty? Does it depict a “decisive moment”? A moment of epiphany? Of understanding? Of emotion? Of transition where what comes after will never be the same as what has come before? (Think of some of the greatest photographs of all time – the white wolf by Jim Brandenburg, the others too – the chimpanzee touching the forehead of Jane Goodall in an expression of connection. When you see that photograph, you will never think the same way about the gap, or lack of it, that separates our two species. When you see the eyes of the Afghan girl by Steve Curry, the gap between you and that distant culture disintegrates. You cannot look away.

A great photo tells a story, just like good writing or good painting or a good song. It has movement, depth, transition.

The photographer is in control of as many of the elements of that photograph as possible, just like the painter or the musician. They use that control with intent, the intent to create a photograph that is both technically purposeful and artfully composed, a photograph that speaks to the universal story of what it means to be alive on this earth and shows the viewer either something they have never seen before or something that they HAVE seen before but never saw in exactly that way.

Intent, control, depth of meaning, all artfully executed? That is art and when all of that comes together, so is a photograph.

It is powerful.

It is elemental.

It is rare but then everything most of us would deem “art” is also rare.

Not every snapshot, not every one of the 380 billion photographs taken every year in the digital age is “art”

But then the same could be said of every painting, every song, every short story. Not every one is art.

That is why art is so special, and so valuable, no matter where you find it.

Art is created by ANY medium when it rises to the level of mastery, when it makes your heart beat, and echoes inside you by touching something deep and real, when it gives you a vision that changes the way you see yourself and the world forever.

Photography can do that. When it does, there is no doubt that photography, or at least THAT photograph, is ART.