Is Photography Art?

18th October 2012

This is a subject I’m returning to from June 2011 when I wrote my first, very naive, piece for my learning log for The Art of Photography, http://lerpysphotographyblog.wordpress.com/is-photography-art/ I say naïve because looking back at it there is only a very superficial depth to it that came from a keenness to start the course and air something, anything worthwhile, on-line.  Looking now I’m not sure it was that worthwhile, but it did echo a train of though I’ve had for a very long time.  This train of though has been stoked recently by a book I’m currently reading ‘Visual Culture’ by Richard Howells and Joaquim Negreiros which introduces the reader to someone called Roger Scruton.

Until now I’ve not been aware of Scruton, even though his work may be well-known to the literati and academics.  Put very simply, his assertion that a photograph isn’t art, and can never be art, simply because all it is is a representation of whatever is placed in front of the camera, has some justification.  The counter argument also holds a great deal of justification for photography being art.  In that anything photographed doesn’t become art simply because whatever is in front of the lens is beautiful therefore makes it art, it can be shown to be ugly, depending upon the treatment given to it by the photographer, and conversely an ugly scene can be rendered beautiful by the correct treatment.

So if there are two diametrically opposed arguments like this, what is the poor student to make of them?  I’m sure this is something that tutors relish for discourse as I’m not entirely sure that there’s an answer.  If both arguments hold some truth and justification does that mean you have to support one or the other, or does it mean you have to make a definition of your own?  If one makes a definition of your own, will this be any nearer correct than either of the other two?  Is there such a thing as correct when it comes to a subjective subject like art?  Lots of questions.

As someone studying photography as an art subject I wouldn’t be expected to readily agree to Scruton’s declamation of photography, but to me, in some ways, he’s not wrong, that’s not say he’s right either.  However I do agree with the counter argument that the image treatment by the photographer has a great deal of impact on whether a photograph is art, but even some poorly treated images can be art surely?

So, let’s have a quick look at Scruton’s basic argument, that photographs can’t be art because all they are is a facsimile of whatever is in front of the lens.

True, they are a facsimile of whatever is there in front of the lens, but there is artistic input from the creator in terms of technical details and creativity.  The choice of lens, the aperture, the shutter speed.  Then there’s composition, amount and angle of light and focus intent (hard or soft).

Does that then mean that provided the photographer takes great pains over all the points above the resulting image automatically becomes art?  No, of course not, because it requires something else as well.  What that something is is what the difference is between a photograph that meets Scruton’s definition and one that meets the definition of what art is.  Can that be defined?  I don’t think so.  Simply put, I take a great deal of care over my choices when I make an image but I wouldn’t be so bold as to declare them art, and I’m not sure anyone else would go that far either.  There is a certain indefinable something that makes a photograph art and not everyone agrees that it is art and so debate rages all the time.

But can an image become art after it’s been made?  By that I mean if it wasn’t agreed that it was art when it was made, can it become art over time?

I’d say there’s two ways this can happen.  The first is that my photographs aren’t currently classed as art but in time, should I become a recognised artist, then possibly many of my current images would simply by association.  This may not imply true art has been achieved as there would always be doubt, in my mind at least, that this is just an image hitching a ride.

The second reason is rarity and taste/fashion.  Rarity has made a lot of painted images into art, and very valuable art too, but compared to whatever else the artist produced they may not be good art.  Tastes and fashions change over time and something that isn’t thought tasteful now could become tasteful in the future and so garner status as art as a consequence.  For instance, 1960’s retro is, or has been, very tasteful/fashionable in recent years and what I, a person who lived through that period, considered kitsch junk is now very much art.

So where have I ended up, is photography art?  Yes….. and no.  It is and it isn’t if the person who beholds it considers it art or not.  That’s a pretty sweeping statement but one only has to look at so-called primitive art to realise that there are all sorts of tastes in the world that constitute what good art is, therefore it follows that photography to some is art and to others it isn’t.

How many treatises and books have been written deciding this question?  Who knows, what’s more who cares?  I know what I like and if it gives me pleasure then its art to me.

The other thing that could also be at work here is that photography hasn’t the perceived elitism of say drawing, painting and sculpture because it’s available to the masses.  This may sound as if I’m bashing the establishment, and in some way I suppose that’s true, but I believe that as anyone can, and does, pick up a camera and make images the elitism is lost that the other genres have simply because there are less numbers of people talented enough to paint, draw and sculpt.  With the loss of elitism the establishment, which has always prided itself on education, knowledge and affordability of high art, cannot hold on to that position for something that everyone now has access to and no longer require the resources of the establishment to participate.  This in a way shuts out the establishment and as a consequence have some had their noses put out of joint and decry a medium simply because they can no longer make or break it as they once could with other genres?

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2 Responses to Is Photography Art?

  1. Catherine says:

    Well-put! The arguments could go on for ever couldn’t they.

  2. Eddy Lerp says:

    That’s the problem and the fun Catherine. There are many making a good living out of putting forward arguments that can be discussed forever and just how far anyone at our level wants to indulge in them is a personal choice. I for one like to be aware of them, but as to getting in as deep as some of them appear to go, that’s for the birds.

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