Are Photographers Even Artists?

Are Photographers Even Artists?

Have you ever heard the argument that photography isn’t art, because everyone can do it? That’s bull. All forms of photography need artistic thinking to some extent.

Craft and Art

It seems like an unspoken agreement that photographers don’t like to talk about it: Everyone can create decent images on a modern smartphone. The technical act of taking a properly exposed picture is no rocket science anymore. In fact, it gets easier and easier, day by day. In the past, learning photography always meant to also learn a craft. Today this craft becomes less important. 

I assume that people who rest on knowing the craft of photography will soon die out. You’re not special anymore if you simply know how to handle a camera. The iPhone, Huawei, and Samsung enthusiasts will soon overtake you and you’re out. Of course, you will be able to create better images when you know the craft. Yet, it is just one necessary condition. More important is the aspect of art.

Photography means drawing with light.

What Is Art?

Risking that I open Pandora’s Box here, I try to give a very soft definition of art. It’s more like a summary of different definitions of art, which I found on the web and in books. Almost every definition agrees that art is creation. It can be a visible product, sound, or a creative activity. All this still sounds like a lot of craft. Another important part, which is usually mentioned when talking about art, is expression. Artists express their imagination, emotions, and thoughts through their art. Hence, I’d like to summarize that art is the expression of the artists imagination, emotion, and thoughts through a perceivable product. Sounds a little complicated? The German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe expressed it as follows:

Art is the mediator of the unspeakable

- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

What does this mean? Let’s look at our photographs as a form of language. We see something, maybe a family, who wants to be portrayed. We could simply take our camera, expose properly – snap – and done. That’s craft. On the other hand, we could talk to them, find out what they like their images to look like, think about how we perceive them, and how we can visualize our and their ideas. We pose them, we make jokes, we try to put them into a frame that suits their character. That’s a proper portrait and it’s art, because we translated our ideas about the family into another language: a photograph.

The selection of colors will also influence your message.

Everyone Has Her or His Own Language

The problem of communication is that humans don’t function like machines. When we communicate, it’s impossible that we receive 100% of the message that a person wants to tell us. Information between humans is not sent and received like we are equally coded. If you tell me: “I saw a beautiful sunset.”, I will be able to imagine a beautiful sunset, but definitely not exactly yours. If you talk to me about feelings, I might know what sadness feels like in my body and mind, but not in yours. Language is always a matter of interpretation.

Art is anything that you can get away with

- Marshall McLuhan

Our photographs are matter of interpretation, too. Showing beauty, emotion, familiarities, differences, and abstract subjects, photographs are read by the viewer just like my words are read by you right now. If you think that everyone will understand the intent of your written words, make a test. Write a comment here on Fstoppers, try to include the words “mirrorless” and “DSLR” or “Nikon” and “Canon” in an article and you will soon see that some readers will react very different than others. Some might feel offended, even if you didn’t want to offend someone. Some might think you simply want to share your opinion; some will think you want to advertise yourself.

The Art of Translation

Photographs are even harder to read, because we lack a complex unified code. Yes, smiling faces create a good mood, light from below looks diabolic, and people photographed from below look a little more powerful. Still, triggering a certain feeling and moving people is hard, especially in a time where we are flooded with images.

Art is the queen of all sciences communicating knowledge to all the generations of the world. 

- Leonardo Da Vinci

Often, we also have to translate other peoples’ ideas into a photograph. If you are a commercial photographer, a company of running trainers might approach you and say: “We want it to look like freedom and the ability of reaching one’s goals.” Then you will have to translate these words into your own imagination and then into a photograph. Heck, that’s complex and it’s not just a craft anymore. That is surely a creative act. It’s art.

Abstract images might not include a clear message, but some can provoke feelings or thoughts.

Selfies, Still Life, and Photojournalism

Here is the problem which is open for debate: Where does art start? When I look at my Instagram feed, where I follow – besides some amazing artists – a lot of trashy content, I have to come to the conclusion that the images are also acts of translation. A selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower? A translation of the concept that the people have an enviable live. Avocado bread and a ginger smoothie? Translation of the need to show people that you are healthy. Both images are probably just status markers, nonetheless they try to express abstract feelings and concepts in a photographic medium. Sometimes they can carry a feeling to the viewers which will make them imagine what it will be like to be in that situation. But does this make selfies a form of art?

All art is quite useless

- Oscar Wilde

Let me give a few other complicated examples. Still life images are another interesting form of photography, when we talk about communication. The symbols used are almost coded in such a way that one could read the message using a still life dictionary. If the code is defined to a big extent, isn’t still life photography (or painting) a craft rather than an art?

And what about photojournalism? The photojournalist takes images of events of public interests. He or she simply captures what is there, right? I don’t think so. The selection of the images, the framing, and the context of the subject is a form of expression of the photographer’s idea about the topic. In the ideal case, this idea is balanced and as little biased as possible. 

What’s Left?

The above-mentioned definition of art is very broad and includes almost every form of expression in. Maybe we should step back from the idea of defining something as being art or not. Seeing art as a scale and debate might be more useful. A selfie might be art on a very low level, while an image of Cartier-Bresson will be higher up. Some readers might consider one form of art higher than the other. That’s fine, because it also keeps us interacting. How fulfilling is it to talk about a photograph, a movie or the new song of Justin Bieber (just kidding). Art lets us discuss and communicate, discover the differences in perception and taste.

We all know that art isn’t truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.

- Pablo Picasso

Finally, there is one aspect, which is often ignored in the definition of arts: aesthetics. Curiously enough, but I personally think that it’s the main skill that we need to make a craft become an art. If a photograph moves people or let’s them swipe it away, mostly depends on its aesthetics. Aesthetics doesn’t just mean beauty in a positive sense, but the power to trigger reaction. In modern times, pictures are found everywhere from the restroom door to the billboards at the big city squares. Triggering reaction of our media-numb audience is maybe the biggest artistic challenge today. How can we create aesthetics? Well, maybe that’s a topic for another article.

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27 Comments

Jerome Brill's picture

Interpretive expression is variable. Not all photographers are artists but if the idea is to express something or entertain, it can be easily considered art. Especially when there is a lot of creativity involved or you can see a strong message or story. There is also the art of having the skill to photograph which is separate from expression.

If a photojournalist had a knack for only photographing the poor in America and made a series of prints to express it, it probably can be considered art. If they just took some photos for a single news story because they were told to, maybe it's not artistic. But they still used the art of photography if they are a skilled photographer. Maybe expression is the difference? Although since it's still Interpretive, someone could not realize they were creating art until the big picture of their work can be analyzed later.

Again, it's really variable. For a lot of people things have to be black or white to fully understand it. This isn't really one of those things.

Brent Daniel's picture

I read this with baited breath. I've tried to start this article myself three or four times and never gotten something I was happy with. You did. Superb! You ever make it state-side and want to swap art theories, I'll buy you a pint ... or three!

Stuart Carver's picture

Id call it art definitely.

What i cant stand though is when people start sounding pretentious by using phrases like 'we are the artists, the camera is our brush' or 'one does not snap a photo, one controls the exposure to create a piece of art' etc.. they need slapping with a wet fish.

Vladimir Vcelar's picture

No, what they need is a hug. Around the neck. With a rope!

Rashad Hurani's picture

Wet fish is the way!

Anyone can take a picture but not everyone can take a great picture. Just because you have a kitchen, doesn't mean you know how to cook.

Matt Williams's picture

I can make mac and cheese, doesn't make me a chef.

Ken Flanagan's picture

No one is who have ever been, those who are can never be again. Those who can should always try, and those that do shall never die.

I honestly don’t know.

Vladimir Vcelar's picture

Cindy Sherman: “Untitled #96? (1981) – sold for $3,890,500
No comment

Frankly, I am always distrustful of anyone who calls themselves an artist. For example, the pictures with this article are indeed art. So I am very content to call Nils Heininger an artist. Basically I feel the self application of the title of being an artist is presumptive. I would concede that someone who makes a decent living selling their work that is artistically oriented could call themselves an artist, but Picasso was a painter, Rodin a sculptor, and Ansel Adams was a photographer. We would certainly call all of them artists, but it is our call, not theirs.
In my opinion, it is the public that should call a person an artist, not that person adopting the title for themselves. Though I would accept someone calling themself a "failed artist".

Matthew Teetshorn's picture

This might sum up the worst arguments I've ever heard on this topic. If someone calls themselves an artist, they are. If they call a thing art, it is. Who else's opinion could possibly matter other than one's own? You are attempting to say that a person isn't allowed to define themselves and should seek the outward approval of everyone else. What could be more ridiculous than looking to others to find out who you are?

You may not think a thing is art, you may not like it, understand it or get it. But your opinion on what someone else is expressing through their art is entirely irrelevant, as is mine and everyone else's.

David Widder's picture

I take a much more broad and expansive view of Art. Without fail I find it to be polarizing and always generates some ridiculous responses from people. But thats ok, as I neither require nor expect anyone to agree with it.

Art is anything that humans do which rises above the level of Instinct. ANYTHING.

From our earliest days of awareness, there is no difference in seeing the potential of an arrow head hidden in a piece of stone and seeing the potential of anthropomorphic figures on a cave wall hidden in a smear of ocher.

Everything humans accomplish....language, construction, science....is all based in our innately artistic ability to see the potential of other things hidden in existing materials. If it isn't instinct, its Art. It is intrinsically tied to the self awareness which separates us from most other animals.

The knee jerk reaction from almost every Artist I have shared this with is one of derision. How dare I demean their Art with such an inclusive definition! Are you saying that the work of those guys putting a new roof on a house is the same as what I do when I paint a landscape?

Yes. That is exactly what I am saying. Despite society and culture assigning an unworthy level of "Artsyness" to the landscape painting and failing to understand that Art and Craft are one. Modern Art has somehow been set apart and seen as different when in fact it isn't. (Keep in mind I am no way failing to differentiate the difference between run of the mill craft and really good, clever craft. The really good, clever craft is what you normally call Art)

But, putting all that aside and arguing within normal definitions everyone is comfortable with,...of course photography is Art. I am an artist, and photography is my medium.

(Using a camera to create beautiful imagery is Art. Making an automated production line to create thousands of cameras full of electronic wizardry is also Art. Society fails to see this)

Rashad Hurani's picture

"Art is anything that humans do which rises above the level of Instinct"- by that measure, sex is not art ! :)

David Widder's picture

Plain Jane, vanilla sex for procreation is instinct. But believe me, there are plenty of ways to have artistic sex. :)

History is repeating itself. The cell phone camera is analogous to George Eastman's Kodak camera released in 1888. With the Kodak, anyone could take a halfway decent photo in bright sunshine. This invention called into question "Is photography ART?" and launched the photo-secessionist movement of Pictorialism.

Art is an opinion, photographers can be artist, art world is part BS, many photographers have read from the book of BS and studied intently

Photography is not art. Photography is a tool for artists.

Great comment Kelly Myers . I totally agree. You just wrapped up the entire article with two simple sentences, and you are 100% correct.

You do what you feel in the way you do it. If someone says that they 'love your work'. They are acknowledging the way you do it, your unique Contribution. It might not be 'art' but it's definetly creative.

Broken Canon Art & Photography's picture

"Burning Fields" (The Harvest) Oil Painting Based on a Blurry Photograph by Broken Canon Art & Photography. Both Talents go Hand in Hand.

That old chestnut again! This horse been beat to death a million times.

Ivan Lantsov's picture

some are most not

Mike Dochterman's picture

God I hope I'm not (an artist).. first..I do not wear a beret well, next..I'd have to go around talking about mirrors and windows and juxtapose and all kinds of silly phrases

I just try to document things w/o getting in the way too much.. I'm more akin to a crime scene photographer

Rashed Ahmed's picture

Madonna "Express Yourself" (1989)

It's all about how you express yourself in any medium.

I think the question really is to define photography. Once you have that you can see where that definition may fit within the other definitions of art.
The definition of photography may of course range from the simple task of activating a shutter, to the entire enterprise including preparation and support for a multiple model shoot in Antarctica.
So define photography, then figure out where that sits in the art thing. Otherwise you get distracted with trying to define art and go nowhere fast.
Naturally I have my own view of the definition of photography.