Is Photography Art?

Is Photography Art?

Of course photography is art. Is all photography art? Debatable. Is all photography good art? Nope. Most photography is bad art. Is your photography good art?

I've given this a lot of thought. I always liked to draw. When I was a kid, drawing pictures was a way to get attention from the kids in my class without having to have a good personality or talk to people. Eventually, it became something I genuinely enjoyed and had a knack for. Later, I studied art in college and got my bachelor's degree in art. About two years prior to graduation, I discovered that I could create an image that told a story with a camera much faster than I could with a paintbrush. In other words, it was easier. I took a few photo classes and practiced making photographs in my spare time. I wanted to become a professional photographer, and I did. I've since had a very good, enjoyable career pushing that button on my camera, but for 10 years, I've had the feeling that while being a full-time photographer is difficult in terms of competition and the market, the actual work is... easy. Is it not?

Let me explain what I mean. Here are some photographs my eight-year-old son took with my camera. This was the first time he ever used a camera, all these were shot the same day, and I've never given him any training on composition, light, design, or anything. This is just his instinct at work, which is admittedly better than average. I did some basic post-production since he doesn't know how yet.  

These are highly competent photographs by any measure, some of which could easily be sold as stock photography alongside images shot by professionals. You might argue that this particular kid has a knack, but let's see how this compares with other disciplines like drawing or painting. To do a competent drawing or painting, you need to train your ability to see well and understand the behavior of light (like in photography). You also, however, need a deep understanding of color, perspective, weight, composition, design, line, the behavior of your medium, and often, the very structure or anatomy of the objects or people in your work. Figure artists literally memorize the bones and muscles in every part of the body, their relative lengths and widths, their interaction in various movements and poses, and have to reproduce them from memory on a blank paper. They have to understand and reproduce the way fabric drapes and how folds are produced based on the weight of the material of the fabric. They have to understand the interaction of colors as they mix when light bounces off of various surfaces well enough to convincingly reproduce it from memory or imagination. When I shoot a portrait, I just need to make sure I don't catch them blinking. Here's a drawing and a painting by the same kid, created four months after these photos were taken.

I would say these are likewise above average for his age, but would these be competitive in the marketplace with working professional artists? Probably not. I look forward to seeing what my son is able to create as his skill in both of these disciplines grows. But there is a lot of work for him to do to be considered even an entry-level artist. So, what's my point? That photography isn't as good as fine art drawing and painting? No, that's not my point. Obviously, I have an incredible love for photography. I've made it my career. It is the single thing I have invested more practice in than any other endeavor. There are two points I'm making here.

First of all, I've heard, over the years, many photographers, especially those who are starting out or are shooting for fun primarily, seek to elevate their photography work to something with a mystical, unreachable majesty. They complain about people who are unwilling to pay what they are asking, or when people say things like: "Wow, you must have a really nice camera" and so on. I fully understand those frustrations, but at the end of the day, we are simply taking pictures. It's not hard. The ability to take pictures well under any conditions, with any degree of preparation and of any subject, well, that's hard. I would encourage photographers to maintain a level of humility about our work and recognize, even publicly, that there is little difference between you and a beginner, except the dedication you have brought to your craft by practice and study. Photography is incredibly accessible, which was one of its original appeals upon its invention. The whole point of it was to make the creation of realistic imagery faster, more accurate to life, and more accessible to those who haven't studied classical painting in Italy for 20 years. The challenge of photography, in my view — the real one, I mean — is of differentiation. Monkeys can take pictures. Part of what makes your photography interesting is its uniqueness.  

Secondly, and my main point: If photography isn't hard to do, and if it's so easy to create professional-quality images, then how can I know that my photography is art? Or that it's more interesting than photos taken by an eight-year-old on his first try? If you want your work to be good art, there are a few things you need to include in your process.

The art fundamentals: Balance, contrast, emphasis, movement, pattern, rhythm, and unity/variety. 

Photography fundamentals: Shape, line, texture, perspective, value, color, negative space, focus. 

Do you think about these things when you're shooting? Or are you just mesmerized by the beauty of your model? If you've never even heard of these concepts, I encourage you to watch some videos teaching about them. Mastery of these things is the mastery of art. Everything else is just being a good technician, or in other words, knowing how to work your camera.

The most important differentiator of all is the other half of what makes art great, and that is communication. Before you ever find a location, or talent, or pick up your camera, have a good, specific idea in mind of what you want to create. Perhaps even sketch out the idea ahead of time. Then, all the decisions you make will be in support of that vision. It's not the only way to make photographs. You can just walk down the street and take pictures of someone's dog or a feather on a log, and there's value in it; however, if you'd like your work to really come across as art, the concept should predate the shutter actuation.

When it's clear that some preparation, thought, and design went into the production of your image, in addition to it just looking great, this is often what separates nice images from great images. Other factors can include the historical significance of what you create, its originality, breaking ground with new techniques, or communicating relevant and important social or political currents of your day.

There are many ways to approach the photographic craft. If "art" isn't your primary concern, this article might not be relevant to you. But if you're someone who likes the idea of your work being great art, I encourage you to try this approach, even just philosophically, and if you do, your photographs will be as much art as any good painting, drawing, or sculpture.

What do you think makes photography good art?

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49 Comments

Michael L. McCray's picture

It is whatever you want it to be. Getting paid for it is a whole other argument, like a banana taped to a wall.

Daniel Medley's picture

Is photography an art? Not in and of itself. It's certainly a medium that can be used to create art.

I know that some people, especially art majors, hate to hear it, but the reality is that what is and as not art is entirely subjective. There is no way to objectively quantify what comprises art.

Hence Jackson Pollock, the aforementioned banana taped to a wall, Pierre Brassau ....

Frank Davis's picture

Agree... it's a medium with which art can be created. Just as a paint brush can paint be used to paint a barn or create a Rembrandt. It will make an accurate recording of what is in front of it. It will take a picture of a barn if that's what in front of it or record what an artist has created by use light, shadows, and creative interpretation of what it's pointed at when the shutter is clicked.

Others will interpret what was created as they will.

Matt Williams's picture

I kind of agree - it is not art in and of itself. It's a medium through which art can be created, like you say.

But that's true of any medium, isn't it?

Beyond that, I don't actually believe there is any definition or parameters for what is and is not art. There are things people think are art that I think are trash. Vice versa - I think Jackson Pollock was a great artist.... I'd venture that most people out there think his stuff is garbage.

Art is just whatever someone thinks is art. There are certainly some objective measurements and ways to analyze art - I'm not saying it's just meaningless - but there's no objective definition of art or what makes something art.

Daniel Medley's picture

Yep, pretty much exactly what I was saying.

Matt Williams's picture

I know. I wasn't arguing with you or saying anything you said was wrong. Just expanding with some thoughts of my own.

Jan Holler's picture

"Art is just whatever someone thinks is art." Sorry, this is BS.

Matt Williams's picture

Explain? What is art if not something that a second party (i.e. someone other than the creator) considers to be art?

No committee gets together to vote on art or not art. Being in a museum or a book or a gallery doesn't make art. Not selling your art doesn't make it not art (otherwise Vivian Maier wasn't an artist).

There's no rule or principle that X amount of people must consider something art to be art.

So what is art if not something that someone considers art?

Jan Holler's picture

Art is not just whatever someone thinks it is. (Listen to your words: just, whatever, someone)
It is not you or someone else who decides (for others) what art is. If you want to know what art is, refer to the German speaking Wikipedia. The English version is o.k. too, but misses a lot of aspects. You could use deepl.com to translate the German text.

Matt Williams's picture

"Art is something that stimulates an individual's thoughts, emotions, beliefs, or ideas through the senses. Works of art can be explicitly made for this purpose or interpreted on the basis of images or objects." -from English Wikipedia

I think this is a good definition, as close to correct as you can get, in my opinion.

So maybe the issue with what I said is that something could stimulate their emotions or thoughts but they still may not consider it art?

If that's what you disagree with, then I agree with you. I will recant my statement because I think that wikipedia definition is good. Art doesn't have to be considered art by anyone, though that does mean it's impossible to determine if something is art because we can't measure a person's mental stimulation.

Which is fine.

Jan Holler's picture

I do agree with what you posted down below. It is just this one sentence which I really do not agree with. And please excuse the hint to wikipedia. Especially the German version tries a lot to explain what art is. What you or I personally consider as art is not of relevance.

Matt Williams's picture

I'm with you. I agree with you now. Thanks for the wiki suggestion.

Timothy Roper's picture

Bottom line is, if someone is willing to buy it as art, then it's art. And that applies to photos that previously weren't art, like editorial, advertising, etc. And short of an actual sale, if a person, or museum, etc, is willing to put in on a wall or in a collection without paying for it, that'd count, too.

Tom Reichner's picture

Timothy Roper said,

"Bottom line is, if someone is willing to buy it as art, then it's art."

So, then, whether or not something is "art" is determined by whether or not someone else wants to purchase it?

If that is your premise, then I have to vehemently disagree. The essence of something is not determined by its marketability. If this were the case, then a photograph, or a painting, or a sculpture, would not become art until someone pays money for it.

So ...... an accomplished sculptor completes a masterpiece that she has been working on for months, but it is not art yet because it is going to be exhibited at a gallery before it is offered for sale.

Or Norman Rockwell paints two images for an edition of the Saturday Evening Post ..... and the one that the Post chooses to run on the cover is art, while the one they did not choose does not become art until Norman sells it to someone, such as a collector, possibly years later?

This is a very strange way to define what is art and what isn't art.

Timothy Roper's picture

You didn't read my whole three sentences? I've heard of TL;DR, but that's a little ridiculous.

Tom Reichner's picture

I have never heard of TL or DR. What do those letters mean in the context in which you are using them here?

Matthew Lacy's picture

I'm going to stay out of this particular comment stream, except to offer to you that "TL;DR" stands for "Too long; didn't read", which to me seems like an improper use of a semicolon, but I didn't make the abbreviation. in the context Timothy used them, it was implying that you didn't read his whole comment because it was too long. Hopefully this is found useful by someone who sees it in the future.

Tom Reichner's picture

Thank you, Matthew. I understand it now. The semicolon threw me off. I mean, I had never heard of "too long, didn't read" before, at least not with those particular words, and being used as an acronym. But without the semicolon I may have been able to figure it out.

Tom Reichner's picture

Yes, I read your entire post, but I only wanted to comment on the first sentence.

Matt Williams's picture

I mean, Tom's replied address all three whole sentences you wrote....

He disagrees art is determinant on whether someone pays money for it (as do I).

Your other position is that it can be art if a person or museum is willing to "put it on a wall or in a collection." If I write a note and give it to someone and they stick it on the wall to remind themselves, that's art then?

By your standards, many many many many legitimate artists are not making art. Hell, television, movies, music, books (I could go on and on) are not art then, since most are not displayed on walls or in museums and many can and are available for free.

Eric Robinson's picture

Have to disagree there sir. Financial worth does not turn an object into art. You could argue that it had to labelled as art in the first place for it to attract a buyer. As I have said in my comment it’s all to do with the initial intent of the artist. If other people then agree that the item created is art and are willing to shell out hard cash for the object, the act of purchase has not turned it into art it has just validated it as an artistic object.

Matt Williams's picture

I'll be honest with you.... I disagree with almost everything you said. Or, at least, the way you chose to say it.

I mean look:

1) you compare photos your kid took to pictures he drew. So? Literally. So what? How many great photographers do you think are great painters (and vice versa)? Relatively few, is my guess. They aren't related *at all* as far as the inherent skills of any given individual.

2) Again, I'm going to be honest because it's part of my point... I wouldn't call the photos "highly competent." Most of them look exactly like the kind of pictures someone takes when they get their first fast prime - like when you finally shell out for the 50/1.8 to use along with your kit lenses, and then shoot everything wide open. I'm not saying they are BAD, but highly competent? Also, what's the point in showing a few photos from someone? Being a great artist means you consistently and repeatedly produce great art. My guess is a huge majority of people could take similar photos with the same equipment.

Please believe I am NOT trying to insult your kid (or you)... I think the photo of the woman (your wife/his mother?) is actually interesting! It's a cool perspective and well composed and nicely backlit! Believe me, the photos I was taking when I started weren't any better - and your son has about 8 or 9 years on me in that regard!

3) "To do a competent drawing or painting, you need to train your ability to see well and understand the behavior of light (like in photography). You also, however, need a deep understanding of color, perspective, weight, composition, design, line, the behavior of your medium, and often, the very structure or anatomy of the objects or people in your work."

You literally need to do virtually every single one of those things as a photographer. Color? Perspective? COMPOSITION? Structure/anatomy of objects or people?

4) "....at the end of the day, we are simply taking pictures. It's not hard."

Sure. Taking a photo is not hard. Millions - if not billions - of people do it every day. That's not what a "photographer" does, though.

5) " If photography isn't hard to do, and if it's so easy to create professional-quality images"

I think we have different definitions of good photography and what "professional quality" is.

-------

I'm not trying to rag on you, man, but there are a lot of strange assumptions and logical leaps here and ultimately I'm not sure what you're trying to say. It seems you're trying to differentiate between "snapshot photography" (or whatever you'd like to call it - the kind of photography that most people do everyday) vs. artistic photography and what separates the two and how photographers should think about composition and light and focus and perspective, etc etc. That's totally fair! Great thing to write about!

But that's not what I get out of reading this.

I appreciate you taking the time to write it, though, as I do for pretty much any of the writers here.

Michel Meyer's picture

I personally (and I stress the word personally) believe that one of the very essence of art is to question what really art is and to challenge our understanding of it.

Ivo van der Ent's picture

I sorta kinda think I understand what you are trying to convey with the example of the photo's your son took. Unlike painting or sculpting where everything is created from scratch, in photography, with one press of a button, you already have a filled canvas. And sometimes that is all it takes to create a work of art. So what does that say about the artist? how qualified must one be if all it takes is just one button press? This makes it very accessible to a lot of people, and the downside is that photography is now from everybody for everybody. And in turn this has the negative effect that it is harder for your work to stand out, because people are so saturated by looking at photo's, they often don't take the time to really look. That just comes with the medium these days.

But deciding how to approach a subject, how to frame, when to shoot, where to shoot, and how to process the captured image afterwards are all skills you need to develop. And in the decisions you make about all these factors lies the creativity. That process is very personal and therein lies a lot of the artistic value. A good photo usually reflects this process. And that's wat people who still really take the time to look at photographs will notice and appreciate, and sometimes label as art.

Tom Reichner's picture

Ivo van der Ent said,

"Unlike painting or sculpting where everything is created from scratch, in photography, with one press of a button, you already have a filled canvas. And sometimes that is all it takes to create a work of art. So what does that say about the artist? how qualified must one be if all it takes is just one button press?"

I think that the point the author made by showing those photos is that it took a lot more than pressing the shutter button to create those photos. There were many decisions that went into the process of creating those photos. Aesthetic choices.

His son had to decide exactly what to include in the frame and what not to include. He also had to figure out where to shoot from, in order to get the look that he was trying to achieve. This had to be done by factoring in the ambient light and the way it fell on his subject(s), by factoring in the background, and also factoring in any supporting elements that are in the composition, besides the subject.

Not only do all of these things have to be "right", but they all need to be right in relation to each other. His son had to figure out exactly what position to shoot from so that all of these things - subject, supporting elements, and background, would look the way he wanted them to at one point in time and from one precise position.

That's a heck of a lot more than "pressing a button". If you frequent photography forums, then I would think that you already knew this. Which then begs the question ...... if you already knew that making solid photographs requires a lot more than pressing a button, then why did you make the argument that you did? Do you really believe that, or are you playing the proverbial "devil's advocate"?

Ivo van der Ent's picture

I think you are missing the point of the article and my reaction. A good photo is easier made than a good painting is what the author states, and I tend to agree. I am not claiming his son has not put any thought in it, but I am also not claiming that it cannot be done with little to no thought and a good camera. I'm not even talking about these photo's in particular. The point of the topic is that photography is a very accessible medium that gives acceptable results quit easily. And what does that do with the definition of art, or skill, or talent? I shared my thoughts on that. Not on the talent of his son, who is not the subject here, just used in the article as an example.

Ed Sanford's picture

I kept telling myself not to read this article when I saw the title. Why? I just knew that it would be one writer’s opinion which would be followed by comments that evolved into a useless debate. I read it anyway; my bad...

Tom Reichner's picture

But Ed, I think the point of the article is not to make a point and argue over it. Rather, the purpose of an article like this is to get us thinking about the topic.

When we contemplate these things, we grow as creators. Such thought inspires us and causes us to dig deeper when we create, regardless of what medium we are using.

Don't you feel that you have more insight into your photography after reading this article? I sure do. Articles on this topic make me better at what I do. There is a lot more value to these discussions than a "useless debate".

Ed Sanford's picture

In direct answer to your question ... no! This is another repetitive subject that runs in circles and goes nowhere. There are 100s of similar articles published regularly. I am always looking to improve. It is a lifelong quest. Therefore, I read and watch things that take a different approach. Right now, I am studying the work and thoughts of Alister Benn who employs a more useful thought process. For me, engaging in and with your subject is far more relevant than wondering or considering whether it is art. The joy of getting out and seeing and noticing things does it for me. Then, I get a chance to relive that joy when I am processing my images. I see and learn new things each time. Then, the final product results from that. I really don’t care whether it is art. By the way, I enjoy looking at the images produced by other photographers. I even purchase other photography when I am inspired. Even then, I am more interested in the thought, skill and talent that went into the work. At the end of the day. artists are discovered when they are dead.

Adam Kencki's picture

oh my god. the desert photo is really bad. could be a stock image for anything from parfume to car commercial

Juan Ortega's picture

Back some years ago when computers were not around yet, the only thing a photographer could do is to look for the best light the best composition (frame) and so on, and then maybe a bit of burn and dodge in the dark room like Ansel Adams liked to do, but now with photoshop and all the programs available the photographer artist can do much more than just composition and all that, now there are no limits for the real artist to make art with their photos.
Don't be stuck in the past century embrace the new World of the photographic artist.

Douglas Goodhill's picture

Couldn't one say the same about any major tech change in the medium, for example dry plates, or miniature cameras (35mm). What one must look at the consistency through photographic history of what defines photographic art.

Douglas Goodhill's picture

Try handing a child an 8x10 camera, a few holders, a changing bag, a box of film and a light meter and see what kind of images they produce and how they compare to a professional. Then compare the strength of their work over a 30 year career and you will understand when photography is art and when it is illustration.

Adam Kencki's picture

the tools you use have nothing to do with photography being or not being art. someone can spend their whole life printing large format or gum or whatever and master the techniques but still produce mediocre images and someone else can snap photos on an iPhone and create great art.

Douglas Goodhill's picture

Yes, but the probability is very low as you demonstrate.

Paul Bensel's picture

I don’t believe ‘art’ has anything to do with money, art stirs emotion heart and soul . Art is something that makes one feel comfortable or uncomfortable, sad or joyful. If someone is able to be paid for creating something they feel is art .... congratulations not many people are able to do that . The 8 year old boy is creating in the purest way he is only using the camera or paper to capture something that sparked something inside, he’s not doing it for money or accolades he’s doing it because what he saw stirred something in him

Adam Kencki's picture

you got it right

Kjetil Tofte's picture

The question in the heading ia s a good heading question. It draws attention. It is a pretty stupid question in the light of aesthetics. If you study aesthetics more than two weeks you will understand why.

David Moore's picture

I spent probably 2 decades drawing before I really got into photography. And yeah, it totally feels like cheating. "oh I want to make an image of a model posing like this and wearing this" *click* vs 10 hours of sketches and 60 hours on a finished piece you get mad at.

Yes yes, the *click* now includes my knowledge of lighting (natural and artificial) and however many years of shooting I've done (I forget lol). But still, that click for some reason feels like cheating still. lol.

The whole "art" thing, though, that is a thing people get so weird about. And it IS a weird thing. I see very photo realistic images that go viral or are popular on reddit or whatever. The SKILL to create a perfect drawing of a person or a dog or whatever, the SKILL is unquestionable. But when I see a drawing that is a perfect reproduction of a photo, all I can think is "well you wasted a LOT of time pretending you're a camera". 0 artistic value, AMAZING illustrative ability.

And someone mentioned Pollock, who maybe I am not a fan of, but Rothko. When I was younger, I hated all modern art, I thought it was all lazy. But something clicked once while at a museum. I kind of got it. And Rothko, it is so ridiculous to look at a canvas with like, 3 colors painted on it and go "YEAH IT IS ART MAN!" but his work moves me the same way an Ingres painting does which looking at NO ONE would doubt the amount of skill it took to make his drawings or paintings. But ZI am sure people look at Rothko and go 'the hell is this?"

Art is like a mold that has to grow on something. Maybe more a parasite. A thing that lives off the oo's and aww's of viewers of the thing. But even then, in the modern world, more people see selfies of half naked women than anything and that ... is that modern art? is the gross obvious intention to titillate and it's then gathering of 100,000 "likes' it's own artistic achievement?

I dunno, man I've sent my own brain spinning lol.

Adam Kencki's picture

lol

Tdotpics photography's picture

That last image is amazing. i feel so inspired to go and create a creative image like that or even something different.

Eric Robinson's picture

Art can be produced in a variety of ways photography is just one of the many. When does an image cross that ‘art’ line, if a line does indeed exist? It’s all to do with the intent of the ‘artist’ producing it. It could be argued that anything is art if the artist who produced it did so with the intention of creating art. Part of the problem when trying to answer the initial question can be found with the very narrow definition some people use, imagining art can only be produced with paint, brushes and canvas.
To answer the question, of course a photograph can be art if it’s creation was motivated by an artistic intent. I suppose it begs the question, can art be produced accidentally? That is another question that could be asked of any medium that has been used to create art.
Many years ago a friend of mine who called himself a ‘conceptual artist’ for his degree show dug a hole, lined it with aluminium foil and persuaded a model to lie in that hole for a period of time. Was that art? The answer would be yes as there was artistic intent behind its creation.

Jenny Rich's picture

I think of photography as an art, just like music or drawing. To me the biggest value of photography is that it captures moments and emotions that will never come back. Not every photo is a piece of art, of course, but the whole sphere is pretty artistic imo. There is a whole field for creativity offered by various photo editing tools but using them correctly is an art, too. Coming up with interesting ideas for photos, making a Photoshop photo montage (i.e. for movie posters or album covers), recoloring old pictures in Photoglory, making realistic manips, I think all these things require a certain amount of creativity and they all belong to photography. It's not even about money but about exploring your own ideas and inspiration.

Kenneth Tanaka's picture

Standing in the Benjamin Moore section of a hardware store I asked myself, “Is painting art?”

Not a rhetorical question at all. A great many of the most valued and admired modern and contemporary paintings were, in fact, executed with common house paints. Much less expensive and more available than art store tubes. Brushes, too.

The medium doesn’t make the art.

Biswajit Dash's picture

It's fundamentally incorrect to compare painting and photography.

One of the fundamental differences between a painting and a photograph is - the painter can imagine anything real/unreal and paint; whereas a photographer has to capture "whatever truth is actually in front of the lense"; not to mention all the composition techniques/art involved.

Once captured, to stand out like great photographers like "Ansel Adams", post-processing is a completely different art-form in itself.

A look at some of the photos from the great-and-good should be self-explanatory.

Michael L. McCray's picture

Your view and understanding of photography is fairly narrow

Biswajit Dash's picture

How exactly?
Everyone has his/her view, and view can be quite different in any form of art.

My view was purely on photography and post-processing, than photo-manipulation using photoshop, if that's what you meant by view.

Michael L. McCray's picture

There is nothing wrong with you having the view but it is a narrow interpretation, as many of the early effects in photoshop existed before photoshop. They were time-consuming but taught as part of the art form and they were done on film with a camera and with processing. Even the idea of what is in front of the lens is the truth, ah maybe in nature with wide views like Ansel Adams other times not as clear. I love the painting in 14th and 15th century they were amazing with lighting, I am hoping to follow one more habit, limit the prints.

Biswajit Dash's picture

Perhaps we both have the same view, but interpreting differently.

Yes, while in landscape it's "almost the truth" in front of lense; in a studio-like situation the "truth is created". It's true for both film and digital modes.

In this current discussion context, I have limited the points strictly to camera and what can be achieved without changing the subject by adding/removing things "after the capture".

Example: In painting Michaelangelo could capture all those celestial scenes purely from his own creative mind with limitless possibolities. A photographer can never achieve that given that the canvas/film/sensor captures "that moment" of truth/orchastreted only. Anything else has to be added/removed post-capture.

That's a significant "constraint" that photography has than painting. Painting is limitless; photography has constraints.

That's why it's not exactly right to compare photography and painting. They are both special in their own context.