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?