Are photographers artists? This question causes endless debate and, up until now, my answer has always been yes. I've begun re-thinking that answer though, and now my answer is a bit different and, unfortunately, more vague, but I think it may be closer to the truth than my self-aggrandizing, knee-jerk reaction. Now, I believe that photographers are craftsman and, sometimes, artists.
Words always have the danger of becoming useless through common usage that falls away from the words original meaning. This has happened to the word art and, therefore, artist, because we've begun describing anything anyone creates as art, and defending it with the well meaning justification that, "art is subjective."
Unfortunately, this definition is useless to us in this circumstance because it halts all meaningful conversation. I'm going to assume, for the sake of this article, that "art is subjective" actually means, "taste is subjective," which makes much more sense and doesn't muddy the water. One may not enjoy the work of Picasso, but hardly anyone will argue that it is not art. To that end, let us introduce the definition of both words, and go from there.
According to the Mirriam-Webster English Dictionary, the definition of craftsman is:
- a worker who practices a trade or handicraft
- one who creates or performs with skill or dexterity especially in the manual arts.
Here is the definition of artist, according to the same:
one who professes and practices an imaginative art
- a person skilled in one of the fine arts
- a skilled performer; especially : artiste
- one who is adept at something
Traditionally, a craftsman was someone who created useful objects by hand, such as furniture or clothing. These were created at the behest of a client, and the craftsman made their living through their trade. To be a master craftsman meant that one had absolute understanding and control of the material and tools used in their trade, and created high quality objects.
An artist was someone who created something not meant to be useful in and of itself, but meant solely to elicit emotion, provoke thought, entertain, or represent a story. Sculpture, painting, and the visual arts all fell into this category.
During these debates about photography and art, I found that many photographers consider themselves artists and since I was in the same camp, I didn't take the time to question it. Recently, though, I read an interview with Sarah Oliphant, one of the founders of Oliphant Studios, who creates the custom backdrops you see often in the portrait work of Annie Liebovtiz, which made me wonder if we don't apply the word artist too liberally. The interviewer, of Jonsar Studios, asked Sarah if she saw herself as an artist. Sarah answered,
I see myself as a master craftsperson.
Her justification for this view was that, for her, the creation of the backdrops was about the object itself, and not about her ego. She was collaborating to create something that would be useful to someone else, who would use it artistically.
This is an interesting take, and something that may strike at the heart of the question. A craftsman creates an object for the sake of the object itself, and of it's usefulness to someone else. An artist creates for the sake of self-expression, of connection, to tell a story. What an artist creates has less to do with the object that has been created and more to do with the soul that created it, and the emotion it elicits.
Since this line of thought made me dig up and ponder the much-argued question, are photographers artists, my personal answer to this question has become: sometimes.
Often, when I am taking a portrait or shooting an advertisement, I am working very much like a craftsman. I have a product requested by a client, I have skills in my medium and I put those to work to achieve a desired result using the tools of my trade, whether it’s to capture a likeness or to sell a product. I craft an image with a given set of skills and tools. Photographers who run photography businesses are, almost always, craftsman working in a trade first and foremost, because the quantity of images they have to produce forces them to work by rote to produce a desired result.
Other times, I work much more like an artist. There is a story that needs to be told, one my soul is crying for, and I break rules when I need to, bend them to my will, and do whatever I can to bring the vision in my head to life. I pre-visualize, build a story, and mold my image to say something particular. These are the images that communicate on a much deeper level than simply a well-crafted photograph. The process of artistic creation is much more laborious, often much more painful, than that of a craftsman. I believe that this is the reason the art of photographers like Kirsty Mitchell, is able to touch hundreds of thousands of people. Some few photographers make this endeavor the source of their livelihood, and others do it only sporadically; some creating art intentionally, and some by blind chance.
So, perhaps to me, a craftsman has something to create, and an artist has something to say. Those things aren’t always mutually exclusive, and I believe craft is an inherent part of successful art, but voice isn’t a necessary part of craftsmanship.
When the two marry, that is where magic happens. I do think it’s important to point out, however, that there is no pecking order. Art and craft are related, but different, and neither is more valuable than the other on some objective scale. I’m sure you’ve heard it said that someone, “has the soul of an artist.” Often, this means that the person feels deeply, thinks creatively, but that they don’t necessarily have the skill set to give form to their voice. Many artists, in the beginning, have a lot to say but not much in the way of vocabulary. Their beginning efforts may be rough, but are often unique to them. So, to create successful art, craftsmanship comes first. But one can be a craftsman and create lovely images without ever brining their voice to life in the unique way of artists, who have something to express.
How you see yourself is of much greater importance than the opinions of others on what does and does not constitute art or makes someone an artist, but I find this distinction personally useful, because it gives me greater insight, both when I am crafting something and when I am expressing something, and because I now have a deeper understanding of how I work, I can be more deliberate and have greater control of the end result. I'm hoping this question will do the same for you.
So, where do you fall? Are you a craftsman, or an artist, or sometimes both?