Craftsman or Artist: What Are Photographers?

Craftsman or Artist: What Are Photographers?

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:

  1.  a worker who practices a trade or handicraft
  2. one who creates or performs with skill or dexterity especially in the manual arts.

Here is the definition of artist, according to the same:

  1. one who professes and practices an imaginative art
    1.  a person skilled in one of the fine arts
  2.  a skilled performer; especially : artiste
  3.  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?

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Anonymous's picture

Thank you very much! I am so sick of people answering it either yes or no. Not everyone who paints is an artist and not every photographer is, either. Recently, someone asked me when someone who takes pictures becomes a photographer and my answer looked a lot like "artist," so maybe that question needs to be explored too. In the end, if the answer, for any given individual, isn't obvious, then it's "no!"

Carlos Garcia's picture

If I take a picture of a house or car for sale, then I can consider myself a craftsman. If I take a picture of a person deep in expression as they look out onto the great beyond, then I consider myself an artist.

Nicole York's picture

For you then, subject matter is the defining characteristic?

Mike Gillin's picture

I would think that it really depends on what the end result you are trying to achieve, and then a single person may blur the lines depending on what they are doing.

If I am shooting to create a unique, special photo, or series of photo then I may be doing it as art. If I am shooting something to catalog it, then its more of a craft. And if I am taking a picture with no thought, but because I can, then well I'm just a guy with a camera.

I draw the comparison to painting. There are many things you can do with paint, but it depends on your skill, and intent.

Mark Davidson's picture

When I was in art school I annoyed a number of my colleagues by observing that an artist solves a problem of expression through creative means.

It still works for me.

Very frequently I work with ADs who tell me "Here is the concept, the talent, the location and what we want to see." My job is to creatively get to the result they had in their minds. If I can improve the result or provide some options they had not considered, so much the better.

Other times I arrive a the set and a group blinks at me and says "You're the artist, think up something."

In every case I solved the problem even if, at times, some of the work seemed to be (to the outside observer) structured button pushing.
Thus I never agonize over the seemingly lower status position of craftsman vs. artist.

Dave Hachey's picture

If a mathematician "solves a problem of expression through creative means", is she an artist? Art comes in many forms. Is a dancer an artist, or a gifted performer? Perhaps the choreographer is the real artist. Is a sculptor an artist, or a skilled craftsman? I'm not sure where that leaves poets and authors. The unsatisfying answer is that they are all artists, and in the end analysis "Art" is how you choose to define it. My definition is more expansive than most and for me "Art is the result of the creative endeavor of mankind."

Nicole York's picture

Perhaps an artist as far as the third definition, which has to do with ones facility in a skill.
As an author myself, my experience is that there are writers who are craftsman, and those who are artists. I've read work that was grammatically perfect, with clean, communicative prose, that lacked life.
I always have misgivings when we label any word as "how you chose to define it" because we cease to be able to communicate at that point. There must be something that joins the word in all of our minds for this conversation to be possible. I haven't figured out where that is, though ;)

Dave Hachey's picture

1mass noun The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

The OED has other definitions too, so even the finest arbiter of language can't offer much in the way of a definitive answer.

We have been debating this matter for hundreds of years, at least since the Renaissance, so I suppose if you apply skill and imagination to any human endeavor it can be deemed art.

Anonymous's picture

I understand your points but by your definition, everyone can be an artist and everything can be art. Therefore, "art" and "artist" don't mean anything. That can't be right.

Mark Davidson's picture

Everyone can be an artist and everything can be art but that doesn't mean it IS art.
It is the creative effort and intent to move the solution beyond the obvious.

Just as a camera may be engineered to be functional, the artistic engineer adds a small detail that renders the experience of holding the camera an AHA! moment.

Zune vs. iPod.

Mark Davidson's picture

A mathematician, or anyone else for that matter, can solve a problem artistically.
Note how many solutions to classic math problems are called "elegant" or "inspired".
I have seen plumbers work as artists in solving repair problems that stumped the less creative and engaged practitioners.

So yeah, they are artists.

The people who are sweating over "what is Art?" are those who are taking a trade union approach to exclude some people in order to add exclusivity to their efforts.

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

Both - when I produce a set of a hundred photos for a catalogue, that's mostly craftsmanship - when I do portraits, it's mostly art - travel etc is a mixture, flicking in both directions - etc etc. Anyway, what on earth does it matter? - who cares? - are we supposed to be so insecure that we can't press that button and create yet another image, without resolving this one first? I don't think so. Besides, I don't feel any sort of urge to be "classified" - I am just me, and have no interest in whether or not that's acceptable.

T Dillon's picture

I have yet to see the work of a master craftsman, regardless of discipline, that was not also a work of art.

Nicole York's picture

I don't know, I've seen incredibly well crafted cabinets by a master wood worker, and while they were beautifully made, I wouldn't necessarily call them a work of art, as much as I appreciate the beauty of the work.

Anonymous's picture

Any master craftsman can duplicate a work of art but not all can create one.

Mark Rikard's picture

I recently heard a woodworker explain the difference between artist and craftsman this way, "A craftsman creates for others. An artists creates for himself."

Nicole York's picture

Fair distinction!

Robert Nurse's picture

It seems, then, that the definition of art or craft falls right back on the viewer. Can architecture be considered art or craft? It depends on who's looking at it.

Nicole York's picture

The unfortunate thing about leaving definitions up to people themselves, is that it's really hard to communicate. If we are using the same words but using different definitions, we can never have any meaningful interactions, which is why I thought it would be helpful to include the definitions as well as the understanding of general common usage. What's most important is how each photographer views their own work, I think.

David Moore's picture

I'm good with just "photographer".

William Twitty's picture

I really enjoyed reading this article and the comments. I couldn't agree more with why it shouldn't be a "yes or no" question. I believe the title of craftsman, artist, explorer, and possibly many other terms are interchangeable with photography. It all depends on who is behind the camera and what they want.

Nicole York's picture

I agree that intention is 9/10's of the definition ;)

Joshua White's picture

I think of myself as an artist, and I agree wholeheartedly with the ideas in this article. I am an artist because I want to say something, to start a conversation with a viewer. Photography is generally the medium I choose to do that, but sometimes it involves sculpture, or mixed media, found imagery, etc. I love telling students or an audience that photography is not art, then letting them be mad at me for a little while finally to circle back to the idea that I don't think painting or sculpture or ceramics or any other medium is art either. These are all tools with which a person can make art. Art is part of an interaction that takes place between the piece, the viewer, and the artist. My intentions, the viewers experiences, memories, and tastes, and the thing I have created. That is where art lives for me.

I am also a woodworker, and I make little boxes and turned vessels and other wooden objects. I also use wood in some of my artwork, but for me there is a distinction between the two. Many of the bowls and boxes are beautiful little objects, but to me are not art. Some of my work involves little wooden machines or containers, and they become part of a piece. But still, the art for me is the interaction, not just the object.

Great article, thank you!

Dave Hachey's picture

IMHO, the medium is not important, it's the application of skill and imagination to produce an object worthy of admiration.