Is photography art?
The question is as old as photography itself. It all started as a Victorian argument between photography pioneers and art-establishment traditionalists. Eventually, the traditionalists lost.
Over the past century, photographs have become increasingly significant in the world’s major art institutions, such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art and London’s Tate. And despite their inherent lack of uniqueness, works by modern and contemporary photographers such as Edward Weston and Cindy Sherman are regularly auctioned at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, occasionally for millions of pounds. Photography is even an important aspect of the practice of many major artists not usually thought of as photographers, such as David Hockney and Tracey Emin.
It seems odd, then, that many people argue that photographs cannot be art. Why do they still cling to this view?
Perhaps it is because photographs are taken by an apparatus directly ‘from life’, the image made not by an artist, but by the light of the world. This leads many to see photographs as straightforward mechanical reproductions of people and things.
But often, photographs are by no means artless, unmediated records of the world, and have instead been subjected to a vast range of artistic meddling: scenic, technical, presentational, contextual, editorial, and so on. Sometimes we can see this artistic interference at first glance, as with Matthew Murray’s photograph above. But often the hand of the artist is not obvious, especially with more straightforward-looking pictures such as Ian Macdonald's beautifully shot, hand-printed silver gelatin photograph above. And if you can’t - or won’t - see the art in the work, it’s easy to presume that no art is involved.
But that would be wrong. Photographs are both a direct record created from the world AND an interpretation created by the photographer’s choices, whether conscious or unconscious. In other words, photographs are both document and art. This documentary aspect means a photograph can, in a sense, never be entirely art. But ‘part art’ does not equal ‘not art’. Yet many – art critics even – still look at photographs and see all document and no art.
This duality of art and document – the ‘rendered’ and the ‘real’ - is actually a great strength of photography. It helps explain why photographs can fascinate more than, say, sculpture or painting. It also helps explain how photographs can unexpectedly seem different from the world as we saw it. ‘The photograph isn’t what was photographed, it’s something else. It’s about transformation,’ said the American photographer Garry Winogrand, who took photographs of a thing ‘to see what that thing looks like photographed.’
Another reason photographs fascinate us is their dogged superficiality, which can create great mystery: photographs might pretend to tell us much, but in reality they are all inscrutable surface, all show and no tell, like Phoebe Kiely's photograph below. Moving pictures, especially with sound, contain much more contextual information, so they just don’t have this enigmatic quality. ‘A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know,’ said the photographer Diane Arbus, a contemporary of Winogrand.
Purely artistic media just do not have these complexities. Even in a photorealist painting, the marks are made by the hand of the artist alone, in no way drawn by ‘the pencil of nature’: it is all art and no document.
And while they can still be potent and have much to say, painting and sculpture today are - comparatively speaking - marginal, arcane activities, practised and consumed by hardly anyone. By contrast, how many people look at photographs every day? Probably billions. How many people practise photography? Easily more than a billion (many, many more than shoot video). If only the tiniest proportion of these people are among the most interesting artists of the present and of the future, then photography is set to be by far the most significant and exciting visual art medium in history.
Photography’s art/ document duality, its unpredictable and inscrutable character, and humankind’s ever-increasing mass engagement with it leave other visual media such as painting, sculpture, and video light years behind. Since photography is less than two centuries old, and its popularity is only just exploding, we may only be beginning to explore its artistic possibilities.
Photography isn’t just valid as a visual art. It's the most important one.