This may well be the most controversial post that I will write for a long time but hear me out.
It amazes me that we collectively continue to question the validity of photography as an art form even though we don’t even have a universally agreed definition of Art itself. What hope do we have for resolving this debate when we can’t agree on what art is, to begin with?
With so many definitions of art around, I’ve stuck to one that resonates with me the most. It is the one I shared in a previous post.
For art to be art, it must have something of the artist in it.
It is perhaps the most common and perhaps also the most unfortunate myths about photography – that it is not art. As you may have guessed, I couldn’t disagree more.
Photography is no less of an art than writing or painting is. Tools are different but the processes are the same. A photograph has just as much of the photographer than a painting has of the painter.
Following are some arguments that seem to have propagated against photography as an artistic medium. I am writing them not so much to convince the detractors of photography – but to other photographers who at best are sitting on the fence of this debate or at worse are questioning and doubting the value of their own work.
Argument 1: Photography is too literal.
Those who present this argument perhaps do not understand the power the photographer has while composing the image or while processing the image. Out of the following sample images, consider which images is “literal”?
Image 1: How I remember the scene looking like to my eyes.
Image 2: But this is is what came out of the camera.
Image 3: Post-processing it in this manner achieves the cold, dark feeling.
Image 4: Processing the same image differently achieves a completely different result and resulting feelings.
Four different photographers would walk away with a different photograph of the same scene – and when you consider that all those photographers will also post-process the resulting shots in their own way, you end up completely different looking images. Just like if you stood 4 painters at the same scene or asked 4 poets to compose poetry inspired by the same scene.
It is impossible to regenerate a scene literally in a photo as you see in reality and all the decisions that a photographer makes in composition and post production takes the photograph towards or away from being literal. Who is to decide which shutter speed is most literal for any given scene? Or which aperture size is most literal?
Besides if being too literal ruled anyone from being an artist, has anyone yet delivered the news to the realism painters like Gustave Courbet whose sole purpose was to paint as literally as possible taking all romanticism out of it?
Argument 2: It’s all about the camera, not the photographer.
This argument is like saying that the writing is about the computer and the word processing software and not the writer.
Is the same argument made against the poet who composes poetry on is iPhone? Or even the painter who “paints” digitally on his iPad?
Then why the double standard with the photographer? I’d even go as far to say that there are is another art within photography itself – the art of post-production and editing.
Argument 3: It’s quicker to make a photograph than to make a painting.
True. But if sculpture takes more time than a painting, does that disqualify painting as an art form?
Argument 4: It’s easier to make a photograph than to make a painting.
I suggest that it is harder to make a good photographer than it is to make a good painting. Simply because the constraints placed on the photographer in the real world far exceed the constraints on the painter whose only constraint is the limit of his or her imagination.
Also, the level of effort is not in any of the definitions of art that I know of so why judge the validity by the level of effort?
Argument 4: It doesn’t have same commercial value because of ease of reproduction.
Perhaps. After all, there is only one Mona Lisa. But when did we start judging the worthiness of something as art purely on it’s commercial value?
Again, it is worth mentioning here that I did not write this to convince the detractors – I personally do not care for them. What I do hope is that I did manage to convince a photographer to take his or her craft seriously without downplaying it’s worthiness as an art or being apologetic. I hope the photographer realizes the immense power of this medium. Maybe it’s imposter syndrome or maybe it’s false modesty but it’s time to give it up.