Upon the question “is photography art?” I have to say that no, it isn’t. It is a discipline that can be mastered by passionate people in order to produce art, but it is not art by itself. Paraphrasing Mr. Harold Feinstein’s fine words on the very same topic, we can have a beautifully crafted paintbrush and make some hideous stuff with it. Also someone painting a house can do an excellent job with a rough brush due to the applied technique.
Another example that I like to give to my students is that anyone can use a pen, but a very few will write compelling novels or poems with them. And my favorite example, anyone can learn to use a camera just as anyone can learn how to drive, the meaningful thing is what we do with our camera.
Photography has been suffering this dichotomy of being or not art isn’t something new. Since its early beginnings, photography has been down-seen by the traditional arts, even Walter Benjamin tagged it as “aura-less”.
A Very, Very Personal Opinion on Art
I want to pull out two terms from ancient Greek philosophy, one is poiesis (ποίησις) and the other one is techne (τέχνη). This isn’t a master class in philosophy so don’t worry, the first one (poiesis) refers to the act of creating something from the inside, being the “inside” our feelings and emotions. The second one (techne), refers to the technique used to materialize those emotions pulled deeply from ourselves. For me, that is art. But, it is still society’s role to define or tag something as art. I tend to be very skeptical when people call themselves’ artists out of the blue. I only agree with people calling themselves as “artists” when they can justify their plastic and creative decisions via a solid statement and a consistent style.
Photography Can be Used to Produce Among Many Things, Art
Said that, we can conclude that photography can be used to produce art as long as the images come from the very inside. If not, it is just picture making, which is not wrong at all, of course; but it is important to make a good distinction.
Photography is a beautiful state of humanity, and it has been a good companion since it appeared. It took portraits to the masses. Photography has been delivering information at immediate speed rates since quite a while. And of course, it has produced a lot of art, but as it has evolved, the same art medium has become more and more strict and demanding.
On the Art of Photography
I won’t address the obscure conspiracies around the art market, but how the art of photography has evolved during the last century. It all started with portraits and landscape, two niches that where very well covered by painting since a long time ago. After photography appeared, more people got access to images and painting had to reinvent itself into more creative stuff that photography simply can’t reach by itself. Nowadays we have digital retouching, which takes photographic inputs in order to make art.
Back in time, after the huge boom of straight photography, cameras became more portable, and film capabilities allowed faster shutter speeds. This opened a new world of possibilities, and street photography became a thing. After long decades, it finally reached a state in which it was considered art. We owe a lot to John Szarkowski for this. But nowadays, street photography is no longer capable of delivering something new that could even merely contribute to the world of art.
About Contemporary Photography
In the near-end decades of the twentieth century, a new historic category was achieved by photography. This is contemporary photography, and there are three huge names that we can refer to here: Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall and of course Andreas Gursky.
- Cindy Sherman: She pulls out the 50’s and 60’s film noir female stereotypes and reenacts them as self-portraits, but in a meticulous cinematic way.
- Jeff Wall: His compositions can seem as candid or journalistic, but they are all acted, very well acted indeed. Sometimes he addresses social and political topics, and sometimes he tributes past painters like Manet or Hokusai.
- Andreas Gursky: The highest valued photographer and a highly praised son of the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. He focuses in banality and the no-places via heavy digital retouching.
There are of course a huge amount of photographers that fit within this “contemporary” category, but what distinct these fellows as real artists is that they do work around concepts. They make statements, they research, they develop a style, and they eventually evolve as artists. Photography for them is just the tool, the materials, the techne, but art is what they ultimately produce, no matter their gear. Read some of these artists’ statements to understand the power of being able to justify creative decisions nowadays in the art world.
About Photography in the Digital Age
Or “liquid photography” or “post photography” in the words of Joan Fontcuberta. These fancy-sounding terms refer to the current state of photography, a state in which images are not solid anymore and they reside everywhere. Since I started teaching at University level, I saw myself in need of coping with digital platforms like Instagram or Pinterest. After a long reluctance, I eventually created a profile on the last one. There you can find some of the main artists from the digital age of photography, and even though statements are still very important, digital disciplines have aided art a lot in the last couple of decades.
So, You Want to Make Art with Photography?
If you want to produce art via photography, you need to study and read a lot; if not, you won’t produce meaningful stuff. This won’t be easy for you, but it will eventually be totally worth it. Remember to always jot down your ideas, write a statement, read the news, detach from social media, get out there and see society melting, every decision in your life has the potential of revving you up in order to create meaningful art.