Is Photography Art?


Photography isn't art. 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, simply due to the applied technique.

Photo by Debby Hudson

Another example that I like to give to my students is that anyone can use a pen, but 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 being art – for years, isn't something new. Since its early beginnings, photography has been looked down on 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 sceptical 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

Photo by Martino Pietropoli

That being said, 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 distinction to answer the questions being posed- Is Photography Art?.

Photography is a beautiful state of humanity, and it has been a companion for capturing humanity since it appeared.

It took portraits to the masses. Photography has been delivering information with immediacy for 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

Photo by Deanna J

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 were very well covered by painting. After photography appeared, more people got access to images and painting had to reinvent itself into more a creative artefact that photography simply can't reach by itself. Nowadays we have digital retouching, which takes photographic inputs in order to make art.

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 genre.  After 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

Photo by Federica Campanaro

In the near-end decades of the twentieth century, a new historic category was achieved through 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 on 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 distinguishes 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?

Photo by Diana Parkhouse

If you want to produce art via photography, you need to study and read a lot; if not, you won't produce meaningful images. 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.

Do you agree? Give us your thoughts about whether photography is art in the comments below

Further Resources:

About Author

Federico has a decade of experience in documentary photography, and is a University Professor in photography and research methodology. He's a scientist studying the social uses of photography in contemporary culture who writes about photography and develops documentary projects. Other activities Federico is involved in photography are curation, critique, education, mentoring, outreach and reviews. Get to know him better here.

I like the idea “from the inside”.
As a former student at The Evergreen State College, I recall the day my classmates and I dug deep on this question “what is art”. In the end, for us, it boiled down to the pursuit of truth. We thought art and science were both pursuits of truth. Both involved intuition. But science was empirical and art emotional. I would argue photography is irrelevant. Art is responding to the experience of being alive and making it manifest. If you doubt photography is art, then you haven’t looked through the catalogues of Henri-Cartier Breslin, Ansel Adams, Sebastiao Salgado, Vivian Meyer, Joel Meyerowitz, Irving Penn, Ralph Gibson…..

Photography is the process in making the art, the camera, lens etc are the tools used. It’s more about good art and bad art and that has always been highly subjective. Photographic art can either come from inside us, our life long experiences, or be inspired from what we see around us. I think the main thing is nobody owns what it is to be an artist or what constitutes art. We all debate, argue and are inspired by art and long may that continue.

Art exists only in the eye of the beholder. Consequently Art is nothing or everything… depending on your point of view….

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