Photography Isn’t Art. Or is it?

Photography Isn't Art. Or is it-
Image by Štěpán Karásek

The Old Debate…

It's an age-old question, one of the first any student of photography attending an art school will tackle, can photography be considered art? Some will say “photography isn't art” and others will defend this until they're blue in the face! So, where does it sit in terms of the art world?

Firstly, you have to look at the history of photography, where it all began: the first documented photograph is View From the Window at Le Gras taken by Nicéphore Niépce in 1826/27; though this may not technically be the first, it is the oldest surviving photograph.

So what does this say in terms of art, well firstly it was a real hit for realists, those attempting to put on canvas literally what they saw, as it was in front of them. Of course, with the invention of photography the need to document with paint became laborious, a task which took hours, days, maybe even weeks now only took minutes (the earlier forms of photography of course taking far longer than that of a modern DSLR.).

So Where Did This Leave Painters & Artists?

Well, if one looks at art history post-1826 one will find a shift in artistic behaviour, abstraction of the real came into fruition, starting with Romanticists such as John Constable and William Turner, who’s art work was a look at the world through their eyes, as opposed to the supposedly unbiased realists.

Meaning that the usage of art as documentation after the invention of photography paved way for an abstract shift, art works were visions of the world, perspectives of the zeitgeist, instead of realist snapshots of events, people and happenings.

This takes us to photography’s place within Art, where did it sit amongst the centuries of history built up by artists and sculptors, dating back to the origins of humanity.

Photography, however, holds has an extremely useful tool which no other medium before it held, the ability to instantly capture the moment, the scene within your vision instantaneously acquired, or as the late humanist photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson put is so exquisitely:

“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event. “

Image by George
Image by George

And this specifically, is where photography will always trump ‘older’ artistic methods such as painting or sculpting, a painter may spend a few days in front of a lake, attempting to remember where the duck was, how the water fell from its feather.

A sculptor would need a model to stand for hours if not days in the exact same pose. Whereas the photographer, holding only a mere camera, can capture the image in an instant as they saw it, without disturbance or fatigue.

Image by Martin Winkler

To ensure your photography is a reflection of your inner artist, you'll have to grasp the essential concept of “Composition“. This Course from our friends at Photzy will be sure to get your skills polished up!

Photography Is Art

To say photography is not art is to ignore history, to ignore a large part of Warhol’s work, or feign ignorance to Ed Ruscha’s photography books. Paintings allow the artists a vast amount of freedom of expression, one can analyze the brush strokes in a Van Gogh, or admire the delicacy of Richter’s Betty.

However one can also admire the moment a photographer has acquired, the stillness of the image, a fragment of history given space to breathe in all its accuracy.

Photography is not free from composition, lighting, colour, balance etc. and thus takes skill. One can very quickly tell the master from the amateur, as with painting.

Image by FreakShowAT
Image by FreakShowAT

Photography Isn't Art

An argument against photography being art, however, would be likes of wedding photography, or snapshots of friends etc. This is not unique only to photography, doodles are not considered art, neither are finger paintings, there are works inside every medium that will never enter into the realms of what is considered ‘art’, and of course what is often considered art is entirely subjective to the viewer.

Wedding photography, of course, gets a lot of flak. However, those whose wedding it was, I imagine the photographs will hang on their walls as proud as a painting.

One of the modern difficulties in classifying photography as art, especially in the 21st century is its accessibility. With the invention of disposable cameras, camera phones, cheap DSLR’s and a general lust for image stimulation at all times, there has been a certain saturation in terms of imagery, this only hurts the claim that photography is art.

However, one has to remember that once again this is not just unique to photography, good, original design is a rarity theses days, with every other person designing logos or owning a startup, cafes are full of watercolours of lakes, rivers and beach scenes.

Youtube is rife with shaky camera videos of people chatting about their day, we don’t question whether these are art as their intention is otherwise.

With every medium comes the Sunday, the Sunday Painter or Photographer, those who undertake the art without the worry of whether or not their work will be considered art, their aims are only for pure enjoyment of something they are passionate about, and thus should be left alone to enjoy their hobbies.


So, the question “Is Photography Really Art?” is a bit of no-brainer. Of course photography is art, its application has the same restraints, worries and difficulties of any other medium.

The ability to create an original and interesting painting is just as unique as the ability to compose and take an interesting meaningful photograph, the illusion that photography isn’t art stems from the idea that because it’s “so easy” to take a photograph then of course is cannot be art, this is not true.

I’ve seen hundreds of bad paintings and hundreds of bad photographs, it takes someone with dedication, skill and a personal perspective of what it is they want to achieve to take an artistic photograph.

For those of you who worry that your photographic work may not be art, fear not, if you apply yourself to the craft, work at your weaknesses and allow your perspective to run true through the camera, then your work shall always be yours, and if you intend for it to be art, then it is.

To ensure your photography is a reflection of your inner artist, you'll have to grasp the essential concept of “Composition“. This Course from our friends at Photzy will be sure to get your skills polished up!

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Of course you forget that you don’t create anything with photography. A photographer may have artistic intentions, skills, sensitivity. He maybe an artist in his soul, but he copied reality. A painter, or sculptor or musician on the other hand, “create” the art product. Can something that hasn’t been created be called art? Don’t think so.

Frankly the answer is clear as day. Neither “painting” or “photography” are art, they are means of creating art. Art is all about the composition, everything else is just technical execution. A photograph can be art (the photographer creates the composition before taking the shot) just as the act of painting alone is not art as there are many practical applications.

What about mug shots, photo ID such as drivers license and passport pics…are these also art? Many people say it is up to the viewer as to whether something is ‘considered’ art or not however I believe in the 21st century it is up to the producer to decide – and that any artisitc quality (good or bad) lies in the ‘intention’. Even passport photos need a skilled photographer, they need to be centred a particular way, facial features need to be symmetrical, however the ‘intention’ is to reproduce an accurate image – not for art – but to satisfy imperical requirements of the state. Feedback welcome!!

Really summarized carefully and beautifully. And yes I do feel its an art because the we spend lot of time in composing, framing, angle, subject, background, foreground, lighting and much more…. its not about just one thing.

Each thing needs to come good for a beautiful photograph which speaks itself.

Thanks for sharing such topic

I realize it is the consensus of modern day art appraisers/art curators/art historians that Photography may be considered as “Art”, but in the bottom line of a purist view of what is “Art”, a “photograph” is NOT art, it is “Photography”.

As example; Ballet can be considered “creative” or “artful” or “artistic”, but in the purest sense it is not not really an art form, it is “Dancing”.

Yes, a modern day photographer utilizes tools and implements not unlike a painters paints, brushes and canvas or a sculptors clay and tools, or a potters clay and Kiln, but again in the purest view, the end result is that a “photograph” itself is not created with a persons “hands” (mouth or feet etc.) it is created by the use of an external device. Therefore a photograph should be called “Photography” not ART in the purest sense of the word!

Great article! Photography is an art if that is the photographer’s intention. Not only can photography capture a fraction of a moment, it can capture an experience.

The brain is the greatest camera out there. It can open up the eye to notice dark details yet close it down to appreciate the intense, detailed highlights of a scene. The brain has minutes to do this while a photographer has a split second to capture it. It is an art. 🤙

Thank you James for this article which has stated very well the reasons and reasoning that is at work in this topic for me. I live in Kagel Canyon CA where an art exhibit which includes historic old photos and modern photographs taken by the artist was on display. The exhibit was assembled and put on display in 1998 by the artist who is a past resident and was a child growing up here. Recently the exhibit was taken down by the artist and some friends, myself included, and put into storage so the park building could be painted. The artist is not happy with the fact that the exhibit is in bad repair and can not be adequately protected or preserved by the community. As a result the artist does not want the exhibit put back into public view without assurances. The community members are outraged and some of the reasons for their outrage include the perception that these are just a collection of photos (not art). Next Thursday at 7:00 p.m., 7-11-19 at Dexter Park, 11053 North Trail, Sylmar CA 91342, LA County, the artist will be meeting with the community to discuss the future of the exhibit and wether or not the artists can relinquish ownership of the exhibit to the community or to another entity like The LA County Arts Commission. With your permission I would like to use parts of your article to make a case for why this exhibit is art and why it must be viewed as art going forward. If you are in the LA area next week please join us and help us preserve this magnificent exhibit for future generations to enjoy and value.

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