Weekend Rumination – Is Photography Art?

I am sitting in a hotel room as I write this, currently teaching my fourth workshop of the summer with a wonderful group of students from across Canada and the United States.  It is late, I should go to sleep, but I really need to write.  Much like making images and playing guitar, writing is a muscle that I need to flex every now and then.  I have so many new images to share with you from Amsterdam, Paris, Vancouver and Toronto, along with so many new stories to tell, but I haven’t had time to edit and process those images yet; so, for tonight, I’d just like to ruminate briefly about a discussion that was triggered by my last blog post.  This discussion centred around the question of whether photographers are artists or craftsman.  

Before we get started, I think it is important to note that ultimately definitions like artist or craftsman are irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.  They are wholly subjective, with countless varying opinions, when what really matters is what we DO and not what we call it.  Having said that, it is an interesting question and I think that the answer depends on a lot of factors.  Perhaps we could use an analogy from my past as a starting point:

I have played guitar for 32 years and was a professional musician for 8 years.  During that time, I had the pleasure of playing with many talented people who usually fell into two categories.  The first category included people who were technical wizards on their instrument, who could play any song asked of them to perfection.  Other people’s songs, that is.  Many of the people I would consider to be in this category never wrote their own music, rarely improvised solos, didn’t jam… they simply played other people’s music (albeit exceptionally well).  There is absolutely nothing wrong with this of course (I would actually put myself into this category to a degree as performing other people’s music in a rock/blues cover band was a very good source of income for me).  The other category of people I played with, however, simply embodied music.  They lived it.  They breathed it.  They wrote it.  They created it.  They collaborated and shared their work.  Simply put, everything about them WAS musical and there was no way they could be called anything but artists.

Now, were both groups of people musicians in the truest sense of the word?

When I think of the photographic craftsman versus the photographic artist, as discussed in the above noted conversation, I think it really comes down to creative vision and intention.  Is the photographer who replicates a scene in front of them with an iPhone an artist?  Some would argue no.  Is there anything wrong with simply documenting life though?  Absolutely not, it is actually very important that we do that very thing.

I have a friend who once took a job working for a company that specialized in high volume school portraits.  At the time she knew very little about photography, but was given a detailed list of instructions that involved dialing in the same settings on the camera and strobe every time.  She was taught to arrange the “set” the same way every time too,  right down to using a pre-cut length of rope to ensure that the lights, camera, and posing stool were all the same distance apart so that the exposure was consistent.  She would spend each day posing every child the same way, clicking the shutter enough to ensure that there was no blinking, then move on to the next child.

Is this art?

I have another friend who is a rock star real estate photographer.  He times his exterior shots to capture the best ambient light.  He uses several off camera flashes to strategically light his interior shots.  His post processing is diligent and exceedingly well done.  He takes extreme pride in his work, but would be the first to admit that real estate photography is simply a pay cheque gig for him.  By his own definition he is a craftsman, and a damn fine one at that.

Maybe the question should be:  when does the craft of photography become the art of photography?

Take a portrait photographer who sees a finished image in their mind, who then goes out and casts the right model, hair stylist, makeup artist, wardrobe stylist, etc to ensure that the shoot goes off as imagined.  Take this same photographer, who then meticulously processes the images to create what he or she saw in their mind.  Is this not analogous to the painter who envisions something and then physically creates it with a brush and paint?  Is this not art?  Surely art should be defined by the creative intention behind it and not simply by the medium used to create it?  Indeed, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines art as:

“the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects“

I think the most important part is the phrase “creative imagination”.  Perhaps the photographer moves from craftsman to artist when they make the shift from simply documenting what is in front of their lens to creatively visualizing and then producing what they see in their heart and in their mind.  Today, when I was teaching, I saw an absolutely amazing looking woman walk down the street toward us.  I immediately saw the finished image in my mind, shot low with her green dress and red hair set against a black building near us.  I only had 3 or 4 seconds to shift position, adjust my camera settings, position myself low and shoot the image as she passed.   The craft of photography certainly allowed me to capture the image, but surely the art of photography is what enabled me to see it in the first place?

As stated above, this is purely a semantic discussion when you really think about it.  We need fewer definitions in art, not more, and readers of this site know that I am not one to pigeonhole or rigidly define things.  At the end of the day the only thing that should really matter is how your photography makes you feel and how it serves you.  If the camera brings you joy and satisfaction, helps you express yourself, brings you peace, puts food on your table or helps you provide for your family, that is all that really matters.  Photography is an amazing thing, regardless of how you define it or define yourself.  Whether craftsman, artist, or both, we are all so lucky that photography found us… aren’t we?

Until next time,

Ian

 

11 thoughts on “Weekend Rumination – Is Photography Art?

  1. Created by RCW says:

    Thanks for the inspiration to get back to my own blog and for the subject. Glad you’re having an amazing time in Toronto. At the risk of labeling you, you are quite the philosopher!

  2. pfaufoto says:

    Currently reading “Hockney on Photography” a book dedicated to an artist’s thoughts on the same subject. Lots of interesting observations in it. Here just one quote as a teaser

    “But it (Photography) is the end (final stage) of a way of seeing (central perspective) that began five hundred years ago (camera obscura). ”

    Art or not a single image is simply extremely limited in how it renders a subject. One view point equals one perspective, on instant freezing time where as the observer moves and explores with the eye. His thought why not use photography to capture many perspectives, make everything important close to the observer… in short use photography to create a new way of seeing. Once you go there, and he did, while I try, then the question becomes redundant.

    https://pfaufoto.blog/2018/08/18/the-eye-is-a-camera-but-the-mind-is-not/

  3. kyle says:

    “The craft of photography certainly allowed me to capture the image, but surely the art of photography is what enabled me to see it in the first place?”

    That’s the key phrase for me — I think you nailed it there!

    Like you said, the definitions might be overly restrictive in some cases, but for me I do sometimes find it helpful to break down photography into buckets like “craft” and “artistic vision”. For example, if I tell myself that I want to “improve at photography”, that’s an overly daunting task…but if I then break that goal into sub-goals (“improve at the craft of photography”, etc.) the task becomes more manageable. Not sure how relevant that is to the crux of your post, but that’s just what came to mind after finishing it. 🙂

    Great article as always!

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