Is Photography Art?
Updated: Apr 25, 2019
Nearly all art forms require an apparatus of some description, however photography always seems to have struggled to be taken seriously by some because of its indexical aspect and the mechanical nature of the equipment used. It’s often said that the smartphone has democratised photography; and it has, not because its any easier to create an image than with a disposable film camera, but because it’s free. Take a photo then delete, completely free. In the past to delete an image required you physically throwing prints or negs into a bin. There was material and financial cost. There are a great many folk out there who went out and bought a digital SLR when photography was made ‘easy’ by digital technology, I would suggest that a great many of these cameras are never used and the purchasers use their phones almost exclusively because the SLR requires too much effort to get a usable result, or the complexity of the camera often seems to ruin the moment. And strangely, even when the photos do ‘come out’ they're not quite as good enlarged as they looked on the back of the camera. Having spent about 10 years or so teaching Police Officers and Scenes of Crime Officers to use cameras, I can tell you from my own experience, film photography was much easier to teach on a very basic level. Film has an enormous latitude to overexposure and some tolerance of underexposure. Basically, you can make mistakes with film and still get a fine result. My trainer colleagues and I could keep it simple - ISO 400 film, f11/16, keep the camera on a tripod and adjust the shutter speed so that the little needle goes where it should. Film is cheap, time is money, shoot plenty of photographs. This is not the case with digital, precision is the order of the day. Digital technology has not made photography easier, it has made it cheaper, and that matters. As soon as the box brownie hit the market photography was available to all at a relatively modest cost per image. But there was still the price of film and processing. How many people do you know that go to the trouble of printing the thousands of images stored on their phones? It’s not expensive or difficult to do these days but there is still a minimal cost.
What makes a photograph art. That’ll be Intent.
Leaving aside typographies and prints used as objects to create art, If one of my pals takes a photo of me on my iPhone in Magaluf after consuming a plastic bucket full of woo-woo cocktail, this becomes a wonderful way for me and my friends to capture our brief moments of happiness before the mother of all hangovers sets in. In other words, this device is used to create an aide memoir of my experiences which in turn are an invaluable record of my life. Those images mean the world to me. Just as images of nephews, parents, pets and sensible holidays. These photographs are of such value that I suspect a lot of professional photographers when faced with the decision to save either their portfolio or their personal family photos in a fire, would without hesitation save the family snaps. The reasoning behind this would be simple; my snaps are my memories, my professional work I can create again. I can rebuild a portfolio because I have the education, skill, and ability to do so with relative ease. So then, it's all about intent, the photographer who is attempting to create a photograph which transcends the ordinary or vernacular image, who attempts to use a little black box containing a plethora of controls and a light-sensitive silicon wafer to make other people feel something. That’s when, in my view, photographs become more than a record. When the apparatus becomes just a small part of a creative process which enables the artist to convey their thoughts or emotions to others with their own unique visual language. So, in essence, there are photographs that people take for obvious and not long considered reasons and then there are photographs that are taken after a lengthy period of consideration, conceptualisation and sometimes collaboration.
Here’s a run through of the thought process that goes into creating these ‘considered’ images -
Why? What am I trying to say, this is without doubt the most important consideration. When do I need to be at a location? Is the time of day correct? Is the weather working for or against my internal overarching concept? Does the light at this precise moment work for my preconceived and pre-visualised idea? Where do I point the camera? From what height. From which lateral spatial position or am I standing in precisely the right place. Which focal length is required. What particular lens choice is appropriate for this shot (different lenses have different optical characteristics). What do I include in the frame what do I exclude? What is the relationship between the main contextual elements within the frame? How are the main elements composed within the frame?
What is the final output size of the image - I compose small photographs very differently to large photographs. How do I hope the viewer's eye will travel around the image. What exposure settings will I use? Am I capturing enough luminance data? How will the mechanics of the camera (ISO/speed/aperture) affect the image? What post processing techniques will be used to enhance and technically 'correct' what has appeared on the back of the camera. Then, most importantly, after all of these decisions have been made, does the image 'work' have I successfully communicated my internal monologue which consists of a general conceptual idea or purpose. How does this image relate to the other images in the series? (the rest of the series comes to the fore of my noggin when adding to it).
The internal monologue mentioned above will have been informed by a vast array of different sources - life experience, conversations, lectures, what the photographer has experienced of the environment and the people he/she has met on their travels, their own research relating specifically to what they're trying to say or achieve. It”s absolutely essential that the mind is quiet when creating an image, that you are actually present in the moment. Quite how the mind processes the all of the above in the background and then combines it with sensory information; how all of this data coalesces into a precisely chosen fraction of a second is both marvellous and utterly baffling, and is what makes photography, I believe, an art form.