On writing an opinion piece, you would think the person writing should be well qualified to pontificate on the subject at hand. Well here I am, writing on the question of whether photography qualifies as art or not, while the nearest thing I have to an art qualification is an A Level in Technical Drawing. Somebody who has spent a lifetime working in science and business, with just a relatively recent interest in photography to count to his name. Yet I think for my particular point of view, not being qualified positions me well, as one of the people, a Joe Bloggs if you’ll forgive the pun. The sort of person who may be a consumer of photographs, one of those people who the photographer aims their work at.
When looking at photographs in the large, the public do not consider photos as a form to be beyond their understanding. The same can not be said for much of the art world, where entry to grand buildings may be required to view said art, where artist statements are written in a language almost impenetrable and all in a world where significant art pieces are only owned by the very wealthy.
A photo on the other hand, is in a form which is not only of the people and for the people, but also made by the people. Photography has become hugely democratised. Even though niches exist within photography, expensive digital camera users, analogue photographers, larger formats, pinhole, abstract etc., the vast amount of photography today though is made by the people, those people simply carrying around a mobile phone, capturing people and events around them. For some reason, no doubt down to me carrying a camera around so often, my friends show me their photographs they’ve captured on their phones, and ask what do you think ? It’s perhaps not surprising that 99 times out of a 100 those mobile photos are genuinely nice photographs, capturing exactly what they saw in effective ways.
Such democratisation of photography also means that photos are not rare, Google any popular place you can think of, and there will be a thousand views ready to be looked at. That lack of rarity also means that a photo usually has no monetary value. In addition a single photo can be reproduced many times either in print or electronically further hurting the potential for a photo to hold any monetary value. Of course certain news worthy or historic photos may skip this principle, but for the most part a photo holds no more monetary value than the materials and labour that went into producing it, this also includes professional photographers who are really charging for their time and skill, more so than for an individual photo in its physical form.
A photo just isn’t property in the same way as traditional art, I might be tempted to go down the route of NFT’s here, but I think as far as photos are concerned NFT’s will bite the dust as they are exposed for the Ponzi scheme that they are. Traditional art though, like paintings and sculptures, they eventually become property, and as a result they have monetary value.
I like the fact that my photos will never have any monetary value, no matter how good a photo I might take in the future. The fact that I will never make money from my photographs per se is freeing, it leaves me free to pursue whatever photographic route I like without ever worrying about a photos popularity or value.
This lack of value indicates to me that photography is not art, its a bit like the Emperors New clothes, if I photograph something and hold it up as a piece of art, somebody else can come along and do exactly the same thing, negating the unique quality of the photo. Photography does not require composing something from scratch, it does not produce a unique physical form that would be very difficult to reproduce. For a photo the only composition is where and when the viewfinder is pointed. Yes an event might rarely occur again, but something similar will eventually happen. Art is singular, unique and rare, something that can’t be said for a photo.
A photograph’s worth comes down to what the photographer puts into it and personally gets from the photographic result. A photographer simply records an object, a person or an event, they record it because they simply think it’s worth seeing again. This is particularly true of analogue photography, where each press of the shutter button has a negative financial implication for the photographer. Granted some digital photographs may be taken even if the view is not worth recording, because the process has zero cost implication.
Those views worth recording though, they may contain aspects of love, passion, affection, hate, dis-like, fear, the whole gamut of feelings and messages can be found in a photograph, and that’s what makes them worthwhile, but art, or fine art, they are not.
Above you will see a photo of my son walking though an art installation. An event that was simply captured. It was taken just before he made the final decision to join the Army. Neither of us are celebrities or anything like that, so the image has no monetary value. You will note he is wearing military style clothing, he is walking away from me and into a field of red. Now given that I was aware of his coming decision you might get it that this photo has great personal meaning to myself.
While the specific personal meanings of the above photo may not apply to another person viewing the photo, hidden messages from beneath the surface of the photo may still be realised by viewers of the photo. I wont suggest any particular feeling this photo might transmit, but I will leave it up to you to see what you pick up on yourself.
Still all that was done was an event was captured thanks to the properties of light. No composition was created, it was there, it was real, it was just recorded. Yes it is possible to create a photo that is more than the sum of its simple elements captured, yet still nothing was composed outside of pointing the viewfinder. Photography requires no arrangement of people or articles in paint or stone to occur. It may move you, but it’s not art, it’s reality and I love it.
© Copyright owner Steve Starr. First publication 7th January 2022
Ref: Thanks to John Berger’s Understanding a Photograph for the prompts to put down my own thoughts.