The question of whether or not photography is an art is one that has occupied many people since the format has been invented – mostly, it has to be said, those people are art critics, and they came down on the side of “no” at the beginning.
It’s easy to see why. When photography was first invented, the other option was painting. Artists spend days, weeks, sometimes even years, working on a single piece of art. This has been the same throughout the years – look at how much time Michelangelo spent on the David, and how many years he worked on the Sistine Chapel. So the critics had a natural thought process which was “art takes a long time to create” coupled with “photography doesn’t take a long time to create” and came up with “photography isn’t art.”
Today, we are happy to say that they were utterly and completely wrong, and we will now try to examine why we can say that, by examining some (not all, but some) facets of what makes art, art, and then seeing if photography has these features. We’ll be taking a few rambles along the way about the purpose of art as well. So, let’s be about it.
By which we mean that art is a way of recording history. Not necessarily the actual events, but the way that the people of the time saw the events. Photography records events, and gives us an image of how people – at least the photographer – feel about it. This isn’t an absolutely firm requirement because some art forms, such as perfuming and cooking, don’t record anything in particular, unless you count the rivalry between General Jan Smuts and General Hertzog, which launched a confectionary battle that resulted in the hertzoggie and the jan smutsie in South Africa.
Nevertheless, photography fulfils this requirement and goes even further – while a blurry smartphone picture of an event or shaky camera footage may not be ‘art’ it is often the only record we have of important events, and is certainly more honest than many other formats, which need to be made after the fact.
Photographs are also a sort of external memory bank for humans. You see a picture of a great-uncle who died when you were ten, and suddenly it’s as if he’s still with you, ready with a pat on the head and a sweet. Or you will find a picture of an old friend, and remember the good times you had together, and it will be as if they are there with you, in the moment.
This is tied to the previous point. A piece of art – especially visual or written art, like paintings or plays – shows to the audience a picture of the world as seen by the artist. Photography brings this into the reach of the general public, to some extent, by allowing us to more easily capture the image we see.
Not everyone can paint a picture of a scene, but almost anyone can snap a photograph. It may not be spectacular, but it’s still a moment, captured in time. In fact, one could argue that photography is the most immediate of all the art forms, allowing us to almost instantly capture any moment.
Art breaks the rules
This does not mean what you probably think it means. A definite, if unofficial, factor of art is that it is one of the few fields where one can get far by breaking the rules, with betting. Take, as an example, Picasso. “Paint realistically” the establishment said. “Shan’t,” said Picasso, and he became great. “Don’t use primary colours,” said the establishment. “You going to try and stop me?” asked van Gogh, and he started a new movement that essentially revolutionized the definition of art.
Art changes the world
Not all art needs to change the world, but every small work changes a person’s life. Even if a photograph only makes you think about something differently for a moment, that’s still a change. For example, in another article we mentioned a photograph of the shoes and glasses collected by the Nazis in concentration camps.
Many people have said that they didn’t understand the true import of the situation until they saw that and similar pictures. As in that case, a photograph can change a mind, can make things clear. It can show a person the truth, in a way that paintings and poems just can’t – the real, visceral truth.
In a more immediate way, the advance of photography has directly changed the world, from security cameras to reporters in war zones who can now use images and photographs to bring the realities home to their audience, to young women chronicling their journey to adulthood with a million selfies.
In the end, though, nobody can really decide what art is. Is poetry art? Of course. Plays? Yeah, naturally. Novels are art, and so are short stories. Paintings are art, and so are carvings and statues and sculpture and china and perfume. Art is hard to define, and so everyone is able to assign their own definition to it, but in the end there is only one definition that matters.
Art, any art, transcends the sum of its parts. The Mona Lisa, on the face of it, is really just a picture of a lady with a weird smile. Chanel No.5 is just a smell. The Pieta is just a crying woman. Harry Potter is the story of a boy who didn’t know when to give up. Did you feel uncomfortable reading the previous sentences? If you did, it’s because you recognize that these things have become something more, have transcended what they were to become touchstones that we use to define our own culture, archetypes that will define and structure art for generations to come.
The difference between art and activity is as close as the difference between your mother’s home cooking, and the work of a cordon bleu chef. They use the same ingredients – they may even use the same recipes, but something in the chef’s cooking has happened, and the meal is more than the sum of its parts. Of course some of our mothers cooked better than any chef, and that is the difference between talent and effort – when the two combine, greatness happens.
Of course, photography has an added element of luck that other arts lack. In cooking, you may become distracted at just the wrong moment, or the power may go out, but usually, you plan the dish, and then you make the dish. Photography is more like poetry, in that a poet does not usually plan the poem, and then write it – a poet writes the poem as it comes to him. In just that way a photographer has to put himself in a situation where the perfect photo may happen – at a protest, on top of a mountain, in a rain-forest – and then be able to recognize the critical moment.
The skill to identify these golden moments when they come, and to recognize the situations where you have to be alert for them, is what turns a photographer into an artist. A photographer who is an artist will recognize the golden moment, the moment when a photo can be taken that will change the world, and then act on it.
In conclusion, photography is a science, and it is a skill, but in the end, photography is also an art, and sometimes it seems as though it is the art that will define our age in years to come. Where Rome was the Age of Sculpture, and the Renaissance was the Age of Paint, the 20th Century may become known as the Age of the Photograph – or perhaps the Age of the Selfie.
This century is the most documented, the most well-understood, in history, and it’s all because of photography. This art, which some thought was not an art at all, has changed the world. It has brought us closer to each other, closer to understanding, and perhaps even a bit closer to peace.