The ongoing debate… Could a PHOTOGRAPHY be art?
The dictionary definition: Art is “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”.
A very superficial application of this definition could make a case that a photograph could be art, as it is made through the application of human creative skill and imagination to be appreciated for its beauty and emotional power.
Historically the debate went a little deeper when some scholars argued that a photograph is produced by the application of a scientific technique rather than by genuinely creative camera work or by applying a learned technical skill or craft as opposed to human imagination. The purist argue that art is birthed from the artists imagination. Something which never existed before is expressed and brought into existence by the artist imagination and put onto a blank canvas – an additive process to express the artists imagination and creativity. It is held that something like a painting or drawing, however accurate is essentially a rendering of whatever the artist chooses to see. The argument continues to say a photographer merely records through a mechanical device something that is already in existence, although the photographer could detract bits of the reality by making adjustments to his framing of an image or timing the moment he would engage the shutter.
The French influential critic and poet Baudelaire believed photography to be a medium largely unable to transcend “external reality.” In England, an article “Photographs,” written by Lady Eastlake was the most important statement made in regards to this issue. She stated that since ‘beauty’ was the main element expected in an artistic creation, and it was a result of refinement, taste, spirituality, genius, or intellect – qualities not found in minutely detailed super-realistic visual depictions made by a machine, therefore, although ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ were valid qualities of a camera image, it could never compete with art, even if it had a role to play in the art world. A further argument that a photograph can be replicated many times thus depriving the ‘original’ of its unique status, does not hold water in my mind as a bronze sculpture can be cast and recast in a large number of copies – yet it is considered art.
It is my belief that the problem with defining photography as art has it origin in the basic assumption that the camera makes the image, completely rendering worthless the creative vision of the photographer. The camera is merely the medium, such as paints or clay would be for a painter or sculptor. A photographer’s pre-visualization” – having in mind, before clicking the shutter, what the resulting print should look like is as much a function of the imagination for the photographer as for any other artist. The next assumption that the camera is also the only medium or tool a photographer has to his disposal creates the next challenge. The truth is in fact that light, and the understanding thereof, is the paintbrush that separates real art photographers from camera owners. This is also true for painters – think of what Chiaroscuro did for Renaissance painters. The creative process for the photographer also continues in the dark room or in the digital post-production processes.
“A photograph is made, not taken. A photograph is not an automatic recording, neither an accident. It is a concept, a vision of the world translated into shades of grey, communicated in terms of simple devotion to the medium – a statement of the utmost clarity and perfection possible…” – Ansel Adams
South African photographer Gerry Pelser warns against the generalisation that all paintings are art. “Art is the highest of all things. Not something easily achieved and just as millions of people use oil on canvas to enjoy themselves but produce unintelligible messes that is certainly not art, so do cameras – it is the easiest medium for people to create “not art” in. Art stands independent of the medium. Photography can be art, but it very, very seldom is.”
I believe as a blanket statement photography can be art, as a painting or sculpture can be art. I also believe that whether any art work is in fact perceived as art, would depend on the on the beholder.