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Ye Olde Blog

Is photography art?

Ryan Pennington

"Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas.
It is a creative art." —Ansel Adams

Early in my art education (read: junior year of college) I had an internal debate of sorts concerning photography as a medium.  I wasn’t entirely convinced that photography was “art.”  I saw fellow students drawing and painting what seemed like masterpieces to me.  Each piece was proof of a single, creative endeavor, completely original.  That was art.  

I hadn’t ever taken an art class before I started the course work for my art major.  I couldn’t draw.  I definitely couldn’t paint (still can’t).  All the people around me were CREATING, and there I was, camera and reproductions in hand.  I was jealous. 

Gradually, I came to a realization (not a major revelation, granted, but an important one): like any other medium, photography has its own skill set specific to it.  Just as a painter learns what brush to use to apply paint of a given consistency to achieve a desired effect, so too must we as photographers learn the skills of our craft.  Though composition and design principles are pretty universal, it is only by learning the nuances of his medium of choice that an artist can realize his vision.  

And further, like every other medium, not everyone can be a successful photographer.  Some people look at photos and think, “I could do that,” and they may well be right.  But they didn’t. I did.  These thoughts assuaged my feelings of inferiority to a degree.

It didn’t answer the question in my mind of monetary value, however.  How could a fellow student charge $300-400 for a painting no larger than one of my prints?  Was my product inferior?  I liked it.  Does reproducibility some how reduce the artistic merit of a work?  Does its worth become more dilute with each copy?  If I made one print and then destroyed the negative, would my work be just as valuable?

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the economics of the situation.  The laws of supply and demand dictate that if supply goes up, price goes down.  As a group, I would venture to guess that photographers are more prolific, relatively speaking, than painters.  After all, when was the last time you spent 30 hours or more on a single piece?  Perhaps this explains the price differential.  But I can’t help but think that it goes beyond that.  I wonder if photography is perceived as somehow less worthy.  What’s the ratio of photographs to paintings in any given museum?  At the SAM [Seattle Art Museum] it’s pretty low.  

There is a solution to this, though I don’t believe it’s the answer: we can limit the number of prints that we make of each image (as a number of photographers do).  By making our product scarce (i.e. we reduce the supply) the price, in theory, will increase.

If originality is the issue, we can make original prints in the traditional darkroom.  In the wet darkroom, photography IS printmaking.  Instead of passing ink through a screen as with silk-screening, we pass light through the negative.  No matter how hard we try, each print is slightly different.  But where are we left in the digital darkroom?  And when does photography cease to be photography?

I think people—at times, myself included—hold a debilitating misconception about photography: we believe that photography IS truth.  We’ve all been witness to some variation (in either fact or fiction) of the following scene: a lawyer, holding up a piece of paper, claims that this document provides incontrovertible evidence in the case—this photograph.  Conversely, we’ve all probably recognized that many people don’t look exactly how they appear in photographs.  The camera isn’t some impartial observer; it doesn’t give us unbiased views of the world.  It provides us with its interpretation.  We all operate in our own reality.  

I don’t discount those who don’t change anything from negative to print.  If that’s their vision and what they want to convey, more power to them.  In my own experience, I can think of only a handful of images that I’ve created that didn’t need some sort of tweaking (two to be exact).  It is up to artists, utilizing whatever tools necessary and in their medium of choice, to show us the world through their eyes. 

Like all artists, both past and contemporary, I work under the auspices of the definition of an incredibly short, but no-less meaning-laden word: art.  It is from this very word that the name of our profession (whether primary or otherwise) comes.  Through this little word, anything I make I can call art and it will be art.  

It is through this that I finally found solace.  No longer did I worry about the merits of photography, but rather I embraced it as my medium.  It is the vehicle through which I show people what I see.  By using the tools at hand, I can create.  With the aid of Photoshop, I can complete my vision.  I can paint.  

“Art should be more than just brush strokes on canvas showing a precise and literal duplication of an event.  Art is for more than that.  True art captures emotions, feelings, and the energy of the object or event that is being depicted.  It goes far deeper than the cold, flat surface of duplication.” — Joseph Minton

[This originally appeared on my previous site.]