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Is Photography Art?

Updated: Jun 15, 2020

One of the more provocative quotes by a photographer: “Photography is not an art. Photography is more important than art. We photographers are chroniclers who record the visual history of our age. Look at 19th century photographs. They give us the truest glimpse of that century.” -- Ara Guler

Let me soften that a bit. Ara Guler was a photojournalist. He chose to document with empathy what he observed and experienced, to preserve those moments for future generations. I am not strictly a photojournalist, so let me say that Photography is not art, it is different from art. There is no need to denigrate what we have come to recognize as great art, regardless of the culture it was born from.

I’m going to create a bit of confusion here, which I hope I can make a case for shortly. The opposite of great photography (or art), is not bad, it is mundane. We need to employ a higher level of precision -- and the only way I feel I can make this point -- is to use different analogies when it comes to certain fundamental definitions.

The internet has given rise to instantly accessible noise – in art, in photography, in music. Almost everything we see when we search for contemporary photography is mundane, and this is precisely the way it should be. Fine photography (like art or music) immediately transforms us into something new and vibrant. We need to neither articulate the reason nor defend our feelings. We are inspired but what we just saw (or heard). The great artists (or photographers, or musicians) are the less than the 1%ers of the world.

This does not in itself propel the work to the highest level that we recognize as great art or great photography, but it is a good start. While the momentum required to rise to greatness only relies on a single pair of eyes to commence the process, it may need one, two, or three generations of eyes to concur and cement the resonance that the photographer began.

Guler had a magnificent point about photography. It is not created out of whole cloth as a painting is. It is a single moment in time captured through the vision of the person able to respond both gutturally and technically, simultaneously. The mundane is all around us. Half-hearted efforts by people with unseasoned vision who snap away at something pretty or unusual in an attempt to convey something different -- without realizing it has been hammered at so many times before, propels the dread that requires a magnum dose of Belgian Chocolate (insert your vice here) in an attempt to blot out the memory of what was just seen.

A lack of understanding of the history of photography, sometimes through willful ignorance, is usually the culprit. Social media elevates merely by turning up the volume, not by discriminating the good from the mundane. Fine Art is not a democracy, it sustains itself through a common vision entrusted to those few who have the seeing to recognize and preserve it. ‘Likes’ and ‘Shares’ are meaningless drivel.

One more definition needs to be decoupled, and this is a tough one. Art is the conscious creation from a blank canvas (a photographer starts from reality) defined by the imaginative resources of the creator and invoked through the medium being used. Art seeks to elevate, to inspire, or to teach. The photographer is indeed an artist, his work however, is not art.

So, why do we need these distinctions? Do our definitions and decoupling die the death of a thousand paper cuts? Maybe. But our culture has manifested itself into the estrangement of commonly used words to demote the ability to communicate to the lowest common denominator. I seek to raise these words up again to their previous higher level, so communication occurs with the precision of a skilled surgeon.

Great photographers, like great artists, inspire, and it only requires a quick reading of Beaumont Newhall, the historian who covered the history of photography through the 1960’s to fill in enough blanks to turn ignorance into knowledge.

This, of course begs the question: Am I an artist? (No) Is my work Fine Photography? (It is not)

Just as an individual examining new work for the first time can only provide the seed of understanding of the value behind what they experience, I cannot so describe my own work towards a level it has not yet achieved through the inertia I may have imparted to it by making it publicly available.

I love ALL of my images, each is very special to me – but this alone does not elevate them to the realm of fine photography.

Here’s a trick question you can ask any photographer to see how well they understand their medium: Which photographers influenced your work? If the list doesn’t span more than a single generation, I’d be inclined to say they may be on the right path, but may require a bit more time to cultivate.

Here’s my list (to name just a few):

Eugene Atget Manuel Alvarez Bravo Elliott Erwitt Lee Friedlander

Brassai Henri Cartier-Bresson Robert Doisneau Dorothea Lange

Ansel Adams Brett Weston Robert Frank Margaret Bourke-White

Garry Winogrand W. Eugene Smith Dianne Arbus Walker Evans

Irving Penn Richard Avedon Lewis Hine Edward Steichen

Please check back in about 30 years to see if I have made the cut.

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