New Worlds: Photography

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

As this goes live, I am in Yosemite National Park, where I hope to take many lovely photographs of nature.

Lots of art forms have developed new materials or techniques or styles over the ages. But it’s relatively rare for an entirely new art form to be created — that being what happened with photography, starting in the 1820s.

Assuming one grants the starting premise, which is that photography is a type of art. Not everybody agrees with that. Except for the first essay this month, I’m largely staying away from the bottomless pit that is the debate over What Is and What Is Not Art, but the arguments over photography are worth digging into, because they teach us a lot about how people think of photographs in general.

One of the points raised by the Not Art crowd is that photography doesn’t require skill in the same way that (say) painting does. Which of course immediately raises my hackles: I’ve spent years improving my photography skills, so don’t try to tell me they don’t exist. But that quite isn’t what the naysayers mean. Their point is that a complete amateur could pick up a camera and, by sheer luck, produce an amazing photograph. It’s the “monkeys with typewriters” scenario; out of the masses of material produced, some of it will randomly be good. By contrast, a complete amateur is deeply unlikely to pick up a paintbrush and accidentally luck into painting the Mona Lisa.

This is interesting because it the argument here has nothing to do with the result, and everything to do with the process. It isn’t art if making it is too easy. Given the growing number of stories about wild animals picking up photographers’ cameras and snapping shots with them, we’re talking about a situation where a literal monkey could produce the photographic equivalent of Hamlet. And this is part of what made cameras so amazing for ordinary people: once the price came down to a reasonable point and exposure times shortened, even the most plebian of us could produce beautiful images much more easily than in the days of painting or drawing only.

Process comes in again with a second point against photography-as-art, which is that all you’re doing with a photograph is recording a piece of reality. This portion of the Not Art crowd argues that a photographer isn’t applying their own aesthetic interpretation to the subject, merely documenting what’s in front of them, and therefore the result is Fact rather than Art.

Of course, considerations of framing (what to include in the photograph’s boundaries and what to leave out), camera angle, f-stop, lighting, lens selection, and more mean that a photographer is making quite a lot of aesthetic decisions. Heck — even the choice of what to take a picture of in the first place can be an artistic matter. One of my favorite shots from Prince William’s wedding in 2011 is not of the bride and groom, but of a lamp or statue pedestal outside Buckingham Palace covered in a flock of photographers, perched there like crows with their telephoto lenses. Whoever had the idea of turning around and pointing their camera in the opposite direction deserves a cookie.

But in this respect, I’ll admit that photography might sometimes be more aptly compared to good journalism rather than good fiction. It’s possible to write very artistically about factual matters, but you’re still constrained in some respects by what’s actually in front of you, in a way the fiction writer or the painter is not. If the latter want to put two kittens in wedding clothes on the balcony at Buckingham Palace, they can. Photographers and journalists cannot — at least not without a lot of image manipulation or probably losing their press credentials.

That factual element is another part of what made photography so revolutionary. When talking about paintings, I mentioned how were often used to commemorate important occasions, but the details might be more symbolism or propaganda than an accurate depiction of events. With a photograph, you get what was actually there. In the nineteenth-century U.S., that was used to document things like the horrors of a Civil War battlefield or the clothing and dwellings of Native Americans, before colonialism did its best to wipe those traditions out. And even now, people take selfies as proof that They Were There, whether the There in question is the Taj Mahal or a really awesome party.

As the saying goes, though: who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes? Photographic manipulation has been with us almost as long as photographs. In the early days it was fairly crude, but people’s belief that a picture was proof meant they might overlook the evidence of tampering. Nowadays we have experts whose job is to scrutinize photos and video in trials, searching for traces of alteration that might call into question someone’s innocence or guilt. Cropping, compositing, blurring select areas to obscure some telling bit — pretty much anything is possible . . . except the command “enhance that!,” heard on so many TV shows, which magically transforms a blurry, pixilated detail into a crisp image of the killer’s face.

These days that kind of manipulation is a whole genre within photography, in more ways that one. You have surrealist images that composite a sailing ship onto a sky of fluffy clouds so that it appears to be sailing through the heavens, or “light-painted” shots of artifacts or even mountains that take a long exposure while someone moves a light to strike the subject from all angles, allowing you to see the whole in a fashion your unassisted eyes could never manage. But even on a simpler level, photographers debate all the time whether things like using high-dynamic-range cameras or cranking the contrast on an image in Lightroom constitute justifiable enhancement, or excessive airbrushing of reality. It isn’t hard to see a resemblance between that and the debates over idealized landscapes or portraits in painting.

Given that I’m a photographer myself, you won’t be surprised to know that I come down on the side of Photography As Art. But as I said before, I think of artistry as being a quality things can possess in greater or lesser degree, rather than a category things either belong in or don’t — much less a process that requires X amount of blood, sweat, and tears before it’s allowed to count. When I use my camera to snap a shot of an informational sign so I’ll know what subject of the next picture is, that’s not very artistic. But the next picture will probably be as aesthetically pleasing as I’m capable of making it . . . and in the end, it may or may not look much like what I saw with my eye, depending on what I choose to do with it in post-processing.

If a monkey with a camera happens to take a shot that’s every bit as good? I think that’s awesome.

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New Worlds: Photography — 6 Comments

  1. Photography is art. If you really need proof (in the most cynical, sarcastic way possible), consider the recent auction of the “originals” of the garden-fairy plates (see this news item covering the event). Obviously, if an art auction house was willing to sponsor the auction, it must be art, right?

    • That’s certainly another way of looking at it! Art auction houses are a kind of authority, so yes, their opinion carries weight in building cultural consensus.

      “Originals” are another really thorny topic in these days of digital art. There are no originals of any of my photographs, unless you decide you’re going to count the first print made.

  2. Heh, I have to admit that I always thought of photography as definitely being an art because I’m so bad at it! My dad used to be a pretty good amateur up until the point someone stole his analog SLR and he gave it up, and one of my uncles used to be a professional photographer, and trying it myself rapidly convinced me that, yeah, it’s an art.

    • Honestly, the “I accept this is an art/a skill/etc because I’m bad at it” angle is a good one . . . because it points to the fact that many people who pooh-pooh a thing and say “anybody could do that” often haven’t tried it themselves. (See also: the number of people who think being a writer is easy.)

  3. Before i got into Photography, when I was young and stupid, I thought of photography as just “documentation” of an event, without any real power of its own as art. It took me 35 years of life to see it differently and to begin to see how Photography was art, and how I could start to make some of my own.

    The boundaries between photography anad artistic photography I am still trying to manage, even as my skills are trying to make my photography more than just “snapshots”. Alteration of images is something I continually think about. Ansel Adams dodged and burned things out of his images, is removing that tree branch digitally the same? Is adding something the same or different? Is it then an “artistic image” but not strictly speaking a photograph?

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