What is Art in Photography
There seems to be a common misconception that photography is art, as long as the intent to make art is present. From my perspective, I've always found the prevailing interpretation to be somewhat incomplete. But, I can understand why this is the case. The concept of art is poorly defined, given a lack of proper accreditation. So, unlike being a physician or an attorney, anyone and everyone can become an artist, as long as they believe they're making art. Therefore, every photographer believing they're making art must therefore be making art.
Logically, this makes no sense, given the fallacy of circular reasoning.
So, the landscape photographer who goes out on Route 66, taking photos of geometric lines at the golden hour, or the street photographer taking instances of imperfection up close and personal can all claim their work to be instances of art, given their intent. But is it really art? Is it really art to document Route 66 at the golden hour? Is it really art to get the decisive moment imperfectly? To better answer this, we need to establish how "art" is generally defined.
So what is art? In popular parlance, it is loosely understood as "anything" made through the creative process. Given the breadth of that definition, it is understandable that most anything can be passed off as art. This isn't as much of an issue in creative processes requiring more technical training, like painting, sculpting, or even 3D computer modeling. But since rudimentary photography is relatively less technically demanding to mimic, any Tom, Dick, or Harriet can all of a sudden claim to be making art.
Of course, the photographer taking photos of geometric lines at the golden hour or the street photographer taking instances of imperfection can all justify why their work is more than just examples of circular reasoning. In this case, both photographers are highly skilled, and are capable of taking well composed photographs with great technical proficiency. They both have valid reasons supporting why their work should be regarded as art. So, wouldn't that be enough to dismiss any doubt?
All justification manages to accomplish is explain why a photograph is "good" from a defending photographer's position. However, just because "something" is good doesn't automatically qualify something as art. For many, this is the tricky part, which is in need of clarification. There is a huge difference between what's good (technically and compositionally) and what's art. If there weren't any differences, why would it be necessary to claim one's work as art as oppose to merely being good… more on that a little later.
What needs to be pointed out is that a good photograph isn't automatically art. If that were the case, then every good photograph ever taken would qualify as art. Obviously, that wouldn't make sense, from a statistical standpoint. There are just too many good photographs out there. But if a good photograph isn't art, then what is art?
Increasingly, it would appear that there is no answer to this question. Perhaps art cannot be nailed down. If this is true, perhaps the most reasonable approach in defining what art is can best be summed up by applying a phrase from the late Justice Potter Stewart (on an unrelated issue). Art is one of those "things" that people generally don't understand, but will "know it when they see it."
It’s easy to see why this is the case. Art is subjectively interpreted in conceptual terms, complicated with an abundance of coded language, which makes it appear unduly ambiguous and therefore undecipherable to the uninitiated. But in my opinion, I don’t believe art is as difficult to understand as it’s made out to be. If the prevailing perception of art is simplified, a clearer picture emerges from that black box typical of artistic commentary. Art can be demystified, believe it or not. When it is, it can be surprisingly easy to understand from an empirical approach.
What this means is art can be quantified objectively through more conventional methods of evaluation. With that being the case, an obvious starting point would be to look for observable similarities between work product already considered as art, in order to better understand what it is. From that approach, what becomes immediately apparent are commonalities shared between work considered as art. Based on my observation, all art share three basic criteria.
In general, they are:
A Demonstration of Virtuosity
This means the photographer must understand the medium sufficiently to manipulate the process beyond conventional proficiency for the desired compositional results.
An Expression of Purpose
This means the photographer must have a meaningful idea to explore or communicate that is either original, timely in relevance, or significant in scope.
A Commitment of Effort
This means the photographer must carry out an undertaking which requires substantive preparation and planning.
In identifying these criteria, it’s clear the difference between what’s good and what’s art isn’t the same. Where the standard of a good photograph depends on visual presentation (as it pertains to technique and composition), the standard of a photograph considered art depends on the afore mentioned criteria of observable virtuosity, commitment, and expression. What this means is the criteria to qualify work as art isn’t based on the visually appreciable criteria qualifying a photograph as good. Or to explain it in a different way, a good photograph is made from in front of the camera, whereas art is made from behind the camera.
This explains why most good photographs do not qualify as art. A good photographs is based on content in front of the camera, and how it’s visually presented. Because of that, there isn’t anything specifically unique about a good photograph, given that content can be replicated - regardless of how rare or inaccessible the content may be. By comparison, art isn’t based on content. Rather, it’s based on the identity behind the camera - that is to say the manifestation of the photographer's individuality in virtuosity, commitment, and expression. Because of that, art cannot be replicated like a good photograph, since a photographer’s identity is unique and cannot be replicated.
In other words, a good photograph is ubiquitous, because content captured by one photographer can theoretically be replicated by another. However, art cannot be replicated, because identity is unique. So even if a different photographer tries to replicate the content of a photograph considered as art, the identity which defines the original photograph as art cannot be replicated. Accordingly, this means a good photograph can be commoditized, which diminishes its value. By comparison, art is unique, which gives it added value.
Therein lies the true face of what art is. Art is an assignment of value. It is a recognition given to visual content creators (including photographers) whose work product exhibit noticeable signs of uniqueness in identity. And because it is an assignment of value to the content creator, many photographers would like to insist their work is art. It would mean their entire body of work - past, present, and future - is fair game for recognition. Unfortunately, art cannot be recognized by one's own insistence. After all, the assignment of value is a recognition, which means art can only be determined by an outside party.
Besides, if everyone can claim their work is art, art will cease to have any value. For art to retain value, its recognition must derive from generally accepted sources that are qualified. In general, this includes a process where work product is first identified by reputable commercial galleries and auction houses. After that, the identified work must be affirmed as art by reviewers backed by institutional accreditation or organization clout (like a news agency or a university). Only through expert affirmation would the recognition art be accepted.
However, art is only assigned a value when collectors accept what's affirmed, which they demonstrate through acquisition. So, until any work is purchased on the basis of artistic recognition, calling it art is meaningless. It may appear to be somewhat harsh to define art in such narrow and material terms, but what other measurable standard is there? It's not as if visual content creators including photographers need board certification, like a doctor or a lawyer, before they can call their work art. Given the absence of proper accreditation, defining art as an assignment of value is substantive.
Like I said, if not for financial gains, then why would anyone care to claim their work to be art? If there is no value, then there would be no reason to call one's photograph art? Admittedly, not everyone is going to agree with this opinion. But speaking from the perspective of someone exposed to the working mechanism of the art world, art is regarded with surprising pragmatism - albeit presented more commonly with complementary language - loosely speaking, of course.
I for one have never thought about reaching the standard of photographing art - not even when I ventured of to Route 66. But, that's okay. For my sake, it is already enough to post sample images on this blog with help from Anna and her friends. By the way, the images on this blog post is just a placeholder representing my "body of work" shared on this blog.
All images shot on the Leica M10 + 28mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH and the Leica M246 + 21mm f./1.4 Summilux-M ASPH. All images have been optimized in Lightroom. Some images have been cropped for composition. All aperture notation from the Leica M10 are my best guess.
Also, sorry for skipping a week of posting. I've been wanting to write this for quite some time. It just took a little more thought than expected.