Actually, Photography Isn’t Art.

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An article in Digital Photographer Magazine is headlined “Photography is Art and Always Will Be”.  I, of course, take a contrary view.

I don’t believe photography is art. Frankly, I don’t understand the obsession of some people in the world of photography to equate photography with art. Do they have an inferiority complex about photography? Or do they think they can stand on an equal footing with Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Goya, Degas, Constable, Picasso, or Miro?

Recently, the Internet lit up with the news a photograph had fetched $6+ million at auction. (This story remains unconfirmed.) If true, this is an impressive price for a photograph. But it pales into insignificance when compared to what you’d get for a van Gogh or a <i>Titian.<i/> One reason photographs can never reach these stratospheric values lies in their reproducibility. As long as a half decent print is available, negatives can be made and reproduced. And unless one was “in the know”, you’d never be any the wiser.

The digital age makes it even more difficult to know with certainty if a photograph is an “original” or not. Who can say for certain if any file has been deleted, especially after a version of it has been uploaded to the Web. This isn’t the case with art. A painting or drawing is a once-off event. This “rarity factor” gives art its value.

Photography is easy. Art is difficult.

It would have been a lot easier to photograph this tree than it was to paint.
It would have been a lot easier to photograph this tree than it was to paint.

You can hardly equate the effort required to paint, say, The Night Watch or The Haywain, with the effort expended in shooting a Vogue fashion spread, even though it may be quite labour intensive.

When I say photography is “easy”, I’m not suggesting that it’s “easy” to take great photographs in the mold of a Cartier-Bresson, Elliot Erwitt, or Steve McCurry. But it’s much easier than doing a painting. If you doubt this statement, I suggest the next time you want to head out with your camera, take a sketch pad and a couple of pencils instead. I know how difficult drawing is, I spent almost three years of my life trying to learn how to do it. At the end of it, I still had barely a clue. It may be have been easier for those with more talent, but it was never “easy” for anyone.

In the time it takes you to bang off 300 frames of that rainy Paris street scene, an artist may have made a few lines on a piece of paper. How can you equate these two endeavours? Quite simply, you can’t. Anyone walking out of a modern camera shop with even a modest point and shoot is, theoretically at least, capable of producing great photographs. Does this make them an “artist”? Not really. Walk out of an art shop, however, with your first sketch pad and pencils in hand and you know you’ve got years, maybe decades, of learning ahead of you.

Photography is photography, and art is art.

This is not to say that photographer doesn’t have an artist’s sensibility. In fact, I think most photographers are artists at heart. Cartier-Bresson started his life as an artist but later got into photography. In his very early days as a photographer, he called himself a surrealist. When someone suggested he would probably make more money if he called himself a photojournalist that’s what he became. But it’s interesting to note that in his latter years he hung up his Leica and returned to his sketchpad and his easel. I think he felt that photography was too ephemeral, too fleeting, not weighty enough, to express what he wanted to say. I think when you look at Cartier-Bresson’s work there is definitely an element of the surreal about it.

drawing of stormwater drains
I think I could have photographed these a lot better than I drew them.

And I don’t think Elliot Erwitt, Richard Avedon, David Bailey, Robert Capa, or countless others spent too much time obsessing about whether they were artists or photographers.

How Photography Changed Art

When photography first arrived on the scene, many artists were horrified. If a machine, they reasoned, could reproduce nature and faces with such unerring accuracy, what need would there be for artists? If you wanted a representation of your family you no longer make an appointment with your local portrait painter, but with your local photographer. He was much cheaper…and much faster.

Art had to change. And it did. It became less realistic and more abstract. Ultimately, art may have gone down that road anyway. But I think photography gave it quite a strong push. Of course, some photographers have followed suit and produce work that is more abstract and conceptual in nature. But it remains photography.

trees in the hogsback eastern cape
How long would it take to paint this scene? Photographed in the Hogsback, Eastern Cape in 1986.
drawings from beatles let it be
The photographs were better. I did these drawings of The Beatles based on photographs that appeared in the book accompanying the “Let it Be” album.
my bedroom during my art school days
Your favourite blogger during his art school days, East London, South Africa, 1973. The framed artwork on the wall was a Norman Catherine silk screen print which went missing many years ago, and the picture below that is an art school exercise for a cover design for a David Bowie album.

You can see my other photographic efforts on Flickr. Apart from this blog post, none of my other art efforts are online.

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