Parerga and Paralipomena – Chapter 3. Revisiting the Old, Tired Question: Can Photography Be “Art”?

Untitled, 2005, (20×30 Acrylic on Canvas)

Above is a painting I did in 2005. It’s previously been exhibited in an ‘Art Gallery’ in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which means the gallery owner thought it appropriate to consider as ‘Art.’ Now, irrespective of what you think of the painting and my skills as a painter, chances are you don’t find it unusual that it’s considered ‘Art’ and was offered as a work of ‘Art’ by a gallery that’s in the business of selling such things. Putting aside critical valuation, we agree that a painting is a work of ‘Art.’ I took a blank canvas, took various pigments, and using a brush I made something, a thing, physically created by me from an aesthetic idea I had in my mind. Voila! Art.

Using those same criteria, photography as an ‘Art’ form can be problematic. Photography (still and moving) is a different sort of a creative medium. It has its subjective element – what’s within the frame will always depend on someone’s choice and interpretation – but generally we consider it objective, objective in the sense that it’s a mechanical reproduction of an existing set of visual phenomena. The second characteristic – its status as an objective reproduction, a truthful documentation, the fact that it’s a mechanical means to more or less faithfully record whats “out there”, is seemingly what prevents many otherwise broad-minded people from considering it ‘Art.’

The argument- Is photography ‘Art?’ – is as old as the medium itself. Early photographers naively thought to claim it as ‘Art’ by selectively photographing “scenic” things, thus mimicking the ‘artistic’ treatment of traditional subjects of representational painting – a more exacting form of landscape painting, where the goal was fidelity to the real. Later photographers, like Alfred Steiglitz, founder of the Photo-Secessionist movement, sought to claim it as ‘Art’ by rejecting the larger definition of Art and placing it on equal footing with other forms of expression commonly considered as Art:

“Photography is not an art. Neither is painting, nor sculpture, literature or music. They are only different media for the individual to express his aesthetic feelings… You do not have to be a painter or a sculptor to be an artist. You may be a shoemaker. You may be creative as such. And, if so, you are a greater artist than the majority of the painters whose work is shown in the art galleries of today.”

This doublespeak, of course, is just another way of claiming its status as an art form without using the loaded word itself, to my mind ample evidence that, deep down, even Steiglitz himself felt a wee bit self-conscious about claiming photography to be ‘Art.’ Much has happened since Steiglitz’s era. From an institutional perspective, photography has been presented in American art galleries and art museums since the 1970’s, when “post-modernist” photographers like Friedlander, Winogrand, Arbus and Eggleston, among others, became recognized within the larger ‘Art World.’

*************

Whatever the official Art World line, from a lay perspective there continues to be a common-sense resistance to claim photography as ‘Art.’ Even I, who’s been involved with photography as a creative medium for most of my life, cringe when a photographer bills him or herself as an “artist”, and I’d like to explore the philosophical underpinnings of that discomfort. I suspect it has something to do with the “handedness” we associate with Art, the requirement of creating some ex nihilo, something unique and new. A precondition of ‘Art’ is that the Artist physically make it, physically impose form on undifferentiated material, whether that material be words or tones or rock or canvas. In photography, you could argue, we’re not doing that; instead we’re recording something already existent, something  whose creation resides elsewhere. I’ve touched on this subject before in a piece entitled Formalism and Photography (Can Photos of Statutes Be Art?).

Untitled, 2016

How about Untitled, 2016 above? Is it ‘Art’? It’s something I did in 2016. Formally, it’s remarkably similar to Untitled, 2005 above. Like the former, it’s “modern” in the sense that it’s not representational but rather its own aesthetic reality, created from the ground up by the artist. I consider it competently drawn, its color scheme consistent and complimentary, its pictorial elements situated in an aesthetically pleasing manner. I like it, and would be pleased to have a piece like it hanging in a conspicuous place in my home or, better yet, in someone else’s home, someone who valued it enough to purchase and exhibit it. Except, its not a painting. Its a photograph, a straight-up close-up of a section of a wall of a building recently torn down in the service of progress. What I did was merely isolate it from its larger context by photographing it and, with some very minor post-processing (contrast, saturation, sharpening etc), created the finished work you see, “created it” in the sense that a series of 1’s and 0’s now resides in a certain pattern on a hard disk on my computer. Its literal creation – how those pigments came to be in the manner they are – is an unintended consequence of  building paint, weather and time.

As mentioned previously, we commonly consider a precondition of Art that the Artist physically make it, physically impose form on undifferentiated material. If this is so, then the work itself – a photograph – is problematic; have I “created” anything by simply recording it? Have I imposed form on something undifferentiated, i.e. incoherent and messy, when I photograph? Haven’t I rather just seen and selected, noted for other’s benefit as it were, something that already had a certain form, essentially simply pointing out something aesthetic that already existed, created naturally or by happenstance? Could it be the fact that I isolated the view itself be the creative act? Is that enough?

Additionally, there’s the issue of uniqueness. There’s only one of any given painting. We can reproduce it photographically, yes, but we don’t consider the reproduction to be a piece of Art. Now think about that in terms of photography. Unlike a painting, I’m able to print out my photograph in any number of sizes on any number of different media, run limited editions etc, and sell each individual print as its own work of Art. Yet, irrespective of the size or the type of medium I print it on, the underlying ‘artwork’ will be the same (or will it?). [ This has become an issue with the endless exact replicability of digital capture, as opposed to old school silver halide prints where each print is a unique individual interpretation of a negative.]

I suppose I could do the same thing with the painting i.e. photograph it and present the photographic reproduction as its own work and offer it for sale in a gallery in different sizes and on various media. Why not? Except there’s something intuitively wrong with that when we’re talking about photographic reproductions of two dimensional paintings, or so I think. What’s intuitively wrong with it are two things: first, the fact that it’s a photograph as opposed to something created ‘by hand,’ and second, that it’s not the unique created thing itself.  These facts seem to change the terms of the debate.

*************

A Simple Picture I Took Out My Car Window Recently. If I Hung it in a Art Gallery and Titled it Untitled 2018 Would That Make it Art?

Of course, maybe the best response, and probably the closest to the truth, is the ” Institutional” definition of Art, somewhat cynical, that holds that ‘Art’ is whatever gets exhibited in an ‘Art Gallery’. We decide what it is simply by defining it as such. This is what Marcel Duchamp was claiming for Art when he exhibited a toilette bowl as part of an exhibition of his work in a gallery, asking his audience to look at the toilette bowl aesthetically by placing it in a context where we are, by definition, asked to do these things. Duchamp’s definition simply requires that there be an intent on the part of the artist to have what’s presented be seen in a certain way, even if the creative act is simply the presentation itself. What then, of things created without the aesthetic intention, where the intention can be understood as conveying the state of things at any given moment, like a photograph? Can Nick Ut’s My Lai photos be ‘Art’ if they’re viewed in an art gallery? How about the found photographs  that Melissa Cantanese put together in her book Dive Dark Dream Slow that I’ve discussed before?

To my mind, learning to think of photography as an Art Form means first to recognize in a literal sense what a photograph is. It’s a two dimensional piece of paper with “indexical” markings on it. That’s it. That’s the most an Athenian citizen of Socrates’ time (Socrates himself, for that matter) or some primitive man pulled out of the forest in Papua, New Guinea, would be capable of seeing it as, because they’d not have the conceptual (as opposed to he intellectual) ability to do so, that conceptual ability given to us by the social, cultural and technical knowledge which we possess and which is a precondition to understanding it as something more. Without this embedded knowledge – what we take for granted – they literally couldn’t see the representational nature of the photo. They’d simply see the thing itself – the flattened 12×18 2 dimensional thing with a certain form embedded as part of it.

Somewhat paradoxically, I think it’s this two dimensional reality of photographs that opens the way to seeing them as ‘Art.’ Abstract painting only started making sense to me when I started thinking in non-representational terms, when I accepted the notion that paintings don’t need to be a transcription of anything; they can just be what they are, a thing, something with no function other than being its own reality. It’s what art historians term an understanding of the painting’s inherent “flatness.” Photos can be the same way. Forget for a second that Untitled 2016 was produced by a camera and in some sense depends on an existing visual arrangement contained somewhere “out there”; We can choose to see it as we’d see Untitled 2005. Just look at it, try to see what’s literally in front of you. Stop thinking of it as referencing something else. Just let it be itself. Analyse it in those terms. For that matter, there’s nothing keeping us from seeing Untitled 2018 in the same way…or is there?


This is the third in an ongoing series about philosophical issues and what they might have to say about photography. Part One can be found here, Part Two here.

23 thoughts on “Parerga and Paralipomena – Chapter 3. Revisiting the Old, Tired Question: Can Photography Be “Art”?

  1. Stephen Hoffman

    It’s a long post, and I haven’t the attention span to go through it now, sitting at my neighborhood bar, with two vodkas in me. Nevertheless, it occurs to me that photography can be an art when the “artist” produces a consistent and discernible point of view that is competently rendered—preferably, at least in my opinion, with traditional chemical technologies. I really believe that we are capable of understanding and therefore controlling how an image is recorded on film, as opposed to digital methods—relegating digital photographers to technicians rather than artists. Perhaps it’s just my ignorance of the latter. Art or not, I just love exposing film with my cameras. Today a Contax RTS, last week a Leica IIIf, developing the film in my kitchen, sometimes thrilled, most of the time disappointed with the results.

    Reply
  2. Rob Campbell

    First of all, thanks for yet another very interesting article; secondly, your painting touches the right pleasure buttons in my head, and the second photo, of what impresses as a painting too, also follows a pattern of seeing, if one can ever establish pattern from but two examples of something. From that tiny group, I very much like your colour sense.

    Oddly enough, I went through a period where I made paintings with the express intention of photographing them and then using the same surface for the next one. I liked the idea of making up my own take on found art, with the print being all that remained.

    Personally, I have stopped caring whether an image comes from a film or a file; the result is the point, exactly as you showed with your two colour images here. Also, it has become increasingly unimportant to me whether these things see print or not. The kick appears, more than ever, to lie within and between the original click and the moment one looks at the monitor and says enough! that’s it. This may well be partly because my printer was sabotaged by HP when they abandoned their B 9180 and left me with a box of expensive, German A3+ paper, crystal archival sleeves, but no more opportunity to use the damned materials. No, not about to buy another printer. Not as far as I can see right now, but who knows?

    Rob

    http://www.roma57.com

    P.S.

    Would be nice if there was some way to post an image here to illustrate a point…

    Reply
  3. Dominique Pierre-Nina

    Great article great paintings and photograph,As far as I am concern anything is/can be art.

    Its the perception of the public or so called critic that validate the work and the masses follows their validation.

    Art society has a problem with photographs because a photograph is real its not fantasy, you can’t fake an image or romanticise it as its done in a painting so the reality of a photograph is too much for some to accept.

    Thanks,

    Dominique.

    Reply
  4. Keith Laban

    Thirty years ago I began shooting images which were to be used as reference for a series of what I’d loosely describe as ‘abstract expressionist’ paintings. As a painter I had the skills to interpret or reproduce those images in paint but after a while I began wondering why I was bothering. My “Found Paintings” series of photographic images was born. At first the reaction to them was decidedly muted but gradually folk started to appreciate them for what they were and they were exhibited and published. They became one of my best selling print series. Link follows.

    http://www.keithlaban.co.uk/foundpaintings.html

    Really, there are probably more definitions of art than there are artists. I, we, will never arrive at the definitive description to satisfy all or perhaps even ourselves. Despite a lifetime of work as an artist I’ve long given up trying.

    Reply
    1. Leicaphila Post author

      Keith:

      I’m often tempted to do the same thing – make abstract prints from photographs, as opposed to actually painting them. But something in that seems a “shortcut” to me even though intellectually I see no inherent difference. I’ve got hundreds of non-representational photos that work really well as independent abstract prints. Many of them are, to my eye, aesthetically superior to paintings I’ve done and sold. I’ve often thought of printing them LARGE – 40×60, say – and exhibiting them….but somehow I can’t find it within me. Why? Who knows.

      Reply
      1. Keith Laban

        Tim, I eventually decided to end the series because I felt that they no longer challenged viewers- they became purely decorative – and they no longer challenged me. The world and his wife were now familiar with the ‘genre’ or actively adding to it.

        BTW, thanks for a very interesting series of articles.

        Reply
  5. Rob Campbell

    “Art society has a problem with photographs because a photograph is real its not fantasy, you can’t fake an image or romanticise it as its done in a painting so the reality of a photograph is too much for some to accept.” …. Dominique

    Dominique, you have got to be joking!

    The reality of a photograph is just a choice on the photographer’s part, an option amongst many.

    http://www.roma57.com/glimpsed-parallels-7.html

    Go to the end of the fourth-last row of thumbnails, and start at the image on the extreme right with the red copy: Outage. Neither it, nor the rest of the three rows that follow, are straight shots by any stretch of the imagination, some with at last three different sources of image applied to the main carrier image.

    To the casual viewer, they appear straight, as I want them to appear; that’s the whole point in creating something artificial that one hopes is believable. I have no wish to show ferries sailing over Niagara – those kinds of images leave me cold.

    Photography is as creatively literal – or not – as the person doing it.

    Rob

    Reply
  6. Harry B Houchins

    “Art is whatever the artist says it is” was something I heard said very often while attending the School of Visual Arts in the early seventies, A simplification to be sure. As a photographer both commercial and “fine art” I’ve never bothered to define myself as either artist or photographer. Though, when people ask I say I’m a photographer.
    Whether I exhibit in a gallery or present photographs of product/portraits to clients the decision of what they are I leave to the buyer/client. Whether I use film or digital is irrelevant. The final image is what the judgement of “art” or not is based. It’s true paintings can not be reproduced (except by forgers) while photographs can be produced in any number of editions. But my experience with my own “art form/photography” is that it cannot in some forms.
    I work in the medium of Platinum which can, with care, be repeated in editions but I find it very difficult to produce editions of my gum dichromate prints. The very slow process of multiple layers of pigment and exposures pretty much quarantees a one off version. I’ve tried to no real success. Gum prints can take several days to produce. The choice of papers used and the vast choice of watercolor pigments allow the photographer allow for great differences in final images. Truly, no two the same.

    http://www.alternativephotography.com/harry-b-houchins/

    I do very little commercial work anymore. At 74 years I’ve done enough chasing clients and reserve my time to my own work. I really enjoy making my own emulsions, painting the paper and “developing” out the images. Slow, satisfying work but I have the time I have.

    So, is it art? Is it a photograph? I’ll come down on the side of it’s whatever the buyer says it is!

    Reply
  7. Thomas Rink

    Firstly, I’m glad that you’re back and well! It’s always disturbing when someone vanishes from the net.
    To the point: “Art” and “craft” have been separated since more than 100 years ago, and I think it should be kept like that. I see a work of art as something that gives me an aesthetic pleasure or experience when looking at it, something that gets to me on an emotional, non-rational level. I don’t care how much mastery or work has been invested into it. For this reason, I think photography can be art – even though it is not creative. A good photograph often comes into life by happenstance – being there at the right moment, the conditions being just so, the planets align in a certain way. A lot of this is beyond control of the photographer.
    In summary, I believe that making a photograph is not so much an act of creation, but rather one of receiving a gift. But isn’t it that what makes photography interesting, and sets it aside from the other visual art forms?

    Best, Thomas

    Reply
    1. Rob Campbell

      “Receiving a gift” is pretty much the way that Sarah Moon describes it, and I go along with that. Anyone familiar with shooting fashion knows that you could shoot a couple of cassettes of film and know that there was nothing there, but out of nowhere other than your instinctive build-up and mutual co-operation with the moldel, that moment inevitably arrived when you had it in the can. It wasn’t luck, especially against an uncaring, enthusiasm-killing roll of white Colorama – it was experience and aesthetic judgement calls.

      Using the same model to the extent she became muse was a delight, and a true shortcut to productivity, not because you did the same thing over and over again, but simply because you recognized blind alleys before you wasted time and effort stumbling along them.

      By the same token, you receive the gift because of the way your mind works. That applies both to painters as to photographers, the only difference being the medium – confusions arise because they both employ images to make their point. Yet, with both disciplines, art and craft are separate parts of the same whole: without craft your chances of producing art are marginal, perhaps on the level of the typewriter-punching monkey writing sonnets or even Blueberry Hill. Because you have lots of craft skill does not imply that you are forced to use it on every project that you undertake. In my own case, my work was reduced to the most simple of terms not only because I disliked over-lit photographs, but because I didn’t want to have assistants along with me and because it just wasn’t my style to carry a million lights and reflectors on assignments. Travelling Light was more than a pop classic!

      So to sum up, I don’t entirely go along with your own conclusion:

      “In summary, I believe that making a photograph is not so much an act of creation, but rather one of receiving a gift. But isn’t it that what makes photography interesting, and sets it aside from the other visual art forms?”

      because there has always been a helluva lot of creation going down in fashion and calendar photography, especially today (check out Nick Knight’s Show Studio site), even if to the extent that I find a lot of it no longer photography but advanced illustration that threatens to make some branches of commercial photography extinct. I think quite a few painters would be surprised to read that their work does not often come along laden with gifts yet, at other times, remains stubbornly barren! Several painters tell me that a canvas, in reality, takes on a life of its own, and that they return to it every time to see where it leads them next!

      Yep, I think Sieff’s pronouncement was on the money!

      Rob

      Reply
      1. Thomas Rink

        Ah, Ok, fashion photography – I somehow overlooked that genre in my comment. I have to confess that I know next to nothing about it, and certainly my photographic skills are not up to the task. I imagine that this is a genre where the photographer has a lot of control over the scene, and has to use it skillfully? I believe that the resulting pictures are often used to imbue the photographed garment with emotional meaning (for advertising). Probably something like a story? Very interesting.

        My comment was based on my own situation. I am an amateur and photograph urban nature around my home (suburban edgelands, industrial wastelands etc.). I do “straight photography” and try to combine a documentarian approach with an attempt to reveal the peculiar beauty of these places. I do not think that there is anything creative about that. Sometimes I go out, conditions are ideal, and all I get on return are a bunch of ticks. At other times, I have to motivate myself to go and return with some pictures I like. This is somehow beyond my control, and I’ve resolved to accept it the way it is. If it doesn’t work out today, maybe it’ll do tomorrow.

        Regarding painting, I remember last year my wife and I watched a movie which portrayed the abstract expressionist Emil Schumacher while painting. My wife couldn’t bear it; she told me that Schumacher radiated an aura of aggressive discontent while attacking the canvas. He confessed that he destroyed some pictures by puncturing the canvas while painting.

        Best, Thomas

        Reply
        1. Rob Campbell

          Yes, I can understand aggression playing a part in some forms of art; however, anything that’s being captured for viewing is instantly open to doubt: even the best of us would, I’m sure, attempt to use the occasion to make some kind of dramatic identity statement.

          I suppose the truth of the matter is that art is very much something going on in the head, and turning the process – as compared with the final result – into something visually likely to hold an onlooker’s attention for very long is going to demand, at the very least, some mild pyrotechnics of one kind or another!

          Regarding your own “documentarian” approach to your current subjects; well that of itself is a creative decision which, independently of the outcome, migh illustrate Sieff’s dictum about there being no art, only artists.

          After all, there are at least as many bad painters as there are bad photographers, so perhaps the “artistic” part of a person’s makeup resides as much in the intent as the execution of the result.

          I’ll draw the line there, because otherwise, I may drift into legitimising curators and critics a little too much!

          Reply
  8. Mark

    This reminds me of the (possibly apocryphal) Michelangelo quotation: “In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”

    The difficulty with photography is that the medium is usually regarded as too easily accessible. Press a few buttons rather than spending years practising with chisels or brushes. Yet the artistic vision in photography is just as difficult and elusive as in any other art form.

    Reply
  9. insolublepancake

    Dear Tim, thanks for this interesting post. I always view Duchamp’s bicycle wheel as a gag that too many people took seriously, but one could say that photography was considered an art form from at least when photographs were exhibited in galleries (a recent invention of course). One might ask the question too “what does the market say is art” and I refer again to Geoff Dyer’s interesting observation that all the really valuable (i.e., expensive to buy) photographic works are either staged (like Jeff Wall) or computer manipulated (Gursky). Those Gursky photographs are selling at a million dollars now! A print from Friedlander or Winogrand would only fetch a tenth of that, if that. So I think our approach to reality and how (the market) values art is another interesting part to add to the question. Winogrand said that he could never imagine things as crazy as the things he saw, but it seems that if you want to make big bucks to today you have to make stuff up. Perhaps a natural consequence of our ability to reproduce easily photographs?

    Reply
    1. Rob Campbell

      Perhaps it’s more simple than you suggested: there are very few street shots I would want on my wall, regardless of provenance. I don’t see street as being particularly decorative, and if not decorative, why try to use a photograph as decoration? What else can it be other than decoration if show on the wall?

      Then the problem of buyers comes up: who is buying these large, expensive prints? I’d guess that they mainly find their way into office spaces, where small becomes invisible, defeating the object of creating “sophisticated” ambience and a certain assured air of expensive (and obvious to the visitor) chic.

      Art priced by the square foot appears to be a fairly reasonable concept: if you have the same photograph blown up to an impressive size, or just like a postcard, which one do you feel offers value for money, better bang for buck?

      The successful shifting of images is a business.

      Reply
    2. Rolf

      Placing something in artistic context (galleries, museums, even workshops) helps the public to recognise artistic gesture. That’s what Duchamp does. Recognisable authorship.

      So might it be that the public has trouble assigning authorship to photographic work of art? As in just “copying” reality, copying “what was already there”? Perhaps there is a lack of understanding that framing the picture and selecting the right moment imprint authorship on a photograph.

      If that is so, education helps, or – more concretely – taking selfies more consciously 😉

      Reply
  10. Slow Joe Crow

    Back in my freshman year of art school a guest lecturer said “art is significant form” which has stuck in my mind ever since. I take this to mean a combination of intent and effort is what makes something art. Applied to photography, care in composition and technique is what separates art from document. Or in more concrete terms Edward Weston’s photos of green peppers are art where a random selfie in the produce department is not. Weston set out to make art and worked at it, versus whip out the iPhone push the button and post.

    Reply
    1. Rob Campbell

      That’s a pretty convincing definition that would even stretch to music.

      However, what about bad art? Can it exist too, or does it, almost by defintion (however vague), eliminate itself from that possibility?

      Reply

Leave a Reply