But, Is It Art?

Artistic Intent in the Photographic Image

"Simply pointing a camera at something interesting and clicking the shutter does not make art."


This controversial question is too broad in scope to be satisfactorily answered in a few short paragraphs, but perhaps I can provide some food for thought while organizing my own ideas. To give ourselves a frame of reference, lets start by looking at two extreme ends of the photographic scale: the pictorial and the abstract.

In its most widely implemented form photography has become our primary visual “recording medium,” whether the pictures are still or moving. In this role it serves to document events, places, people, and things as they were at the time the image was captured. The import of the image is primarily in its content … in what is “pictured.” At the other end of the scale, but stopping short of manipulation, are images taken in such a way that the subject may not be recognizable, or even visible in it’s entirety, with emphasis on composition and the relationships between the included shapes, textures, and perhaps colors. Such abstractions can be enjoyed both for their decorative value and, with a slightly more philosophical spin, as a new way of looking at possibly mundane objects that can call our attention to previously unnoticed aspects, and on a larger scale heighten our awareness of the world around us. Sounds like art to me.

It would be convenient if we could simply draw a line between the two and categorize the former as “documentation” while the latter is “art.” Unfortunately, and especially with regard to the former, it’s not that simple. The greatest photojournalists are capable of imbuing their documentary images with an element that is undeniably art. This extra ingredient adds power to the bare image content through visual cues that the photographer imposes on the image with intent, although that intent may be partly reflex based on the individual’s experience and personal way of seeing. The “art” in the picture directs the viewer to an emotional response that is consistent with the photographer’s purpose. To me, that realization alone answers the question of whether photography is or can be art. The problem is that it becomes impossible to draw a line between what is photographic art and what isn’t. Furthermore, it is much easier to recognize the art where it exists than to be certain that a given image is entirely art-free. Someone else may perceive art where I don’t.

There is a semantic issue as well: where I would say “art” another person might say “craft.” But for me there is a fairly clear difference. Craft is basically utilitarian, but it can be attractive at the same time. Craft can also produce purely decorative objects, their utility being in their decorative value. Art, however, must be conceptual and communicative. To this end it doesn’t necessarily have to be attractive in the normally accepted sense, as long as it communicates.

It’s pretty clear to me that photography can indeed be art. But in order to succeed as such, it must be created with artistic intent and the application of “technique” that serves that objective. The “intent” part is easy. Anyone can have, or claim to have, artistic intent. It’s the technique that separates the wheat from the chaff, and the acquisition and application of technique is where the real work in any artistic endeavor is required. So, to make a fairly broad generalization, simply pointing a camera at something interesting and clicking the shutter does not make art. Attempting to emphasize and/or enhance the qualities of the scene that the artist finds appealing through photographic technique with the aim of communicating those qualities more effectively to the end viewer does make art.

Where do we draw the line? Beats me. It seems as though only the artist can really know for sure. But it can be argued that the effectiveness of a photograph as a work of art is best gauged by the viewer’s response. In short: if the audience isn’t getting it, it isn’t working. If we assume that art is defined by the artist’s intent to convey meaning or emotion to even a limited audience, the response of the target audience has to be the most accurate gauge of its success.

I’m perfectly satisfied that photography can qualify as art. What I’m not so sure about is whether I am (or any art critic is, for that matter) qualified to judge whether or not individual works are art. I think I’ll pass on that responsibility and simply enjoy what I like, with the hope that my enjoyment and understanding will expand with further study and exposure. Perhaps that’s all anybody can really hope for: art as a personal journey rather than a fixed quality. In fact, I think I prefer it that way.