The question: is photography art? The answer: yes, but it isn’t as simple as that.
As with any new art form, photography had a difficult time becoming accepted. And the art of photography still has detractors — but photo art now lives in upscale galleries, sells for millions of dollars, and its leaders reach celebrity status. So there is acceptance now, but it wasn’t always that way.
What Made Photography an Art Form
In 1826, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce pointed a camera out the window on the second floor of his house in Burgundy. He then proceeded to take the first ever lasting photograph. The film required hours (even days) of exposure to make a photo, but Niépce succeeded.
Years later, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre pointed his camera out of his own window. After hours of exposure, the photo resulted in the image of an empty street (as the people in the street below were moving too fast to be caught on film). A scene empty of people except for one man who was sat at a shoe shining station long enough to end up in the photo. Daguerre had taken the earliest photograph of a person
In the following decades, cheaper film processes that required less exposure introduced more and more people to photography. In 1851, John Edwin Mayall took photos showing the Lord’s Prayer — this is often considered the first attempt at artistic photography.
On a fateful day in 1927, Ansel Adams was walking through Yosemite to capture images for his new portfolio. He was down to his last piece of film. He wanted to capture a cliff face, but the sky was too bright. Adams imagined that if he put a filter on his lense to darken the sky, the cliff appear in high contrast. Later, Adams would say the resulting image (called Monolith, the Face of Half Dome) was his first work of art photography: “I had been able to realize a desired image: not the way the subject appeared in reality but how it felt to me and how it must appear in the finished print.”
In 1960, Dr. S.D. Jouhar led the formation of the Photographic Fine Arts Association. During that time he said, “At the moment photography is not generally recognized as anything more than a craft.”
Twenty-five years later, the Museum of Modern Art began it’s New Photography exhibition, highlighting work in the field as an important feature of the contemporary art landscape.
What Makes Photography Art
We’ve seen that art and photography began to merge in the 19th century and that fine art photography was accepted somewhere in the 20th century — but what makes photography like other types of art forms? And what sets apart photography as an art form?
These can be hard questions to answer. And because photography has many uses, the line between what is fine art photography and what is journalism or fashion or commercial photography is often blurred. Consider Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, a moving portrait of Florence Owens Thompson, a poor woman moving across the US during the Great Depression, looking into the distance while her children bury their faces in her shoulders. It is hard to look at this photo and not see it as a powerful work of art — the lines in Thompson’s face, the position of her children, the elegant capture of light across the subjects. Then again, isn’t this journalism? Isn’t this simply depicting the reality of the Great Depression? But Lange could have pointed her camera at anything that day. She could have set the aperture to any size. But she didn’t. She made decisions.
So how do we understand those decisions? Art theorists focus on the art of seeing in photography. By selecting what the viewer sees inside the frame, photographers are able to speak about life. Through exposure, flash, film speed, and film development techniques, photography is able to heighten elements of life, bringing them into focus (literally and figuratively). Photography can select certain moments and silence everything else, pausing on a particular truth about the world without the distractions of everyday life. As Francis Bacon said, “[photography’s] reality is stronger than reality itself.”
While this is certainly true of many photographers, the last half century has seen the rise of staged photography. This is a visual art photography style pioneered by the likes of Gregory Crewdson, showing meticulously crafted scenes that are then photographed — a process not unlike filmmaking. In staged photography, many different types of art forms come together in front of the camera.
Other artists who use photography in their work talk about photography’s ability to bring reality into their pieces. They can play with or break from that reality.
It’s clear that there are many ways photography can be art, and any comprehensive list of fine art photography examples will show that there is not a single kind of fine art photograph. Perhaps photography is such an interesting form of art because it is so simple and straightforward as a process that it can do almost anything.
The Importance of Pictures
Part of what makes photography such an important form of art is the way it has changed our world. What is the impact of photography on modern life? Photojournalism revolutionized how we get our information and what evidence we require to believe something is true. And it’s expanded our understanding of the world. To see how photography relates to science, consider the mystery of the horse’s gallop. Eadweard Muybridge set up a series of automatic photographs as a horse galloped by, producing images that showed what was too fast for the eye to see: how horses move their legs at full speed. Since then we’ve attached cameras to satellites and telescopes and microscopes, all leading to breakthroughs in scientific knowledge.
And fine art photography revolutionized fine art itself. Early in its use, artists used it to aid in their painting by using photos as reference. Soon after this early adoption, photography led to artists abandoning realism. The Impressionists are perhaps the most famous early example of this, with artists like Claude Monet choosing to depict the world in an entirely different way than had ever been painted, as photography had cornered the market on realism.
Painters have since begun adding features of photography to their paintings, playing with ideas like depth of field and cropping. Photography has so deeply changed the way we see the world that art had to take note and react.
We’ve seen how photography developed as an art form and how it is understood as an art. We’ve looked at its impact in many fields, including fine art. But we haven’t examined why it is so well loved. That is because photography, more than any other visual art, is connected to truth.
While certain editing techniques allow photos to take off into fantasy, we understand as viewers that photography takes its images directly from the world.
But who is pointing the camera can be as important as what the camera is pointed at. Becoming a fine art photographer is now highly accessible. Ever decreasing costs of equipment and online publication, along with the ever rising acceptance in the art world, means that a wide variety of voices can join in our cultural conversation. That is one of the most important parts of photography: it allows you to see what other people see.
So while it has been a long road for photography to be accepted into fine art, it is clear to us now that it is. Not only that, it’s been central to fine art throughout its lifetime and will continue to be going into the future.