The Line Between Art and Photography

Here's a provocative question: is this image art? Why? Why not? Have a think about this carefully, for a moment. Today I'm going to crack open the lid of one of the biggest cans of worms in the whole of photography, peer inside, give you my 1.53 cents* and try not to fall inside.
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Here's a provocative question: is this image art? Why? Why not? Have a think about this carefully, for a moment. Today I'm going to crack open the lid of one of the biggest cans of worms in the whole of photography, peer inside, give you my 1.53 cents* and try not to fall inside.

*Devalued from two cents since 2009 due to underdeclared inflation, quantitative easing, foreign debt and other economic screwups.

Perhaps the biggest struggle photography has faced historically as a medium is to be taken seriously as an art form. I'd say it's only in the last couple of decades that the results at auction have been able to hold their own against traditional art forms; even if a good chunk of us don't understand why -- myself included. (I'm probably not the only one thinking of Andreas Gursky here.) Yet we don't have photographs insured for hundreds of millions of dollars, or exhibited behind bulletproof glass, or even the subject of exciting art heists -- let alone Hollywood movies -- why is this?

Culprit number one in this has to be a combination of repeatability and access. By repeatability, I mean the ability to make exact copies of an image ad infinitum; simple laws of supply and demand dictate that the more objects there are to go around, the less fighting over them ensues -- and consequently, value falls. Even with an old-fashioned hand-made print -- it's possible to make more than one identical -- or at least near-identical -- copy of the same image from the same negative, which instantly means it can't be as exclusive as a painting. Unless perhaps one destroys the negative or deletes the file after printing, I suppose. Though master prints still fetch some considerable coin, as do negatives, I just can't see the same thing happening with digital files; right now, people pay for rights to use the images, but the file you download is identical to the file that's in the image library. There is nothing stopping you - other than the law and your respect of it -- from making identical duplicates.

I've always said the proliferation of digital photography is a good and bad thing; on one hand, talented people who wouldn't previously have given photography a try have done so, and all of us benefit from their work, as well as a general raising of visual standards; on the other hand, access for all has devalued the individual image. I have to admit, I'm a little surprised by this; given that more people can now see just how difficult it is to achieve a given result, we'd expect that the ascribed value of an image should be closer to its intrinsic value now, right? The opposite is true: everybody can make an image, everybody can take the same photo as the pros if only they buy the same gear. And if I can take the same photo -- as far as I can tell, at any rate -- why bother paying for it? Blame it on the camera company marketers. In trying to push more gear to the mass markets at every-shrinking margins, they're indirectly killing the halo effect that sold their gear in the first place. Sadly, former photographic greats like Hasselblad and Leica seem to be turning more into lifestyle brands than the makers of true tools for the artist.

In recent times, there has been nothing more democratizing than the cameraphone: not only can you take a decent(ish) quality image anywhere, any time, but you can also have it seen instantly by an extended network of people. And to make it worse, the images that are widely shared and viewed - think of them as making it into the visual culture of society - are inevitably the ones that are the shoutiest, not the best. Let's not even go into the effect of hipstagram and the like. Take the first image in this post, for instance: in my recent flickr uploads, it's achieved one of the highest number of views and favorites. I didn't do anything special to promote it. Why? Obviously, people find something aesthetically pleasing about the image; does it matter that it was shot on an iPhone? Other than limiting my ability to print it at very large sizes, I can't think of any reason why it should.

Suppose for a moment that somewhere down the line, the original file and EXIF got lost, a nice print came up at auction, and it sold for a good amount of money -- because it's a nice image. Then later on, horror of horrors, it comes to light that it was shot with a camera-phone. Would it change the perception of its value? Undoubtedly. Just because it was made with inferior equipment somehow instantly also makes the composition inferior, just like how a 'pro' with old or small cameras is still viewed by most clients and the public as being second-rate. Never mind the fact that it's much more difficult to take a good image with crap equipment in the first place.


An interpretation of reality -- how I saw it in my mind, not necessarily how reality appeared to everybody else also present at the time.

At this point, we need to pause before we get carried away; we haven't even answered the really important question here: what is art? Well, it's a subjectively biased interpretation of something - whether that something is an event, a place, a person, or a thing, is irrelevant. It's the bias that makes it interesting: Monet's waterlilies are interesting because they show us his unique interpretation of the scene, according to the impressionist school -- which is yet another subjective way of looking at the world. Picasso's works are interesting because they show us his interpretation of the world. In both cases, the interpretations present us with such a unique -- unprecedented -- result, that we are forced to stop, look, and think. The value here is in the uniqueness of the interpretation: what the artists see is so far beyond the normal realm of comprehension for most that it becomes akin to visual magic. It's also worth remembering that seeing is but half of the puzzle: execution is just as important.

The opposite example would be the Dutch Masters and the realists: they tried to paint the world as close to the way they saw it visually; the value then becomes less of the interpretation and more of the skill in execution. At the high level, composition in all painting should be pretty much taken as given: there's no excuse for imbalances, cutting things off etc. if you're fully in control of each of the elements in the scene. For art other than paintings, you've got much the same thing again: firstly, the need to visualize the end result, then the skill to translate it from an idea to the finished product in the medium of choice.

But what about photography? Arguably, the ability to reproduce the exact scene is no longer constrained by the skill of the photographer; seeing something other than the obvious is not quite as easy, but still much easier than having to invent an entire composition on your own. So if the camera is doing the bulk of the execution, and the photographer limited to seeing what physically exists (or can be made to physically exist) -- then it's quite easy to see how people can be dismissive of the value of a photography. Basically: you didn't make it in the same sense of casting a bronze or painting a watercolor; it now makes sense to call the process 'taking photographs' rather than 'making photographs'.

If you think I'm being dismissive of my own craft here, I'm not. Far from it. If anything, I think photographers face a very different set of challenges to other artists: the main artistic one is dealing with the physical constraints of the real world, and the commercial challenge lies in demonstrating value. How do you show what you bring to the table as the 'subjective interpreter'? Easy: by the clarity of the interpretation. This is what I always call 'the idea': you need to know what you're looking at in order for you to be able to translate that into a single image, and have your audience see the same thing. We necessarily work in a far more constrained world than that of artists of other media; at the same time, the expectations are higher because there's the understanding that we are replicating recognisable reality.

I think there are two extremes of photographic interpretation that can legitimately be called art -- the kind that uses photography as the medium only, but doesn't play to its strengths (exact reproduction) or processes away from the real -- it can be done well (think Warhol) or badly (think hipstagram). One is repeatable, the other isn't - and the one that isn't has no value as art, because it's simply too easy for everybody to have the same interpretation as everybody else. There is no uniqueness factor. The other extreme is hyper-realism: yes, there's such a thing even in photography, which is itself a realistic media. If your idea is so profound that it comes through even when no subjectivity in processing or perspective has been applied, then the chances are it's a very, very strong one indeed**. Such an image must be powerful enough to overcome the inherent dismissal that we're inclined to pay anything that looks too familiar to reality for us. This must be by far the most difficult to achieve; since even black and white images are really quite a heavily interpretative vision of the world ("let's throw away the color!") -- and perhaps this difference is why we as a viewing public are so drawn to them as being 'art' rather than color images of the same subjects.

**My problem with the record-breaking Guersky photograph is that I can't see his idea; compound that with weak aesthetics -- again, subjective -- and all that's left is technical execution. I'm sure that's excellent, but million dollar excellent? I'm not so sure.


Hyperreality: one of the things I'm really enjoying about the medium format digital back is that it delivers the closest thing to a perfect reproduction of the actual scene as I've been able to achieve from any photograph. The challenge then becomes one purely of observation: you have to see the difference, not create it.

Then there's the subject of control: as photographers, we have both more and less control of the contents of our final 'product' than other artists. I prefer to think of it as precision, rather than variety: we can make sure our greys are perfectly neutral and we have exactly as much depth of field as we want and nothing more, but if we decide that we really like the texture of elephant dung or gesso or gold leaf, there's simply no way to incorporate that into an image other than by using its visual texture -- in other words, an interpretation of it. We must use the tools at our disposal -- principally, light -- to create the perception of the material: surely this cannot be easier than using the material directly itself?

The trouble is, ultimately, hitting the shutter and spending some time in Photoshop or the darkroom is perceived as far less effort than hacking at a block of marble; it may certainly be less physical effort (though I suppose it also depends how arduous your journey before hitting the shutter) -- but is it any less mental effort? Here we've come full circle back to perception again: simply because it seems like less work to most people, the value of photography is lesser than other artistic media. I'd in fact argue that it is no easier or harder, simply because some artists may execute their vision more naturally with a camera, some with words, or some with paint; to each his own. Any discriminations should come on the basis of exclusivity alone: there is only one Mona Lisa. There are millions of prints, and the value of those are commensurately lower -- this is fair. There are frequently hundreds or thousands of prints of famous images, which makes their value lower than if there was only one; fair enough. There is some compensation for quality: prints made by the photographer's own hand are worth more than commercial mass reproductions that may not necessarily have undergone the same quality approval, and certainly have had less effort per print put in.

I'm going to leave you with a thought: if I was to offer a series of prints which would only ever be printed a small and fixed number of times -- say only one or two copies would be made in any size or medium -- and subsequently delete the original files or destroy the negatives to remove the ability to make another identical reproduction of the same quality (you can't do a 30×30″ from a web jpeg, obviously) -- how much greater would the value be than if I made 20 prints in one size, and kept the original file or negative? Would this be something of interest to my readers?

Ming Thein is a photographer and writer who blogs at, where this post first appeared.

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