Yeah, but is it Art?

Lately I’ve come to realize how fragile a lot of photographers are. Many continue to wonder whether what they do is Art.

Really? In this day and age?

Back when it was first invented, “real” artists dismissed photographers as mere technicians. Pick up a camera, press the button – a monkey could do it. So it can’t possibly be Art.

Roll forward 100 years and MOMA forms a Department of Photography and basically stuns everyone by deciding that photography is Art. Further, it will acquire, preserve and display photographs just as if they were *gasp* paintings. Photographers can now point and say that photographs are Art, dammit. Important people said they are.

Advance another 80 years and Artificial Intelligence raises its ugly head and is poised to reduce photography to the mere product of machines once again.

Is this what gives photographers the pip as our English friends used to say? Seriously, I have no experience with the worlds of painting, sculpture or other media, but are those practitioners as full of anxiety as photographers seem to be? Do they all sit around doubting that the mark they just put on paper is actually Art? Maybe potters tie themselves into knots wondering if their newest vase is Art or merely a thing for holding flowers. To me that constant questioning feeds a deep-seated anxiety and self-doubt that doesn’t need to be there.

In the past photography was not considered Art simply from the fact that a machine was used to create it (not to mention all those smelly chemicals!). So people have ignorantly said that “you must have a nice camera” and have never said to a painter “you must have nice brushes”. It makes us feel small, insignificant and like we have no role in the images we create.

I call bullshit.

This inferiority complex is so stupid that I can barely articulate why it irritates me so much. Whenever I see a photographer banging on about how he is a “lens based artist” or that his camera or settings don’t matter and that it’s artistic vision and storytelling that should be evaluated I wonder if the person is just pissed he can’t paint.


Plus I kinda want to punch him in the face. Get over yourself, lens-based artist. Because cameras are used to make images doesn’t mean a monkey can do it. Or that A.I. can. It just means the tool you have is accessible. Highly technical and a bit difficult to master, but master it you must. Just because a lot of people can learn something technical doesn’t diminish it and you certainly don’t need to be ashamed of using a camera to create your images. Don’t apologize for it! Lens-based artist. Jeez.

Even elephants can paint so who cares if someone else can use your tools. Use them to the best of your ability and make something you like. Make it for yourself first and everyone else second. Find what makes you curious, find what makes you smile, find what connects you to the world outside of your head and work to make the best images of those things you can. If what you produce pleases you, isn’t that enough? If a photo doesn’t quite work, chalk it up to a learning experience. Most of my photography is just that – a lot of failure with some success. So what? Failed photos don’t equal a failed photographer or a failed artist.

Getting back to the “but is it Art?” question, think about it this way. Did you point your camera at your subject and just fire away? Is that all you did? Is everything you produce the luck of spray and pray? Did you edit your photo with software? Did that require skill, judgment and a sensibility for style and aesthetics or did you just slap down a preset and call it done?

If not, it’s art – give yourself some credit. Putting consideration and aesthetic sensibility into an image separates it from the accidental. It elevates it into the deliberate and being deliberate means making choices. Decisions about everything that went into your final product are yours to manipulate and play with. And notice I wrote art and not Art, that’s because I’m really sick of this idea that there is some rarified community where we achieve Art with a capital A. Low art and high art. Fine art photography and snapshots. Ugh. These values change all the time and so what might be considered the pinnacle of achievement one day is commonplace and could be done by your dog the next.

Or by a monkey with a camera.

6 thoughts on “Yeah, but is it Art?

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  1. I think your argument is so interesting because the question of “What is Art?” is so convoluted. For instance, I tell people, half jokingly, that “it is Art if I want to hang it on my wall.” (My fridge is covered with wood so no magnets to hang Art here.) On a very true and serious level, as someone who has always wanted to be an “Artist” this was a very serious question for me that, until I felt I could answer it, along with “What is the value of my Art (emotionally, historically, etc.)?”, I stopped doing anything. For years I looked at this question and pondered it. Sisyphus had an easier time than I . . . anyway, I have seen this question paralyze others as well, and in the end, as I have aged, I decided to just chuck it, do it, screw it, and feel like I have wasted years of my life trying to answer this overwhelming question. The answer: do it, and be done.

    Good for you!!

    1. I know, convoluted isn’t even the half of it, right? No art on my fridge either even though it is metal – I just like it blank. I’m so glad you’ve put aside the philosophical wrangling and are just out there doing it. If it pleases you and enriches your life, it is worthy of your time.

  2. I see some similarity between photography and poetry. Something comes and we catch it. In photography, we have stillness of happening. In poetry we have flow. You cannot create photographs like paintings. You wait and it comes. Even you don’t know what is coming. You are just a witness of a ‘happening’ and you capture it. I am not talking about portfolio type of photography. The moment you make arrangements, photography ceases to be like poetry. It is no more a poetry. It becomes an essay.

    1. Very interesting connection you made there, thank you for bringing it to me. The “can’t create it out of thin air” aspect of most photography is an element that I enjoy, but that can be frustrating and little understood from those who don’t pick up a camera regularly. Nature photography is especially like that and it’s that essential unpredictability and messiness that I like. I’m glad you’re out there writing and taking pictures – snapshots are worthy as well, something I dwell on a little in an upcoming post.

      1. Thank you very much for your appreciation.Poetry and photography both transcend the creator when breathed naturally. Professionally both lose the spirit. Poetry descends and in photography we also have a moment of descendance. In poetry we have flow. In photography we have stillness. But in practising both we need patience. We have to wait. And suddenly it happens. We have something evolving. Taking birth. And we must be ready with words or camera. Now the quality of the creations depends upon your art of using vocabulary and camera.

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