Is Photography Art?

This question always surprises me. Is applying paint or charcoal or chalk art? Is chiseling stone art? The answer is to all these questions is the same: It depends. The dependence is not based on the quality of the work. A high quality application of paint to a wall for the purpose of coloring it is not art. The fine chiseling of a tombstone with the name and vital statistics of the deceased, is not art. A photograph taken simply to chronicle a birthday party or capture a news event, even if the finest camera and lens is used, is normally not art. It is not the subject, the level of technology or the talent that makes art. It is the intent of the person. If the painter’s, stone mason’s or photographer’s intent is to create a piece of art, then who is anyone to say that it is not?

I recently read an interesting essay by Robert Balcomb on this same question. He puts forward that the answer hinges around whose photographic technique represented Art and whose didn’t. (Balcomb capitalizes Art to separate Fine Art from, I guess, humdrum art.) He points out that the photographic cabal Group f/64 headed by Ansel Adams, believed that “expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights” was the only way photographic art could be produced. Balcomb counters with photographer William Mortensen’s concept of “expose for the highlights and develop for the shadows” was not only of equal value, but superior. Be that what it may, it is irrelevant. What is being postulated is that one technique is higher art than another. It is not an argument for whether photography is art or not. This whole premise reminds one of the French Academy’s ruling in 1874 that Impressionism was unacceptable because it broke all the Academy’s rules for how a painting could be produced, Ergo it was not art. Never mind the intent of the artists.

There is little question that Ansel Adams and his merry band of Group f/64 as well as Mortensen and Balcomb are fine photographers. Nor would I believe that anyone would doubt that what they produce is art, with or without the capital first letter. What they did was capture, produce and edit an image (yes, darkroom printing is editing) that portrayed the world as they wanted it to be seen. Is not that what any artist does?

Take heart, my fellow photographers. If what you are trying to produce with your camera and computer is art, it is. How good the art, of course, is another issue entirely.

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