Have you ever heard the argument that photography isn’t art, because everyone can do it? That’s bull. All forms of photography need artistic thinking to some extent.
Craft and Art
It seems like an unspoken agreement that photographers don’t like to talk about it: Everyone can create decent images on a modern smartphone. The technical act of taking a properly exposed picture is no rocket science anymore. In fact, it gets easier and easier, day by day. In the past, learning photography always meant to also learn a craft. Today this craft becomes less important.
I assume that people who rest on knowing the craft of photography will soon die out. You’re not special anymore if you simply know how to handle a camera. The iPhone, Huawei, and Samsung enthusiasts will soon overtake you and you’re out. Of course, you will be able to create better images when you know the craft. Yet, it is just one necessary condition. More important is the aspect of art.
What Is Art?
Risking that I open Pandora’s Box here, I try to give a very soft definition of art. It’s more like a summary of different definitions of art, which I found on the web and in books. Almost every definition agrees that art is creation. It can be a visible product, sound, or a creative activity. All this still sounds like a lot of craft. Another important part, which is usually mentioned when talking about art, is expression. Artists express their imagination, emotions, and thoughts through their art. Hence, I’d like to summarize that art is the expression of the artists imagination, emotion, and thoughts through a perceivable product. Sounds a little complicated? The German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe expressed it as follows:
Art is the mediator of the unspeakable
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
What does this mean? Let’s look at our photographs as a form of language. We see something, maybe a family, who wants to be portrayed. We could simply take our camera, expose properly – snap – and done. That’s craft. On the other hand, we could talk to them, find out what they like their images to look like, think about how we perceive them, and how we can visualize our and their ideas. We pose them, we make jokes, we try to put them into a frame that suits their character. That’s a proper portrait and it’s art, because we translated our ideas about the family into another language: a photograph.
Everyone Has Her or His Own Language
The problem of communication is that humans don’t function like machines. When we communicate, it’s impossible that we receive 100% of the message that a person wants to tell us. Information between humans is not sent and received like we are equally coded. If you tell me: “I saw a beautiful sunset.”, I will be able to imagine a beautiful sunset, but definitely not exactly yours. If you talk to me about feelings, I might know what sadness feels like in my body and mind, but not in yours. Language is always a matter of interpretation.
Art is anything that you can get away with
– Marshall McLuhan
Our photographs are matter of interpretation, too. Showing beauty, emotion, familiarities, differences, and abstract subjects, photographs are read by the viewer just like my words are read by you right now. If you think that everyone will understand the intent of your written words, make a test. Write a comment here on Fstoppers, try to include the words “mirrorless” and “DSLR” or “Nikon” and “Canon” in an article and you will soon see that some readers will react very different than others. Some might feel offended, even if you didn’t want to offend someone. Some might think you simply want to share your opinion; some will think you want to advertise yourself.
The Art of Translation
Photographs are even harder to read, because we lack a complex unified code. Yes, smiling faces create a good mood, light from below looks diabolic, and people photographed from below look a little more powerful. Still, triggering a certain feeling and moving people is hard, especially in a time where we are flooded with images.
Art is the queen of all sciences communicating knowledge to all the generations of the world.
– Leonardo Da Vinci
Often, we also have to translate other peoples’ ideas into a photograph. If you are a commercial photographer, a company of running trainers might approach you and say: “We want it to look like freedom and the ability of reaching one’s goals.” Then you will have to translate these words into your own imagination and then into a photograph. Heck, that’s complex and it’s not just a craft anymore. That is surely a creative act. It’s art.
Selfies, Still Life, and Photojournalism
Here is the problem which is open for debate: Where does art start? When I look at my Instagram feed, where I follow – besides some amazing artists – a lot of trashy content, I have to come to the conclusion that the images are also acts of translation. A selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower? A translation of the concept that the people have an enviable live. Avocado bread and a ginger smoothie? Translation of the need to show people that you are healthy. Both images are probably just status markers, nonetheless they try to express abstract feelings and concepts in a photographic medium. Sometimes they can carry a feeling to the viewers which will make them imagine what it will be like to be in that situation. But does this make selfies a form of art?
All art is quite useless
– Oscar Wilde
Let me give a few other complicated examples. Still life images are another interesting form of photography, when we talk about communication. The symbols used are almost coded in such a way that one could read the message using a still life dictionary. If the code is defined to a big extent, isn’t still life photography (or painting) a craft rather than an art?
And what about photojournalism? The photojournalist takes images of events of public interests. He or she simply captures what is there, right? I don’t think so. The selection of the images, the framing, and the context of the subject is a form of expression of the photographer’s idea about the topic. In the ideal case, this idea is balanced and as little biased as possible.
The above-mentioned definition of art is very broad and includes almost every form of expression in. Maybe we should step back from the idea of defining something as being art or not. Seeing art as a scale and debate might be more useful. A selfie might be art on a very low level, while an image of Cartier-Bresson will be higher up. Some readers might consider one form of art higher than the other. That’s fine, because it also keeps us interacting. How fulfilling is it to talk about a photograph, a movie or the new song of Justin Bieber (just kidding). Art lets us discuss and communicate, discover the differences in perception and taste.
We all know that art isn’t truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.
– Pablo Picasso
Finally, there is one aspect, which is often ignored in the definition of arts: aesthetics. Curiously enough, but I personally think that it’s the main skill that we need to make a craft become an art. If a photograph moves people or let’s them swipe it away, mostly depends on its aesthetics. Aesthetics doesn’t just mean beauty in a positive sense, but the power to trigger reaction. In modern times, pictures are found everywhere from the restroom door to the billboards at the big city squares. Triggering reaction of our media-numb audience is maybe the biggest artistic challenge today. How can we create aesthetics? Well, maybe that’s a topic for another article.