Is photography an art?

This question was asked about photography since its invention. John Ruskin, the influential English critic who shaped much of Victorian-era aesthetics, originally sang photography’s praises. Within ten years after asserting that Daguerreotypes were the antidote to the poisons of the mechanical age, he repudiated his position, only allowing photography to be a soulless trick. An aristocratic English lady, writing a few years later, noted that although photography could have truth, it could never have beauty, therefore could never be art.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Pictorialism raised its soft-focus, allegorical, costumed head. Negatives were scribed–which sounds so much better than scratched–and prints modified, all to make them more “painterly,” more artistic. Then “straight” photography gained a foothold, with its practitioners claiming a better understanding of the lexicon of photography. They, too, wanted to sit at the artists’ table.

When photography was finally admitted to museums and galleries, other than those institutions known for outlandish collections and eccentric curators, it could only be through the acquisition of black and white photographs. It took many more years before color work was acceptable.

Art shows still discriminate, and sometimes about the silliest things. I received a notice about a show in Cheyenne, Wyoming, associated with a celebration of railroad influences in the area. They will accept photographs…provided they aren’t giclée prints. The word giclée was chosen by Jack Duganne of Nash Editions to describe an ink jet print, and is itself an attempt to make a prosaic process sound like high art.* One rationale for rejecting ink jet prints is that they have no permanence. What makes this assertion absurd is that quality ink jet prints have the potential to last at least as long as silver gelatin prints–and perhaps longer. I guess it’s hard for some judges to keep the memory of an old HP DeskJet from affecting their decisions.

Always the photograph has to defend itself against its mechanical origins. Brett Weston was driven to say, “The camera for an artist is just another tool. It is no more mechanical than a violin if you analyze it. Beyond the rudiments, it is up to the artist to create art, not the camera.” I like his argument, but this view doesn’t hold water with some critics. They argue that a painter adds a bit of his soul to his work because he starts with nothing. A photographer only reproduces what already exists.

Now, however, we have Post-Modern critics. What they say is as confusing as anything a 19th century critic opined.

There is no place in the postmodern world for a belief in the authenticity of experience, in the sanctity of the individual artist’s vision, in genius or originality. What postmodern art finally tells us is that things have been used up, that we are at the end of the line, that we are all prisoners of what we see. Clearly these are disconcerting and radical ideas, and it takes no great imagination to see that photography, as a nearly indiscriminate producer of images, is in large part responsible for them. –Andy Grundberg

I’ll be honest. I don’t understand that at all.

Does a photographer create art or only practice a craft? We might as well ask the same question of a potter. And, in the end, who the hell cares?

I take photographs. You figure out the nuances.

*The word giclée to describe ink jet printing makes some sense. It is from a French word meaning “spurt.” Unfortunately, in modern French slang it is used to describe a particular kind of spurting limited to males. I’ve often wondered if Mr. Duganne knew that, but even if he didn’t, its use by gallery owners and art show judges is still enjoyable.

This entry was posted in Opinion, Photography.

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  1. Dwight Taylor June 17, 2016 at 6:27 pm #

    I finally got it, Tom. Wel written. Thanks!

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