Is Photography Art?

A recent episode of a podcast I listen to, This Week in Photo, asked the question “Is Photography Art?”  The discussion they had got me to thinking about that question.  Current camera technology does a lot of the work for you.  Just point and press the button, and put it online.  So where is the art?

Photography is defined as: the process or art of producing images of objects on sensitized surfaces by the chemical action of light or of other forms or radiant energy, as x-rays, gamma rays, or cosmic rays.
And the definition of Art according to Dictionary.com is:  the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.
The definition of Art is fairly subjective.  Not everyone will find the same image beautiful or significant.  So what is Art for one person, may not be for another.  Photography is a little more well defined.

The first question I asked myself is why do I take a photo.  On TWIP they mentioned photos taken for documentation purposes, such as receipts, and oddly enough your car in an airport parking lot.  That second example made me laugh, because on a recent trip I took, I did exactly that.  I was going to be gone for two weeks, and as I walked away from my car headed to the terminal, I wondered if I was going to remember where my car was when I returned.  So I stopped and snapped a picture of my car and the pole in the parking lot with the row number on it, so I could refer back to it if I needed to later.

Reminder of Parking Location

Reminder of Parking Location

But that isn’t something that I think of as photography.  I took a picture, yes.  I documented something.  Similar to taking pictures of receipts.  Our company expense system lets you snap photos of receipts and upload them.  You’re using your phone’s camera, and by definition, that is photography.  But you’re using it as a copier or a scanner.  The need I am fulfilling is that of documentation or organization, and it doesn’t make me feel like a photographer.

So, what need am I fulfilling when I feel like a photographer.   Why do I take those pictures.  Well, one reason is to capture a feeling.  I see something that inspires me, or makes me stop and say “Wow, that’s cool.”   Sometimes those things turn up unexpectedly, or sometimes you go looking for them.  But when you see something inspiring, and you want to capture it and share it, that makes me feel like a photographer.   But is it Art?
My own definition of Art is something that is an expression of creativity.
Is a photo either documentation, or inspiration?   Or can it be both?   What about a wedding photographer or a photo journalist?  They are documenting things events, sure.  But they are both doing something a little more than running to a copy machine and Kinkos to duplicate a piece of paper.  They are looking to capture the essence of an event, of a moment (or moments) in time.  This is something that is “of more than ordinary significance.”
So the last question I asked myself, is if the camera does most of the work exposing the image properly, what is it that the photographer adds to this.  It can’t really be art if the photographer isn’t adding some value at least, right?  So what is it about a scene or a subject that catches my eye.  It’s a 3 dimensional scene, which my eyes are scanning.  It may be something small, or it may be a whole landscape.  It may be a an object, a color, a texture, or it may be all of those things.  It could be something natural or man made.   But I am physically there, and my eye can go back and forth and interpret it, and reexamine it as much as I want.  Not only is the scene in front of me 3D, but it’s also fluid and changing.  The object(s) could be moving, the light changing, and all of that adds to the feeling of the moment.  To make a photograph that captures the feeling of that scene, however, I now have to boil down that scene into a 2 dimensional interpretation of what I’m looking at.  A 2 dimensional version, trimmed down to the basic detail or subject that caught my eye.  A 2 dimensional, and static image that is one instant of time that I spent looking at that scene.  And that moment in time in turn needs to give a viewer the same inspiration that I got from the scene in front of me.
Rusty Tractor

Final Resting Place

We don’t have the ability to photocopy the whole thing in front of us.  You can’t take a mountain home with you.  But you can capture the essence of the moment with composition, light, texture, color, and tone.  If you capture the feeling of the moment, and your image makes someone else feel some sort of inspiration, then in my opinion you have made something significant and beautiful.  In my opinion, that is art.  The technology in the camera can’t do that part of it, no matter how good it gets.

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