Is photography Art?

So begins the almost age old debate. Photography has its roots somewhere in the forgotten past but the process of taking a picture and preserving it on some type of medium was invented by Louis Daguerre about 1839 in the daguerreotype process. The metal-based daguerreotype process soon had some competition from the paper-based calotype negative and salt print processes invented by William Henry Fox Talbot. Subsequent innovations made photography easier and more versatile. Today images are recorded within the camera CCD, saved to drives, manipulated and edited with Photoshop and other programs and printed with archival inks on a variety of papers and even aluminum and glass. But is it art?

Ask this question to the purveyors of fine art in London and you will get a resounding NO! Yet more and more art galleries are carrying photographic pieces. Park City, Utah for example has approximately 25 art galleries on Main Street, many of which carry photography.  Five of these are photography  only galleries.   There is obviously a market for selling photography as art.

So what makes a piece art? In recent years galleries have carried pieces painted with human feces, objects soaked in urine, and a plethora of other outrageous and mind numbing concepts. I personally find such pieces distasteful and in many cases disgusting, and no more consider it art than the scribblings of a 2 year old. Yet some people don’t consider photography art. The bottom line is art is subjective. What one person loves another person hates and what is hated generally isn’t considered art by the hater. I understand the perspective that photography is a technology and the image is not created from scratch by the photographer, but I believe the camera, lens, and darkroom technique or editing software are merely the tools used to create the art and are no different than brush and paint to the painter.

Take my piece “The Green Cellarium” for example.

Normal exposure unedited.

 

Fountains Abbey, England

All four exposures combined and edited.

 

This piece is a combination of four different images, 1-stop and 2 stop over exposures to capture the shadow detail, a 1-stop under exposed image to capture the highlight detail, and a normal exposure to capture the overall detail. I merged all four images and then spent hours adjusting contrast, color and removing items that were distracting. It took an artistic eye to compose the image, technical skill to know what the camera could and couldn’t do and then to manually adjust the camera to capture the four different exposures. It also took years of learned skill to edit and adjust the merged image files to achieve the artistic vision I had when I stood in the abbey and was inspired by the scene. I feel I created a piece of art with this image.

Another example would be my new piece “Autumn Camp”

Normal exposure unedited

 

All four exposures combined and edited.

 

This is another four different exposure image ranging from 2-stops under to 1-stop over. I wanted to capture the full tonal range of the leaves and the sky but I also wanted the finished image to have the stormy-moody look of that day. Taking a picture, even properly exposed, may not always portray the actual mood of the scene that the photographer experienced. It is the photographers job as the artist to capture the scene how the photographer saw it. In this image I also did much needed Photoshop work to remove unwanted vehicles and other objects. Before digital photography I could not have gotten this image from this angle without a lot of pre-work making sure the area was how I wanted it to look, without vehicles and tables and chairs. Even then it wouldn’t have turned out like I wanted. With the ability to remove and even add items in the image the creative control of the artist can truly blossom. I personally do not like to do much more to an image than I did with this one and I try to shoot images that need as little editing as possible but sometimes the artistic vision I have can only be created by enhancing and cleaning the image.

Even when shooting film there is more to getting a wonderful photograph than just taking a picture. What type of film was used to achieve the desired result and what paper it was printed on, affected the final product. Even manipulating the image at the time the shutter was clicked with certain on-lens filters or during the printing process with techniques such as dodging and burning, all went into the art of creating a masterpiece. Now with digital cameras the image is manipulated during the editing process to achieve the desired result but the skill involved is still as pertinent.

Ansel Adams said “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” I find that statement to be as true today as ever. Some people build their piece by combining many different photographs, known as a compilation. If that is what it takes to reach the artistic vision they have, I have no problem with it. I do think they should be honest and upfront that the piece is not one image taken exactly how nature presented herself at that moment, but one they built. Someone once said “a photograph never lies” but that is no longer true. Compiled images can be very convincing as the real thing and I think the artist should be proud of what they did with their editing techniques and make no false pretense that it is an actual one-image photograph. THAT is what makes it art, the fact that the photographer not only caught a moment in time but used acquired skill to make it a work of art.

So is photography art? Of course a photographer will say yes while many gallery owners will say no. I personally find it the epitome of snobbery to say photography isn’t art. People have been creating wonderful artistic photographs for well over 150 years. I think it is time for the art world to get with the new millennium already, it is 2018 not 1918 right?

 

Happy Trails

Tomas Mitchell