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Is photography Art?

1. the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be app

On The Guardian’s website today, I read an article, obviously by a regular columnist, talking about the most expensive photograph ever to be sold, at $6.5m (somewhere north of £4million). The columnist states:

Peter Lik’s hollow, cliched and tasteless black and white shot of an Arizona canyon isn’t art – and proves that photography never will be

Jonathan Jones’ article opens with ‘Photography is not an art’. This is the same columnist that has written at least 5 articles for the Guardian in the last couple of years identifying photography as art, or photographers as artists:

[Robert] Mapplethorpe’s photography really is art because it was made by an artist

I also point you in the direction of another of Jones’ articles titled ‘Photography is the art of our time‘ where he concludes with

From news images to the Hubble telescope, Photography is the art of real life – however manipulated. And real life creates true art.

In January 2014, Jones wrote about art on Mars; images captured by the Mars Rover, but then saying that the art is on Mars. He appears to have a misunderstanding at a very basic level of what the word ‘art’ actually means. The art is in the composition and the human aspect of capturing that particular image.

The photograph subjected Jones’ attack today is, technically a good photograph, even to my limited understanding of photography. It is properly exposed, there are no completely black areas, no completely white areas. There are leading lines, there is a gateway that the viewer looks through to see the main subject, it follows the (albeit subjective) golden section. Jones doesn’t even mention the medium; yes it is a black and white photograph, of course, but he doesn’t even mention whether it was captured with a digital or a film camera. He doesn’t consider the combination of the composition, skill and post processing that goes into producing a final image.

I think he has made gross misjudgements in many of his statements in this article. Perhaps he is jealous that he didn’t take the picture? Apparently, Jonathan Jones was on the jury for the 2009 Turner prize. Shouldn’t he know better? He doesn’t like the image, that’s fine, but attacking an image in this way, either through jealousy, lack of understanding, or just as ‘click bait’, to encourage reaction and to get people onto the Guardian website, is probably rather devious and quite unfair, particularly as his opinion on photography seems to have changed so drastically after seeing one single image.

I have often heard discussions of whether photography is art. Even having recently visited the Tate Modern to view the superb ‘Conflict · Time · Photography’ exhibition, hearing some of Don McCullin’s commentary on his work, he states he is happy to call himself a photographer. I agree with this, and I would feel uncomfortable calling myself a hobby artist, because I cannot draw. Would I class my own photographs as art? Possibly, but I’m not certain. I create images that are aesthetically pleasing to me. In a lot of my photography, I don’t think I am trying to communicate anything much more than ‘I like this’. That isn’t to say that I don’t think photographs are art, because I think they can be.

I wonder if the difference is actually between the words ‘art’ and ‘artist’. By definition, an artist is someone who creates art, but is it just how we are using the words in day to day language? Maybe a photograph can be art, but is the creator of that photograph an artist? Perhaps they are, but for ease of communication, we refer to the person as a photographer, to help to identify the genre of art that they are producing.

Photography did not exist as a medium when the terms ‘art’ and ‘artist’ first started to be used, so perhaps that is why these terms are traditionally so closely associated with someone who paints as opposed to any other type of art (with a notable exception of a musician being described as an artist). Just because it is a newer medium, does not mean photography is not ‘art’.

I would be very interested to read any feedback in the comments below.

View some of Peter Lik’s brilliant photographs, including ‘Phantom’ at his website here: www.lik.com

Update 12th April 2020:

I have since read that there is no evidence to suggest that the original Guardian website news article is based on fact. I have researched since, both based on comments on the article and on my own research and I have established that the sale price given is purely a statement from the photographer himself and to date has still never been independently verified.

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