Photography as Art

copyright 2004 by Tad Beckman, Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, CA 91711

There are three fundamental components of what we call art. First, is the artist; second, is the medium; and third, is the art work. All three, clearly, are interrelated. The fundamental idea, however, is that the artist produces an art work within a selected medium. For instance, the Navajo artist R. C. Gorman produces art works like his "Night Stories" within a medium called color lithography. This particular piece was created using more than 70 separate lithographic plates, each adding its own particular color.

In addition to these three fundamental components, we might also suggest that "subject" and "audience" are also important to art. The subject, I'll suggest, is something real from which the art work starts. The audience is a complex of "viewers" which may never be more than the artist herself but may become millions of people spread out over centuries of time. Saying that the subject is something real does not imply that it is a physical object. It could be a thought that comes to the artist; it could be a psychologically complex image that has a strong affect on the artist. Equally well, saying that the audience is a complex of "viewers" should not imply that they only perform some physical act of "viewing." An audience engages with an art work by being affected by it and this may go so far as suggesting that they come to an understanding of it or interpret it.

Photography has struggled, through one and a half centuries, now, to place itself as a fine art. To many people, photography has seemed to be merely a reproductive medium. The medium and the work were clear, but the role of the photographer as an artist was not. Many people assumed that the photographer was simply a technician who "operated the medium" and, in that way, produced a photograph. Could the photograph be construed as an art work?

Many of the great photographers of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century attempted to validate photography as a fine art by intentionally producing images that were softly focused and imitated contemporary techniques in painting. Alfred Stieglitz, one of the most vocal advocates of photography as a fine art and publisher of an influential magazine, Camera Work, used these so-called pictorialist images to show photography's closeness to the landscape painters of the time. On the other hand, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and others founded a group of photographer-artists, called the f/64 group, who created extremely sharp and detailed images with the explicit intention of demonstrating that photography could be legitimately artistic even when using its medium in the most physically exacting and "realistic" way. [You can see this contrast in Cunningham's works. One of her most famous images out of the f/64 period is "Magnolia Blossom" (1925); but her portrait work often relates to her earlier pictorialist phase. (click to enter the Cunningham Trust, at the previous WebSite, and watch the changing examples of her work.)] Adams continually called this movement "straight photography." If photography is an art, then, it is not an art because it can imitate something else or because its medium can be used in some specific way. Photography is, like all arts, a matter of free play between the three fundamental components of art -- the artist, the medium, and the art work.

The Medium. Every artistic medium has a substantial technical side that requires mastery. Mastery having been established, the artist often invents new aspects of the medium or uses it with considerable variation. While B&W photography would seem to be simply based on a standard array of films, papers, and chemicals, the history of photography demonstrates a huge variety of approaches to emulsions and processes and depository media. The ambitious and innovative photographer/artist might want to concoct his own emulsions and coat them on glass bottles. Anything goes so long as basic criteria are satisfied.

Mastering the medium is the first step in becoming an artist. For a photographer, this will mean gaining an understanding of technical equipment and processes and knowing what kinds of photographic images result from specific treatments in both the camera and the darkroom. We are privileged, today, to have a large variety of fine films, papers, chemicals, darkroom equipment, and computer software commercially available; but the central issue is really knowing how to use whatever you have. Early photographer/artists like Adams and Weston built their own enlargers from old camera parts. (Adams used sunlight reflected through a hole in the wall as his enlarger light source!) Stephen Johnson started into digital photography in the early '80s before anything was commercially available and carried huge portable harddrives into the field with him, attaining color prints by making three identical black and white images, using a set of RGB filters.

The Art Work. The photographic art work, or image, is usually a fine print that has been mounted, framed, or published in a book. [The Web has become a new medium of presentation, and many photographers are getting their works before the public in this way.] Part of the confusion about photography as an art arises because most prints appear to be straight replications of reality. It would seem that the photographer is just an "operator" of photographic equipment which "lifelessly" reproduces some real scene onto a permanent picture. Ansel Adams, for instance, was constantly accused of being a mere replicator of natural scenery, a realist copier. As an audience, we could be thrilled by Adams's landscapes, but many were skeptical that Adams had anything very much to do with these images, more than getting the camera to the right place at the right time. Only by looking carefully at what Adams actually did will we truly understand where artist and technician part company. Adams was a perfectionist in technical matters; but he was also a very sophisticated artist. Images that seem to be mere replicas of reality were usually manipulated substantially in both camera work and darkroom processing. [See Ansel Adams. Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs.]

Before going on, we should take note of the fact that this same skepticism has always been possible in most arenas of art. Among painters, there are distinguished artists and there are great technicians. The same is true of musicians and composers. As art works, for instance, most 18th Century portraits leave little to the imagination. Writers of contemporary pulp fiction or true romances don't tend to stand up to Herman Melville and Thomas Mann either. As photographers go, the "wedding photographer" would also seem to occupy a low end of the art form.

The Artist. In the end, the greatest weight of the whole artistic enterprise rests on the artist who brings a subject to an audience through an art work that is rendered within some medium. While we will try to suggest some descriptions of this phenomenon, nothing can really compete with "watching" an artist first-hand. Therefore, much is to be learned from gallery exhibits, portfolios, biographies, letters, and critical essays.

In a letter to Ansel Adams (1/28/33), the photographer Edward Weston said, "photography as a creative expression -- or what you will -- must be 'seeing' plus: seeing alone would mean factual recording -- the illustrator of catalogues does that. The 'plus' is the basis of all arguments on 'what is art.'" This was written during the period when Weston was creating detailed images of natural objects, such as fruits and vegetables, or this shell. Seeing the object is easy -- even natural -- but seeing it in a specific way is the work of artistry.

Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange both worked for the Federal Government during the early years of the Great Depression and both produced extensive portfolios of images that show people of the time -- tenant farmers, farm laborers, factory workers, men and women in soup lines. We might presume that these are merely documentary records, but both Evans and Lange were highly respected artists. How can we understand this?

There is, in art, an act of will in which the artist willfully responds to a subject so as to bring that subject to an audience. The art work is no mere mirror of a physical subject because what the artist brings to the audience is her response to the subject and not the subject itself. Evans's street scene in Selma, Alabama (1935) is a case in point. The physical objects (building, people, street, auto, etc.) arranged as they were could have resulted in hundreds of very different images, depending on camera placement and exposure. This particular image is an art work, as such, because it brings out Evans's particular response to the scene. That response was complex, including the sitting men, their postures, the walking men, the shadows, the street, and the auto. We have to ask what the specific arrangement of objects "says." How do we "read" it as something that Evans communicates to us through the image?

Here are two of Lange's most famous pieces: "Migrant Mother" and "White Angel Bread Line". Also, use PowerPoint to view this slide show based on Lange's collaboration with photographer Clem Albers on the Japanese relocation center at Manzanar in Owens Valley, California. [Ansel Adams also photographed Manzanar and you can view some of his prints here.

Another artistic giant was Henri Cartier-Bresson. In this portrait of Robert Flaherty (1935) physical reality is clearly represented in the photographic image, but everything else represents the products of an artist's decisions. Why did Cartier-Bresson choose to represent his subject in this exact way? What does it say about the man? [Use the arrow keys to view other portraits.] Cartier-Bresson was known as a "street photographer;" many of his most famous scenes were spontaneous records of momentary events, like this French boy returning from the wine store. But these are no mere "recordings." Cartier-Bresson had an amazing ability for capturing coincidence and irony. This is, in Weston's terms, "seeing plus." It is not merely seeing the people and wanting to photograph them, but rather it is "understanding" them in some unique sense that comes to expression in the particular photographic image.

Updated on November 24, 2004; click here to return to Course HomePage.