Photography As Art

The question of whether or not photography can be regarded as art is a very tough question.  I have never addressed it myself. But I recently picked up a follower who does beautiful photography and the question forced itself upon me: when does the photograph become a work of art?

To address this question, I will begin with Monroe Beardsley’s definition of the artwork which he proposed back in the 1980s in the last essay he ever wrote on the subject just before he died. Beardsley told us then:

“An artwork is something produced with the intention of giving it the capacity to satisfy the aesthetic interest.”

Beardsley chose his words carefully. He stresses the “capacity” of the work to “satisfy the aesthetic interest.” The object may not, in fact, generate any response whatever. But the notion of aesthetic interest is particularly important. It contrasts with the sorts of interest we take from day to day in ordinary objects, interest that generates feelings of sentiment, fear, anger, lust, or whatever. The aesthetic response when it occurs is distinctive. It results from attention that is focused entirely on the object itself. Eliseo Vivas called this “rapt, intransitive attention” to the object. The object holds our attention to itself and does not let our minds or feelings wander off into memories, associations, irrelevancies. When we look at a Norman Rockwell painting, in contrast, it conjures up all sorts of fond memories of past Thanksgivings, childhood pains, family gatherings, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, — complete with a small dog at our feet. These are not aesthetic responses and Rockwell characterized himself as an “illustrator,” not an artist. He knew whereof he spoke.

An artist can produce an object, a painting, sculpture, dance, musical composition, poem, or even a piece of driftwood that demands of us a “rapt, intransitive” response. We behold the object and we become lost in it. Our minds do not wander and strong feelings do not obtrude. We simply feel at one with the object. It approaches the religious experience described by mystics.

Now Beardsley doesn’t say the object always yields such a response. he says, rather, that it is the artist’s “intention” that it have the “capacity” to satisfy the aesthetic interest. He wants us to focus on the artist’s intention — to the extent that we can figure out what that was (and even assuming that the artist herself even knew what it was at the time). We look at the object and we see forms, shapes, colors, relationships that announce the presence of beauty. My new blogger friend is a photographer and her blog contains a number of her photographs that are clearly works of art. They are beautiful. They speak for themselves and need no explanation. In fact, any attempt at explanation is doomed to fail, because explanations involve discursive language whereas the language of art is immediate, intuitive and instinctive. Works of art do not seek to evoke nostalgia, memories of long walks in the woods, past memories of lost moments in childhood. None of these things is present as we simply look and our interest is absorbed by the photograph itself. That distinctive, decidedly aesthetic, response is the only one that seems appropriate.

I do think there are photographs that rise to the level of art. In days long gone the photographer was able to control the finished product as it was developing by altering the time spent on taking and developing the photograph, altering chemicals, etc. In cases such as the photographs of Ansel Adams, for example, the results (even in black and white) were clearly works of art.

Today, with digital cameras — and iPhones! — the artist requires an eye for composition, color, shadow, subject-matter, and the subtleties of form. One can simply point and shoot with a PhD camera (“push here, dummy”) and relish the shot of one’s self (!) or friends, or the lovely spot where we saw the eagle soaring in the deep blue sky. But only the artist is able to capture the moment when all of the pieces fit together and the finished product speaks for itself.

It can happen by accident, of course. In a recent trip to the North Shore with my wife’s niece and her brother, for example, our niece took a photograph of her brother sitting on some rocks at the shore of Lake Superior in the evening with the moon shining on the lake. It was a work of art. The photographer was able to capture just the right moment, when things were aligned and the finished product demands our complete attention. It is a truly beautiful shot.

The Shores of Lake Superior at Dusk

Yes, photography can become art. But it usually falls short because not all of us see with the artist’s eye and it is so difficult for even an artist to capture the precise moment when all things come together; and, of course, there is never any guarantee that those who view the photograph will have an aesthetic response. In a world flooded with images and sounds and diversions surrounding us on all sides there are rare moments when we are willing to take the time to just look and appreciate, allow ourselves to get lost in the picture. It takes imagination, time, patience, experience, and sensitivity. And these things are becoming less and less common. But artists are still among us and they paint, they sculpt, they dance, they play. And they take photographs.

Thank goodness!


2 thoughts on “Photography As Art

  1. Hugh, this is a good post and raises interesting questions. I have a close friend who is an amateur landscape photographer, quite good at it. But he has gone further and further into digital editing of his photos — digital manipulation, sometimes pixel by pixel — and sometimes they’ll end up quite different from the reality of the image or scene he took the photo of. The color is enhanced a lot, certain colors emphasized over others, shapes are smoothened out. He doesn’t add images or remove them, nor distort the overall scene. But he tinkers with the pieces of it, ostensibly to make it look better or more interesting in his eye.

    Maybe it’s doing what he does that makes it art. Rather than just raising his camera to his eyes and snapping the lens, he — like many serious painters — carefully composes, uses a tripod and takes multiple photos of the same image, and then spends hours on his computer with a single image. They end up as beautiful images, and definitely “satisfy the aesthetic interest.” But are they really photos anymore — or are they computer-generated images based on a photo? I ask him that a lot. He has a good response: many painters and sculptors will take photos of a scene or model and then paint and sculpt based on the photos, so they don’t have to have the model sit for long hours, nor go trudging off to a hillside all the time in all kinds of weather. This is true. So maybe the end result of his manipulated photos is still art, but I’m not sure.

    Like you, I do think some photos are art, of course. But I am moved more by the composition, the stories they tell. There are landscape photos, like the Lake Superior photo you posted, that are evocative and invite us, as you said, to slow down, take the time to get lost in them. Overall, I prefer street photos, or photos of events, people in motion instead of portrait and landscape. Photos where the subjects’ actions are unplanned or unexpected. A photographer of those scenes can do a lot of prep work, of course, gauging the lighting, positioning himself in the best place in case something does occur, and being extremely patient, waiting hours, returning day after day. The result can be photos of great poignancy, emotional power, and timeless, even if topical. They take time and work, but I don’t think they necessarily take the time in a digital darkroom my friend gives his.

    • I do think it is possible to create works of art with a camera (or an iPhone!) and without tinkering. It has to do with what the photographer sees before she puts the camera up to take the picture and how well the picture turns out in the end. It has much to do with subject-matter, but more to do with such things as composition, texture, color, etc. And those things do not have to be the result of “tinkering.” They are simply there and the photographer, like any artist, is asking us to look and see — probably for the first time!

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