Photography viewed as Art

Green wall in alley

A photographer friend, Nancy, told me about once entering a hand-coloured, black and white photograph in a local art exhibition.  The organizers advised her that they had a problem deciding where to place it, with paintings or with photography.

Wanting to be creative, and a bit traditional, she had used black and white film to photograph a scene and printed it in the old way, using chemicals in trays, with black and white photo paper. She then used translucent oils to colour specific areas of the black and white photograph.  Please remember that hand-colouring black and white photographs has been in practice as long as photography has been around.

The individuals, who organized the exhibition being ignorant of the history of photography (I was told they were all painters), believed that because she had applied something on the surface of the emulsion-coated paper that her photograph now had become a painting. I think that, lacking respect for photographers as artists, they regarded her work as something one would do with a colouring book.

We both wondered what the opinion of those exhibition judges would have been if she had captured a scene with a digital camera, used PhotoShop to convert the image to black and white, and then placed colours on some areas of the image.  She could have erased some items in the image, cloned others, or added items into the image that came from different photographic digital files. Would they still call it a photograph?  The artist had used the medium of photography to create the final image, but I have met people that would not want to call that photography.

Ignorant of the strong tradition of creative modification by photographers, many will refer to film-created images as “real” photography, and digitally created images as “digital” photography that are somehow unreal, as if film based photographs have never been altered or manipulated.

It is not bad enough that many patricians of other artistic mediums have a hard time including photography as art; but there are also photographers that want to dismiss digital or digitally manipulated images as not being “real” photography.

In my opinion if the original image file or “negative” (whether it be paper, or film-based, or digital) came from a camera of some sort, the final print, no matter what is done to it between the time light is captured on a sensor or film and presented as a final picture, should still be called a photograph.

I am excited that the medium of photography is continually changing with modern technology. Film emulsion has gone through an amazing amount of changes since 1826 in France when Nicéphore Niépce produced the first permanent image. Incidentally, his picture took eight hours to expose.  I can only presume that if he were handed one of the latest digital cameras he would be excited, and would not foolishly hold on to outdated technology, and as a photographic inventor he probably would be happy to experiment with today’s cutting-edge technology.  Yes, if we want we can still produce images with 100-year-old techniques and materials; or we can embrace the medium as it changes.

The problem those judges had with photography might have been is that it is used in so many different ways and has become so accessible.  Try to find some aspect of our society that is not impacted by photography. The medium has reached a place that, through emerging technology, makes it very usable for many people.

There are those that use it only to document their lives, but it can also be used easily for creative purposes.  One only has to check out the multitude of online photography sites to find the truth in that. That might also be why those judges struggled to accept changes to my friend’s original image.

Nancy photographed an interesting subject, and, instead of choosing to use a digital file, or colour film, she decided to use black and white film to create a mood to help the viewer feel what she felt when she released the shutter. Then further, she continued to visually discuss the subject and the surrounding scene by adding hand colouring to enhance specific elements of the photo and produced an image that was able to go beyond being a documentary of a moment in time. I think photographers like Nancy are as much artists as those in any other creative medium.  There should not have been a problem in deciding if her print was a photograph or a painting.

I am surprised that there aren’t many exhibitions held in towns and villages here in British Columbia solely for photography. Yes, photography clubs hold private exhibitions, but those aren’t generally open to the public at large. I think lots of people would participate and lots more would attend. I certainly would.  I suggest that if there are not ongoing photography exhibitions in your community, get together with some other photographers and make one happen.

I really do appreciate your comments, John

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9 responses to “Photography viewed as Art

  1. I like that you’ve chosen to not only exhibit your gift of photography on this site, but you also use your gift of words to defend the art.
    For me, the frustration is that just about everyone with an iphone or point and shoot calls themselves a photographer. Everyone who calls themselves a photographer considers themselves to be, at some level, an artist.
    Snapping pictures is fun and the basic tools to do so are cheap, thus the hobby is accessible.
    However, the skill of photography is learned with much blood sweat and tears. It is costly on many levels, from ruining a pair of italian shoes to chase an unanticipated shot far away in a field, to understanding the very specific tools that you need to benefit your craft and purchasing accordingly.
    Good shots don’t just happen. And slapping on a vintage mask from a mobile app doesn’t turn a cheap snapshot into a work of art.
    Oh, and getting paid to photograph doesn’t make you a good photographer any more than being an amateur photographer makes your work magically subpar.
    I’m completely off topic now, and I’m venting. Your well done post got me started. 🙂

    I’ve been in photography for one year. I have studied everything I can get my hands on, viewed images from the best of the best until my eyes went blurry, taken shots that I thought were good only to find out later that they sucked, learned from my mistakes and gotten better one tiny bit at a time. I have a gift. Nobody can tell me that what we do here isn’t an art form simply because it isn’t paint or film or because it’s been processed and edited differently than how they may approve.


    • Dickerson you wrote, “Good shots don’t just happen”, I agree with you. In this age of digital technology overload I think we see the dumbing down of the viewing public (or customer). We “like” just about everything. And those new to photography will almost always say “wonderful composition”, whatever that now means. When someone hires a photographer – price is more important than image quality. Words like “Photographer”, “Artist”, and “Professional” have become meaningless because they are applied without thought to everything and anyone. Can we practicing photography blame artists of other mediums lack of respect and criticism? Maybe not.
      I thank you for your added discussion on this. It is photographers like you that might save us from the word photography becoming, as you wrote, “cheap snapshot”(s).


  2. Excellent article and excellent comment.

    Photographers are the ones who understand perfectly the process of “making” a picture and do their best to accomplish it.

    The difference between “taking” a photograph and “making” a picture is not only that the second involves a certain technical knowledge but also, and foremost, it
    involves and intellectual approach in order to convey a message and create an emotional response in the viewer.

    Please, excuse my English.


    • I must begin with; your English writing is better than many Canadians I know. I need to apologize to you for only writing in English.
      Thank you for writing, “The difference between “taking” a photograph and “making” a picture is not only that the second involves a certain technical knowledge but also, and foremost, it
 involves and intellectual approach in order to convey a message and create an emotional response in the viewer. I think I will end with those words of yours. Thank you Marcelo, for your well thought out input to a discussion that really needs more time.


  3. Thanks for visiting my blog and saying such nice things. I have poked around your blog and I can tell I will be spending many enjoyable hours sifting through your fine photos and good writing on photography and art.


    • My pleasure Alison. I wandered up here (Canada) back in the 70s from LA and sometimes miss the desert. When I saw that cover shot of yours everything came back…Thanks for that great photo.


    • I suppose we need do begin with “what is art?” Is art something one displays? (or hangs on the wall in the case of a photograph) Now the “struggle” you referred to, Is that portrait that hangs in the bedroom art? What about calendars? When I look at your architectural images I don’t see them as documents of buildings – I view them as art. Ha! what is the difference my friend?


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