Recently a friend expressed frustration with the failure of some, both consumers and those in the art world, to give photography the credit it is due as an art form. Somehow, because photography is captured through the lens of the camera and not with a paintbrush or sculpting tool, there are those that, if they think of it as art at all, think of it as a lesser art. People have even been heard to say “why would I spend all that money on a photograph when I can buy real art” when viewing works in a gallery. To those who have spent years developing their craft, this is an insult and highly frustrating.
Like the painter’s paint brush and oils, or the sculptor’s sculpting tool and granite, the camera is the tool of the photographer through which he or she expresses an artistic vision. Like any artist, the photographer must first visualize the image in their mind’s eye before they can execute that image. Sometimes this happens on purpose and meticulously through planing, but unlike other art forms, sometimes this happens in a split second – when a moment’s hesitation could be the difference between a snapshot and an image that tells a story and stirs the soul.
The photographer must learn to see light and know how to manipulate it to it’s best advantage, both natural and artificial; they must understand composition and how best to “frame” the image; the photographer must see the foreground and the background, the subject and the details, and capture all of this in a photograph that says what the photographer wants the image to say.
Unlike the painter or sculptor, the photographer is often asked to document moments in time as they happen, keepsake moments people want to revisit over and over again: a marriage, a birth, a graduation, a homecoming. These events in and of themselves are ephemeral, and so the photographer is asked to memorialize them in photographs so they can be cherished and relived.
Or the photographer captures a setting sun over a mountain range that is so beautiful it makes you want to cry; or a bird in flight, an Olympian crossing the finish line first, or even someone just quietly sitting on a park bench. What makes something art is that it communicates to the viewer. It is not the fact that the photo was taken, but was taken in such a way as to communicate something about that moment and evoke an emotion in the viewer. It is not that it is in black or white or color, or that someone manipulated the photo in editing or took it purely as it was seen through the lens.
As in paintings, the photographer can work in landscape, portraiture, still life, real life or abstract. As varied as the works of Rembrandt are from Picasso so are the works of Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon, Lori Nix, Peter Lik and other great photographers, past and present. What makes a photograph art is the same thing that makes other forms of expression art: the creative vision of the person behind the lens, capturing form and substance to share with others who will see the image and appreciate its creativity.