Photography was first developed in the 1820s, and almost immediately, it received criticism that it was not art. At a meeting of the Photographic Society of London in 1853, this very question was raised. Photography, it was claimed, was “too literal to compete with works of art.” And even in the 1970s, this attitude still remained, even if it had diminished.
The idea is somewhat understandable. After all, photography serves to record perfectly what is actually there, a completely faithful record of what the camera sees, with nothing added or removed when the image is laid down on the film or sensor. It is the perfect recreation of a scene. Painting, on the other hand, must be filtered through the mind of the artist before it is made real, and so the artist can leave out a distracting element, or add something that is lacking. He can change a model’s expression, alter the lighting or the colour, and even create images which could never exist in reality. In short, nothing appears in a painting unless the artist wishes it to be there, which cannot be said for a photograph. Another argument against photography being an art form was that a photograph could be reproduced countless times, whereas a painter could never exactly reproduce a painting. And, for some, these inherent differences prevented photography from being considered an artistic medium.
But photographers very quickly discovered that a photograph had to be composed carefully, lit correctly, exposed correctly and developed properly. Variations in the way the photographer made his images could mean that two photographers shooting the same scene could come away with vastly different images. When shooting, a photographer makes choices about the focal length of the lens, the depth of field, the degree that movement is shown in the image. And the ability to modify images in the darkroom (whether digital or otherwise) gives an even greater degree of choice for the photographer to modify the image.
But ultimately, the issue of whether photography is art or not comes down to the definition of art. There can be no single definition, as art is a subjective thing and is different for different people. But for me, art is something that is designed to make you think. How many have looked at the Mona Lisa and wondered if she is happy or sad? How many have looked at David and wondered what he was looking at? Art is designed to evoke an emotional response in the audience. It must force us to ask questions that can never be answered by the art itself, and this forces us to create the answers out of our own minds. This makes the audience a fundamental part of the production of art, the final step in the creative process. Indeed, without the audience, how can the art exist at all?
And from this perspective, the answer can only be that photography is indeed art. Not all photography, of course. The very things that lead some people to claim that photography is not art also mean that it is superbly suited for documentation of events and places. But a great deal of photography, no doubt, is created as art. Photographs have been used to explore the shape of the human body, they have brought us into the relationships between people. They have shared with us the emotions of others and evoked those emotions in ourselves. Photographs play with shape and form, line and colour, just as painters have done for centuries.
And it is perhaps the most paradoxical idea of all that sometimes it is the photographs meant only to record events and document the world that have been the most emotionally provocative of all. Who can look at Steve McCurry’s 1984 photo of the Afghan Girl and not be transfixed by the intensity of the way she is looking at the camera? Who can look at the picture of the Tank Man in Tiananmen Square and not be awed by his bravery? Who can look at Kevin Carter’s picture of the vulture waiting for the African child to die and not have their heart break for the suffering endured in those famines?
So yes, photography is art. Through the choices that the photographer makes, photographs can fall into the same categories as any painting, from realist to surreal, minimalist to abstract, all of which invoke emotions in the audience. But it is photography’s ability to provoke emotional responses with images of reality that allows photography to be art in a way that other forms could never achieve.