Photography – an artistic identity crisis

December 26, 2014 § 1 Comment

canyons photography color colour beauty art

Photograph by Erik Harrison

Photography has, since its inception, suffered a crisis of meaning of sorts. The age old question ‘is photography art’ is still a disputed one. Critics might even say that the post-digital era of image overload – especially on social media – has undermined its position as an art. Moments are captured, not created, and scenes of great wonder and beauty are duplicated. The ease of photography has, perhaps, pushed it to the point of exhaustion. Instagram/Hipstomatic fads of one-click vintage filters, which desperately seeks to imbue images with a quality that will somehow distinguish it from the many others,  succeed only in robbing the process of the integral, definitive quality in all art; thought.

It is true; most photographs are taken without this mysterious trait called ‘thought’. Consumers will rarely consider compositional dynamics or the artistic, narrative intent of the scene when taking a photograph. However, defining the medium by the ignorance of the majority unfairly adds insult to the names of the few. Masters – Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, even photojournalists such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, consider every element in composing their photographs. True masters can take stunning images with the bare minimum. Watch Vincent Laforet with a cheap Canon EOS A2eL, and the awe-inspiring images he produces:

One might criticise the opportunistic nature that photography benefits from, particularly photojournalism, saying that the success of the resultant image is ‘luck’. Disputing this, I would say that people underestimate how much consideration a photographer will put into their work. They will often spend time observing a scene for recurring patterns. Having the skills to capture such moments aesthetically and meaningfully is nothing but artistic. Like the physical arts – theatre and dance – the movement of life has the potential for beauty at its essence. Often, realistic images will evoke strong emotions from the observer, be it the pity and terror we might feel for a Vietnamese child fleeing napalm fire, or the admiration of an Afghan girl’s fierceness of character. This ability to evoke emotions is one that art across all mediums share.

fashion photography beautiful experimental photography

Photograph by Yanzhou-Bao

Many contemporary photographers are more overtly experimental. One only has to look at the likes of Viviane Sassen to see the artistic potential of the medium. Fashion and fine art photography often entirely distort reality, with deliberately meddled/composed scenes and artistic use of photography settings. Photography is also used by artists themselves, as is the case with the likes of John Stezaker, who splices old images of movie stars, distorting reality. While many criticise the digital era for spawning the online fads we see these days, photography’s very existence is defined by technology:

 “We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art”- Paul Valéry, Pièces sur L’Art, 1931

From the earliest photograph ever taken, ‘View From the Window at Le Gras’ by Nicéphore Niépce, taken with newly developed, primitive photographic equipment, the medium has been criticized as an art form. Despite this criticism, it is my express opinion that superb photography has all of the qualities of true art; it involves thought; both in regards to the narrative and aesthetic, it can stimulate strong emotions in the observer, and it can be used to bend reality to suit the photographer’s creative vision. The lack of such qualities in amateur photography truly sets it aside from the work of skilled professionals. In an era when the sheer volume of photographs makes us worry for the originality of such content, photographers will be utilizing technology and, most importantly, their artistic vision to create more compelling, original and inspiring art for decades to come.


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