Is photography art?

11:00 AM

Photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson

I've recently became very interested in taking pictures for my blog. It's so interesting changing filters and composing a frame. I feel just like Austin Powers. 

The other day while I was taking some pictures around my house, I saw my sister sketching. I couldn't help comparing paintings and photographs. 

To me, the deal with cameras is that they only allow you to represent what they see themselves. If you go to Europe and you hang around their museums you're pretty much going to see paintings portraying three things: religious themes (Christian or Greek/Roman),  landscapes and portraits. 

Through painting it was possible to represent abstract and invisible things or even past events. With cameras we can only represent what is already there. What I'm trying to say is: you can't take a picture of the Annunciation.

Annunciation by Fra Angelico, 1443

In the late 1800's - when cameras were becoming more popular -  painters were kind of lost because suddenly "paintings were deemed somewhat deficient and lacking in truth".*

That's not completely true. Sure, portraits and landscape photographs are more lifelike than paintings - but that doesn't mean they're better. Cameras are only capable of portraying reality to a certain extent. Actually, the only thing they are able to portray is reality. Supernatural, imaginative, religious entities cannot be represented through photographs. 

The answer artists found was to put their own subjectivity and emotions in their paintings. That was the solution presented by the Impressionists. 

The Japanese Bridge by Claude Monet, 1899

Boy, would I be angry if I lived in this time. I'd be screaming out: "Don't be fooled by the machine! Now, you have to practice your skill more than ever! Monet, give me back that camera." Then, I'd take Monet's camera, toss it into his little pond and run.**

Anyway, the advent of cameras changed the art world forever and I think the results show us that the change was not necessarily a good one.

Any thoughts? Can we consider photography art?


Images via 1, 2, 3
* Wikipedia article on Impressionism
** I once went to an exhibit about Impressionism and I remember that it said Monet and other artists used photographs as a basis for their paintings. I tried looking that information up, but, seriously, I couldn't find it anywhere.

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11 comments

  1. I hear what you are saying about the status of painting, but I think that good photography can be a combination of journalism and art, and I love that.

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  2. I also like it when photography is well used in journalism like Weegee's pictures.

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  3. I think there are those photos you take when traveling, when you're at a barbecue, and there are some photos you take at a given moment that turn out to be works of art (like this one you showed, by Cartier-Bresson). I question myself: is one able to take an artistic photo with a digital camera, or a regular cell phone camera? Anyway, I really like black&white photos. They are full of poetry and meaning for me.

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    1. I also like black and white photos - but I like color photos as well! ;)

      I've been asking myself that question too - about digital and cellphone cameras. I dunno. The other day I read this great post saying that the camera can't do much if you don't have an eye for photography (ie. amazing cameras on amazing people = amazing pics, but amazing cameras not necessarily = amazing pics). You can read the post here: http://makingniceinthemidwest.com/2012/06/25/blogging-wisdom-and-a-fresh-start/

      That encouraged me to try and do my best with the cameras I already own. Who knows? You're the photographer in the family (one of them!) xx

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  4. "[T]he advent of cameras changed the art world forever and I think the results show us that the change was not necessarily a good one."

    What do you mean by this?

    So, we're saying that art historians assert that photography prompted painters to infuse their paintings with more "subjectivity and emotion," the sorts of things that PERHAPS a photograph could not capture. (I'm not sure I agree with this, that photography is devoid of emotion.) But isn't the impressionism that emerged after the advent of photography wonderful? With the above statement, are you referring to impressionism when you say that "the change was not necessarily a good one"? I love impressionism! Haha

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    1. No, I'm not really referring to impressionism, which is a movement I also love and admire!

      I'm referring to more modern art movements, like cubism, for example. The way I see it, photography (among other things) pushed artists away from realistic representations. As a result, some artists felt they had to offer something different. The impressionists offered subjectivity, which is great.

      But what about modern art? The more I study about modern art, the more I see that what counts is being original, transgressive, shocking.

      If you think about post-modernism, it gets even more complicated. This idea that we can't create anything new and all there's left is pastiche and reinterpretations is making art even poorer than photography.

      Those are the results I was referring to - the path that started with the advent of photography and led to modernism.

      I hope my long comment didn't bore you, and that I could make myself a bit clearer!

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  5. No, not boring at all. That makes sense. This line clarifies things: "photography...pushed artists away from realistic interpretations." Hence, the lineage of artistic forms that succeeded photography.

    This line is also really good: "This idea that we can't create anything new and all there's left is pastiche and reinterpretations is making art even poorer than photography." It seems like a sort of despondency and disheartenment befell artists after photography.

    Anyway, yes that clarifies your point. Thanks!

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  6. Oh, I'm so glad you came back! I just love discussing these subjects, but I always try to make my posts and comments as short as possible otherwise I'll keep talking forever!

    It's exactly like you said. This despondency you mentioned is what calls my attention the most in Modernism - both in art and in literature. Of course that with two World Wars this is natural and understandable, but it is something to ponder over.

    Specially when it comes to post-modernism and contemporary art, when other problems arise.

    There I go again. Better stop before I type and type... ;) xx Paula

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  7. Hahah, don't worry you can talk all you want and I'll certainly keep coming back and reading. I'm loving your blog.

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  8. While one cannot take a photo of The Annunciation, to go along with your example, one could certainly create a representation of it using the photographic medium in just as much of an artistic manner as a painter could create their own interpretation. Even before the digital age photographers would stage scenes and use darkroom techniques to create imagery that was artistically expressive showing photography to be much more than a mechanical medium.

    Enjoying your blog! :)

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  9. Hi Lauren! Yes, you could create such a representation in a photograph but would it be in the same artistic manner in a painting? That's what I'm questioning, I don't know if taking a picture of actors/models representing the Annunciation would involve the same artistic/mental techniques that a painting or sculpture would. Because, in a way, this photograph wouldn't be a photograph of the Annunciation but of a staged representation of the Annunciation. Do you know what I mean? The picture is representing something that happened at the time he took the picture not something that happened two thousand years ago. I hope I'm not being too obscure here.

    Thanks for the kind words and welcome ;)

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Thanks for commenting! Do come back because I usually reply to comments here.

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