Photography: Is it an art form?

As the paintbrush or clump of clay is to an artist, so is the camera to a photographer; a tool (or medium) used to create a possible work of art. It might not be as ancient a tool as brush and paint, but with the right knowledge, the camera can be used to sketch the artist’s vision or express an emotion that the artist intended to share.

“I have discovered photography. Now I can kill myself. I have nothing else to learn”.
— Pablo Picasso

Manuel Bravo Portrait of the Eternal, 1935

Manuel Bravo
Portrait of the Eternal, 1935
A study of light and contrast.

How does photography become fine art?  It’s done in much the same way that a painting or a sculpture does. Photographers display the same basic elements of art and design (as discussed in our Understanding Art as Art article) in their photographs, that any other art form does. The photographer uses his or her knowledge of composition; of line, shape, value, color and texture to create a work of art. The photograph evokes a feeling, conveys a message, and takes the image one-step beyond the typical scenic shot of the amateur.

Just capturing a beautiful photo isn’t enough to be considered fine art. Taking a beautiful photograph that speaks to the spirit is the key. How well the artist, or in this case the photographer, captured your attention with his or her unique interpretation of the subject at hand is a large part of the criteria. Where Photo Journalism tells a story and Commercial Photography sells a product, Fine Art Photography speaks to your soul.

Ansel Adams — Rose and Driftwood.

Ansel Adams — Rose and Driftwood.
A study of texture; the juxtaposition
of soft petals and hard wood.

Great photographers like Ansel Adams, Manuel Bravo and Mary Ellen Mark not only captured the essence of their subjects, but used light and shadow, texture and juxtaposition to create mood, a feeling of emotion in their work.  James Nachtwey captured poignant images of war torn countries, hoping his photographs would enlighten the world of the horrors of war. When you look at these photographer’s images, their intention and choice of how and when to photograph the subject are clear. You can tell they didn’t happen by chance. Their message is heard.

Having a camera makes you no more a photographer than having a hammer and some nails makes you a carpenter.
— Claude Adams

Since the invention of the camera in the late 1800s, progress has made taking a simple photograph easier and allowed more access for the novice to capture a moment in time. The onset of the digital age has also made it possible to alter a photograph long after the shutter has closed, creating even more facets to this medium. One would think that this new technology and easy access to the tool would lessen the value of the photography as a fine art form, but that is not the case. A tool is just a tool. It’s putting the tool into the hands of an artist that makes photography a fine art. Ultimately it is the photographer’s knowledge, creativity and experience to interpret and communicate a visual message; one that stimulates, intrigues or evokes an emotion in the viewer that determines if the image meets the criteria of fine art.