Copyright Scott Bourne 1997 - All Rights Reserved

Carl Shortt, from Oklahoma City, OK is a regular listener to the Photofocus podcast. He sent this thought-provoking question:

I’m sure that photography as art has been debated many times before but I’m not finding anything definitive; perhaps because there is no definition just opinion?

At any rate, can you please share your opinion as to the factors generally considered when determining that a photograph is considered to be art as opposed to just a snapshot? One qualifier I have though of would be the photographer’s intent. Was the image created as an object of art? Is it art because (or just because) it has some social implication or commentary?

This is both a loaded and deep question. One man’s art is another man’s trash. Since art is very subjective, I am not sure it’s possible to do anything other than opine. The “definitive” answer Carl seeks isn’t available from anyone I know.

We can start with the basic dictionary definition.

“The quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.”


“The conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects.”

Using either of these definitions, I think one could quite successfully argue that most serious photographers (i.e., the typical Photofocus listener) are artists. Do you produce images that are beautiful or appealing? If so, according to the dictionary you are making art. It seems more clear if you go to the next line in the standard definition, “or of more than ordinary significance.”

Of course here we start down that curvy road of wondering what is of “more than ordinary significance.” For instance, if you’ve never seen the Lower Antelope Corkscrew Slot Canyon pictured at the top of this post, then you may think it’s of extraordinary significance. But for someone like me, who’s been there a dozen times and seen hundreds of such photos, it’s not out of the ordinary at all. So here is were the art is in the eye of the beholder.

I am no art expert. I know what I like. I never went to art school, but have done some formal study on my own. A photographer I admire named Alain Briot has written extensively on this subject. While I am not sure I always agree with him, I think his essay on the subject is very thought-provoking and perhaps even illuminating. You can read about it here at Luminous Landscape.

As for me, I don’t find it useful to debate such things. To me, the only thing that matters is the picture. What you or someone else calls it – i.e., art or not, shouldn’t get in the way of my creative process. I should also mention that most of my own personal experiences with the self-identified photographic “artists” has been universally negative. They seem to think that making photographic art requires a complete disdain for anything that’s commercially successful – so they do year-long projects that involve photographing a pile of sugar using Holga cameras so they can call it “art.” The “artists” in our community tend to be a bit snarky and more concerned with processes than pictures. I admit these are my observations only and based on my personal interactions. Your mileage may vary. Accordingly Carl, i’m afraid that I am not the best person to answer this question. I believe that such debates are generally unproductive. If you want to make images and call them art, I don’t think anyone should argue. As for me, I just want to make more images. I’ll let others define what is art.


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