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Is Photography Art? (And What Makes Photography An Art Form)

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There is one question every photographer finds themself pondering—is photography art? It is one of those questions with many opinions and different sides to the argument. Today, we will take a brief look into photography as an art form.

This article will provide a basic understanding of photography’s relationship with art. We will look at various views. And we will give you pointers on transforming your digital photography into art.

An art gallery space with gray walls and white-framed photos on the wall in spotlights

What Is Fine Art?

When we think of fine art, we usually think of painters and sculptors. Artists who produce beautiful work through their creativity and imagination come to mind. We think of art as something beautiful that makes us feel something.

And, of course, there are many definitions of art. But first, it is a form of expression. It is something that can talk for us. It is a medium that isn’t bound to language but emotion. 

These simple definitions of art fit well with photography. But let’s dive deeper to explore the question, is photography art?

Two images of red roses and the side back view of a car superimposed against one another to make one image.

What Makes Photography Art?

First, we must credit science for photography. A few pioneers used technology to capture traces of light as a direct print of reality. But there is a stark contrast between creating art and snapping a photo of the world. And this leads some people to question the integrity of photography as fine art. 

In the 200 years of photos being around, we can say that photography does not convey one ‘truth’. A photo captures a moment of reality. But the way we read that image, or situation for that matter, makes a difference.

Most of us are aware that photographs don’t tell the whole story. One single image can convey many different conflicting narratives. ‘Truth’ of the image comes from context. The way we read photos are an interpretation of our imagination. And if photographers are aware of this, they can communicate ideas with the viewer.

Subjectivity in Fine Art Photography

Susan Sontag wrote about subjectivity and photography as an art form in her book, On Photography (1977). She writes about how photography is a medium and language to make art. She points out how it can both ‘lie’ and give ‘aesthetic pleasure’.

Photography isn’t inherently identified as an art form. It is a tool. It is up to the photographer to apply a vision and message to their images. That is the determining factor in making photography fine art.

A monochromatic abstract fine art photo of a plant or frost

Photography vs Fine Art Photography

Now that we have set some definitions, we can differentiate between photography and fine art photography. As we can see from Sontag’s quote, they are not two separate entities. Most styles of photography, like commercial photography, operates in the realm of documentation, not art. So what makes photography art?

If a photograph is aesthetically pleasing, it doesn’t mean it counts as fine art. This is a common misconception with photography. Images of any sort covey a specific emotion or feeling. But it is the intention of the image-maker that sets it apart.

When we get down to it, aesthetic isn’t essential when talking about fine art photographs. We can see this from a range of well-known painters. Many people have a good giggle at paintings that, ‘My five year old could have painted’.

Using Photos to Explore Concepts

These conceptual pieces are the heart of the artistic practice. The artist isn’t asking whether you enjoy the act of looking at the work. But it begs the question—why someone would present a visual medium in this way? 

Many artists use photographic images in their visual art, signifying that photography has a unique relationship with fine art. Art is all about conveying different realities to the viewer, and photography provides a good starting point to explore that. It is then no surprise that artists use digital photography and manipulate photos for their art. 

People may find it harder to relate to a painted, fictional scenario than a real-life photograph. Photographs can help bridge the gap by providing more relatable visual reference points like a human face in portrait photography.

Portrait of a woman with a flower on there shoulder and large diamond earrings.

How to Make Your Photography Art?

We have identified the artist’s intent for a message as the main factor in making photos art. So how can you now turn your photographic work into a well-rounded fine art photography project?

Portrait Photography as Art

Suppose you are a portrait photographer. Think about why you choose the subjects you photograph. This is not always a conscious decision, as you may photograph people because you like how they look.

Even still, think about what the subjects have in common. Maybe they all live in the same area? Perhaps they all like the same music? By identifying these aspects, you may realise you are forming a view on a subculture or society.

When you have recognised these elements, you can then realise what brings these characters to life. Displaying those essential details provides a disconnected viewer with a glimpse into someone else’s world. You create a connection between people who would never have otherwise ‘met’.

Landscape Photography as Art

Suppose you shoot landscape photography. What makes your digital photography art? Are you interested in a particular region? Or do specific happenings take place amongst your scenes?

What would it mean to put the context of one location in the same series as another? What links do they or don’t they have? I hope you are catching my drift with this aspect. It is all about forming a coherent story through your images that comment on the world.

Landscape image of a cloudy coastline with aa beach, ridge lines, and a road with a vehicle on it

Conceptual Photography

Of course, there is also the more conceptual side of photography. People who photograph in this style create scenes or images that create an overarching story or theme. Or maybe it isn’t a story but an emotion, an opinion, or even a rebellion against norms set by society.

Through a well-constructed image, you can voice your opinion in a universal way. You can dispel the need for words, allowing the viewers to make connections in your images and figure it out for themselves. You can see this in high-fashion photography. There, artistic expression pushes conceptual art boundaries.

Conclusion

Now, you should see that photographic art is all about getting across a message. Art is so ubiquitous that you can pretty much define it for yourself. If the question for you is, ‘How pretty is this picture?’ then what’s to say that it isn’t an art form?

So the simple answer to our question—is photography art? Yes, it can be.

For me, the most critical factor to hold onto is the ‘why’. If you bring yourself to have a hard think about your work, there will most likely be a clear answer. This ‘why’ is also crucial when looking at art. So get to a museum, get some inspiration, and get creating!

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