Artistic Merit in Photography

In our time it seems entirely appropriate that the widest choice be open to artists. Those using the camera or other photographic means to produce works of artistic merit should seek to exploit their medium in the most adventurous ways. […] The derogatory use of the term artifice is more often than not a bugaboo. Art is artifice. Its reality is of another nature than that of the purely physical world.

~Aaron Scharf

In 1859, not long after the invention of photography, French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire penned a scathing critique of the medium and its (lack of) artistic merit. According to Baudelaire, “this industry [photography], by invading the territories of art, has become art’s most mor­tal enemy.”

History has deemed Baudelaire wrong (at least about photography). Both art and photography have come a long way since his diatribe, and the questions of whether photography is or is not art has been settled numerous times. In brief: the question of whether photography is art is nonsensical in its very premise. Photography, without further qualification, is no more an art than writing, baking, or whittling. Photography is an activity—a means of producing images, some of which are artistic and many of which are not. That something is a photograph does not make it art, but that some photographs are art is not in dispute (except, it seems, among those ignorant of the history of art and photography).

Just because a thing is a work of art does not by necessity make that thing venerable. Also, just because a given work of art is venerable to some, does not by necessity also make it venerable to others.

The judgment of whether a thing is a work of art is a simple one and can be answered unambiguously. The term art has been settled to mean objects expressing human skill and imagination (read: creativity). Anything that meets these qualifications is—by definition—art. The medium used to produce a given work has nothing to do with whether it meets the definition of art. In order for a medium to be deemed unsuitable for art, that medium should require no trained skill and allow no room for creative expression. Photography is decidedly not such a medium.

What remains ambiguous and open to subjective judgment is not whether a thing is or is not art, but whether, and by what criteria, that thing may be considered as “good” art. This is, and should always remain, a matter of opinion. If we all agreed on objective criteria for good art, art would become meaningless. This is because the definition of art relies on creativity and creativity means the invention and creation of new things. This is a lesson we should have learned by now from the history of art. Practically all major progress in art was considered revolutionary in its day, and was often greeted with skepticism, ridicule, and attempts by some to characterize novel media and creations as bad art, or as no art.

What amounts to one’s subjective judgment of artistic merit ultimately comes down to the importance one subjectively assigns to various qualities of a work of art. For example, to some, beauty is the primary measure of art, and any work that possesses great aesthetic appeal is, by necessity, a great work of art, regardless of other qualities it may or may not possess (e.g., originality or skill).

The definition of art as a product of human skill and imagination suggests some qualities that may be considered in evaluating artistic merit. Skill implies difficulty and abilities possessed by some but not others, whether by random chance or by honed training (in the past, artists were even considered as divinely chosen). Few would argue that much less skill is needed to produce excellent photographs than, say, excellent woodcuts, sculptures, poems, or violin concertos. Because of that, some critics judge all photographic works as inherently inferior in an artistic sense to art rendered in other media that require greater skill. To me, skill is a poor measure of the artistic merit of photographs. Look no further to justify this view than so many photographers who propose that anyone can produce work as good as theirs just by mastering certain techniques, by following a list of tips or instructions, or by traveling to the same locations. (Ironically, these photographers play into the argument of critics who suggest that the ease and mechanical nature of the photographic medium makes photographic art less venerable—a position that becomes untenable when one considers the value of art to be in things such as creativity and expressiveness, and not only in the skill required to work in any medium).

Skill and aesthetic beauty being the easiest qualities to accomplish in a photograph, I consider them as less artistically meritorious than other qualities, such as creativity and expressiveness, that rely on qualities unique to an artist as a person, rather than qualities inherent in the medium or in the subjects photographed. This is not to say that I consider skill and aesthetic appeal as unimportant. In fact, the opposite is true. Being that these things are relatively easy to accomplish, I expect them as given in the same sense that I expect a painter to know how to properly mix pigments, a singer to maintain proper key, or a pianist to play correct notes in proper timing. Having these things is no guarantee of good art, but not having them is almost certain to culminate in bad art.

Creativity is judged differently in art than in other fields (e.g., science or business). Creative works in areas other than art are expected to possess demonstrable and objectively verifiable value. In art, value is a subjective judgment. However, one measure for creativity that is consistent in all fields is originality. I value originality very highly. Nothing will make me pass on the work of a photographer faster than to find that it comprises primarily of copies and imitations—compositions or styles directly copied from others, with no creative “added value” contributed by the photographer. (The exception perhaps is when such copies are of my own original works.) No matter how skillfully executed, how beautiful, or how enjoyable these works were for the photographer to make, as art I consider them deficient in, or altogether devoid of, merit.

Some measures of artistic merit in photographs are qualities inherent in the subjects photographed, such as impressive scale, interesting features, dazzling colors, rarity, or qualities of found light. I absolutely consider such things favorably. After all, I photograph natural things not so much because of my love of photography but for my love of nature. Still, in evaluating artistic merit I always consider what proportion of the appeal of a photograph comes from the subject and what proportion comes from the creative mind of the photographer. Photographs more biased toward qualities of subjects may still be good—even great—photographs, but without a significant and discernible creative contribution from the photographer, I don’t consider them as good art.

Expressiveness, in addition to creativity, is the other quality I place the greatest importance on when it comes to artistic merit. A photograph may show me only what I would have seen myself in the same circumstances, in which case the photograph lacks expression. A photograph may also suggest to me how the photographer felt and allow me to estimate how well these feelings are expressed using the things seen, making that photograph expressive (and not just illustrative). It’s this latter category: expressive photographs—photographs whose effect is significantly owed to subjective expression, rather than to objective appearances—that to me holds the greatest artistic merit.

Unlike other qualities of photographs which can be assessed as singular dimensions (e.g., how pretty or interesting they are, how skillfully they were captured and processed, how novel and original they are, etc.), the value of expression is more complex as it relies not only on how well a photographer has expressed a feeling, but also on the nature of the feeling expressed. The more complex, nuanced, meaningful, and personally relatable the feeling is to me, the more artistic I consider the photograph to be.

I attempted here to describe the weights and degrees of importance that I assign to qualities of photographs—skill, beauty, creativity, expression—when making my own subjective judgment of their artistic merit. I wish to emphasize that it is up to each of us to decide for ourselves how important we consider each of these qualities to be according to our own sensibilities, knowledge, and understanding. Also, given that one’s sensibilities, knowledge, and understanding are not fixed quantities, I believe it is important for each of us to question and to evolve our artistic judgment as we mature, as we learn, as we gain new perceptions and opinions, and perhaps outgrow former ones.

That the medium of photography may be used to create art is not in question. How we value and relate to discrete works of photographic art, is for each of us to decide. As artists invested in the art of photography, I believe we also stand to gain from helping audiences become more enlightened and informed about ways to value photographic art: to explain what qualities we each find important and why we consider them important. By doing so, we may hopefully someday be able to move beyond rehashing the same old arguments and allow photographic art to mature in the same way as other media that have long established themselves as artistic and that are now more concerned with such things as styles, movements, and philosophies. I believe we and our audiences will greatly benefit from moving beyond beating dead horses.

Dream-Land

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One thought on “Artistic Merit in Photography

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  1. Yet another excellent article on the artistic demands and subtleties of photography. I, for one, find my artistic standards evolving as I photograph more and read insightful articles like this. Thanks

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