This article is adapted from a column I originally wrote for LensWork Magazine. I have been a proud contributor to LensWork for several years, and consider it one of the finest photographic publications of our time.
Photography has been called an irresponsive medium. This is much the same as calling it a mechanical process. A great paradox which has been combated is the assumption that because photography is not “hand-work,” as the public say—though we find there is very much “hand work” and head-work in it—therefore it is not an art language. This is a fallacy born of thoughtlessness.
~Peter Henry Emerson
The words above, by photographer Peter Henry Emerson, are from his book, Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art, published in 1890. The book influenced many photographers of the time, including Alfred Stieglitz who quoted from it in his writings. The book also was, in the words of Emerson, “an attempt to start a departure from the scientific side of photography.” Among its last pages, this question gave me pause: “The promising young goddess, photography, is but fifty years old. What prophet will venture to cast her horoscope for the year 2000?”
Emerson offered many brilliant observations on photography as art (distinguishing it from scientific and industrial uses for the medium). In time, he had also witnessed the great influence that his book had on some of the leading photographers of his day. Then, just a couple of years after publishing his book, Emerson published a follow-up he titled, The Death of Naturalistic Photography, recanting many of his original positions and conceding that he was wrong in thinking that direct reproduction of nature was a form of art. In his despair, Emerson wrote, “I have, I regret it deeply, compared photographs to great works of art and photographers to great artists. I was rash and thoughtless and my punishment is having to acknowledge it now.”
Admittedly, I have often contemplated thoughts similar to Emerson’s, both about photography as a worthy medium for art—what I refer to in this article as “an art language”—and about reasons why so much photography (rightly) fails to earn the distinction of art.
To this day, photography still struggles for acceptance in many art venues; and is still maligned by some as a medium for art—not only by some artists of other disciplines, but also by some photographers who still consider photography only as a mechanical process, to be regarded strictly as a technology for mimetic representation.
It seems to me that one possible reason photography has such a hard time being accepted as an art form may be that much of the discussion of photography as art, and many of the arguments made so far, have been for the most part academic, often requiring some depth of knowledge of art and its history that are not of universal interest. But I think that a more pervasive failing is the ubiquitous question: is photography art?
To ask whether photography is art is akin to asking whether a pen or a word-processor is art, or whether the English alphabet is art. It is a nonsensical question, yielding by necessity subjective, vague, and often nonsensical answers (“yes” not being the least of them). I believe that a more useful question is, as Emerson characterized it originally, whether photography can be an art language. To this question, I propose that “yes” can be asserted and defended as an objective, decisive, and true answer.
Among the definitions of the word language in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is this: “a systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by the use of conventionalized signs, sounds, gestures, or marks having understood meanings.” Few would argue that pictures have the ability to communicate ideas and feelings, which is only possible when people are able to derive ideas and feelings from visual cues, such as lines, shapes, colors; and from the ways these cues can be composed together to complement or contrast with each other to create likenesses, or to impart moods. Having the ability to use such cues, photography also has the ability to express meaning in the same way as any other form of visual expression. In other words, photography may be considered a form of language. But what is it that distinguishes language from art language?
Humans acquire language skills gradually. In early childhood, toddlers lack the ability to express themselves in specific ways, using words. When in need of calling attention to themselves, they just scream. Likewise, many photographers in their early attempts may hope to command viewer attention by the equivalents of visual screaming—intense colors, visual gimmickry, or extreme perspectives.
As children begin to gain command of words and grammar, their modes of communication become less loud and more specific. Still limited in their vocabulary and in their capacity to form complex expressions, children tend to be descriptive and literal in their verbal expressions. The same is true of the majority of photographs made by inexperienced photographers and laypersons lacking depth of skill in visual composition.
In time, as people mature, they acquire richer vocabularies, the ability to alter the meanings of words by intonation of voice, and the meanings of expressions by use of common metaphors, shared symbols, and established idioms, as well as linguistic tools such as humor and sarcasm (and, for more limited and focused audiences, also by use of esoteric context-specific terms). In photography, such degree of expression—clear, unambiguous, effective, purposeful, and well-crafted—may be considered the hallmark of most seasoned professionals.
Having mastered a degree of language extending beyond just practical need, most people proceed to find ways of using language to broaden their knowledge according to personal interests, to express complex concepts, to socialize, to consume various forms entertainment, etc. Such progress in language beyond mere utility can be seen in photography, too—in online forums, in camera clubs, in photography-focused workshops, contests, events, educational books and videos.
It is here that a minority of people choose to depart from mere practical and common uses for language and evolve further interest in not just the meaning of words and expressions, or in communicating known concepts, but also in the aesthetics of language. Members of this minority become poets and wordsmiths, novelists and story tellers, essayists and science-fiction writers, rhymers and spoken-word artists, authors of haikus, slogans, koans, aphorisms, and maxims, coiners of new metaphors, terms, and expressions. These few use language not just as a means of communication but also as a means of creative expression—not just informing their audiences with knowledge and wisdom but also challenging their audiences with riddles and abstractions; not just relaying purpose-specific information but also imparting rich and complex experiences to be consumed and appreciated for their own sake. These are the people who turn common language into art language.
Likewise, artists in photography—those who use photography not as language but as art language—can, have, and do express more in their photographs than literal transcriptions, more than just surface appearances, deeper and more complex concepts than just what something looked like. Such artists also, sometimes, photograph for reasons having nothing at all to do with communication or with realism, intending for their photographs to be experiences in themselves, their purpose being to arouse the senses and the mind.
When it comes to audiences, just as some lack in skill, interest, education, or depth of feeling to find value in poems, so do some lack the knowledge or depth of understanding to appreciate visual art—photographic or other. That is to be expected and accepted as inevitable. But in those cases where a lack of understanding and appreciation of photographic art is owed to honest ignorance rather than to prejudice, I believe that there is greater value in educating audiences than in becoming indignant about being misunderstood—in explaining the value of poetic, artistic, expression in photography, rather than writing off those yet to discover its rewards—to distinguish explicitly photography as a language from photography as an art language.
Let us go beyond decrying our medium as the victim of some prejudice or conspiracy by the “art world.” Instead, let us be teachers and educators; let us work positively to eradicate artistic illiteracy. Rather than blame the prejudiced, let us move the world beyond the prejudice, until the prejudiced become relegated to just a visually illiterate minority. This must begin with us who proclaim ourselves—openly and proudly—as artists, and our work as art; distinct in purpose, methods, and modes of appreciation from other forms of photography. Let us do so, not by maligning or denigrating any of those other forms, many of which are of supreme importance, but by helping our audiences learn the difference between these forms and what we do—art.
To say that photography is (or is not) art makes as much sense as saying that English is (or is not) beige. It’s a useless characterization. But photography, English, and any other languages having sufficient richness of expression, can, in artistic hands, be more than just a language—it can also be an art language. Let us speak it, use it, teach it, and build upon it.