Photography as an Art Language

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.

Aching with Meaning
“The trees, the stars, and the blue hills ache with a meaning which can never be uttered in words.” ~Rabindranath Tagore
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14 thoughts on “Photography as an Art Language

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  1. Perhaps you should write another essay discussing why is it important that photography or any other creative endeavor be “art”. I don’t understand why that is important unless we are talking about making money, and if something is “art”, then it is worth more money. When I judge a photograph I either like it or I don’t. I don’t know enough about photography to judge whether a photograph is good or not – I leave that judgement to people with a lot more knowledge and experience of photography. I enjoy taking photographs, and enjoy the mental well-being I experience when I’m out in the landscape by myself. I try to get better at creating photographs that express what I want to communicate, and sometimes the results exceed my expectations. That’s good enough for me.

    1. Doesn’t take an article, Martin. A simple analogy will do. Many people enjoy various forms of writing, but we still differentiate between essays and poems, between news reports an creative fiction, etc. They are different things created for different purposes, and understanding their differences and commonalities we can investigate them more deeply and understand them better.

      Perhaps you may say that the distinction between jazz and rock or between a symphony and a concerto may not matter to someone who just likes listening to music, and that’s perfectly fair. Still, the distinction is necessary if you want to know more about a given piece of music than just whether you like or dislike it.

  2. I kind of understand the difference between literary, musical, or photographic genres. But the distinction between art and not art in photography doesn’t say much to me unless by art someone means high quality,or superior in some sense, in which case they should use those words. If someone shows me two photographs that are similar, and says one is art and the other is not – just baffles me. Maybe it is just ignorance on my part, but doesn’t seem helpful.

    1. You’re definitely not alone, Martin. The word art has been hijacked for so many different purposes that it’s almost entirely useless in casual conversation anymore. Keep in mind that when someone uses “art” as a marketing term to elevate the perceived value of their work (rather than as a formally-defined term used to describe the purpose of the work), it should be considered with the same skepticism as, say, Budweiser being described as “the king of beers.”

      The best way to move past this ambiguity is to consider formal and/or academic definitions used to study art, rather than a term used to sell products. It’s also important to keep in mind that just because something is art, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good or important art, or that it’s “better” than anything that is not formally art.

      This is a slide I use in some of my presentations that might help.

      What is art?

  3. This is a standout essay of yours, Guy. I really enjoy the language and photography metaphor (and definitely gave an embarassingly elitist chuckle at the photographic equivalents of screaming). The call to action is powerful, too, though few are so effective as you at both the written and visual language.

      1. This is a quote (don’t have the author’s name) that I copied some time ago from a discussion on Quora, that expresses more or less how I feel about the word “art”.

        “I don’t doubt that there is something in the abstract that we apprehend as being “art,” but to me, the word itself is bankrupt and does not communicate anything meaningful between parties. There seems to be no established consensus on what the word even means, and there exists a huge philosophical problem of aesthetics that has no resolution in sight. Most often, the word becomes a point of fruitless argumentation when discussing whether or not this or that thing is art. Are video games “art”? Whenever this discussion comes up, the ensuing debate consists of nothing but a variety of people pushing dogmatically for their definition of art.
        In my view, the point of language is to be understood, and if the word art causes more confusion than it does consensus, it ought to be abandoned. I don’t think it’s helpful to uphold this magical divine category called “art.” I’m content to say that a certain thing is creative, takes skill to create, inspires meaning, etc.”
        ——–
        And here are a couple of examples that fall under the definition of “art”.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_(Michelangelo)
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fountain_(Duchamp)
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artist%27s_Shit

        When almost anything from the statue of David, a urinal, or literally shit can be called “art”, the word becomes practically meaningless.
        ———–
        From Wikipedia – Artist’s Shit (Italian: Merda d’artista) is a 1961 artwork by the Italian artist Piero Manzoni. The work consists of 90 tin cans, each reportedly filled with 30 grams (1.1 oz) of feces, and measuring 4.8 by 6.5 centimeters (1.9 in × 2.6 in), with a label in Italian, English, French, and German stating:

        Artist’s Shit
        Contents 30 gr net
        Freshly preserved
        Produced and tinned
        in May 1961

        A tin was sold for €124,000 at Sotheby’s on May 23, 2007;[5] in October 2008 tin 83 was offered for sale at Sotheby’s with an estimate of £50,000–70,000. It sold for £97,250. On October 16, 2015, tin 54 was sold at Christie’s for £182,500. In August 2016, at an art auction in Milan, one of the tins sold for a new record of €275,000, including auction fees.[6] The tins were originally to be valued according to their equivalent weight in gold – $37 each in 1961 – with the price fluctuating according to the market.[3]

      2. That’s the point of referring to formal definitions rather than what random people decide to call art. When you think of art as expressions of creativity and skill, you have a solid baseline to call something art that is not arbitrary or subjective. Just because something is art doesn’t mean it’s good or useful art. As you pointed out, some art can be shitty (literally and metaphorically), but it’s still art. Just like there are some dishes you may not like but that doesn’t mean they’re not food, or bestsellers filled with nonsense that are still books. On the other hand, an apple made of plastic may look like an apple but it is clearly not food. Similarly, photographs or other works that are not creative or skillful, are not art. They can still be good (or bad) photographs but they don’t fit the (formal) definition of art.

      3. Seems like a familiar conundrum. I the art the stuff sitting outside the cave where I can’t see it or is the the shadows on the wall?

  4. Two quick thoughts.

    1. Learn to speak art.

    2. A critique of “art photography” (e.g. — some use of photographic techniques in the “art world”) is that rather than learning the language of photography itself, it tries to translate that language into the language of existing art media.

    Dan

    1. Thanks Dan! I agree with your points. I also think it’s worth considering that they can sometimes cut both ways. Our education system doesn’t do a good job of giving people a good foundation to understand or consume art (instead, it focuses on giving students a foundation for entering the job market rather than enrich their individual lives). As a result many discussions of art are largely esoteric or ambiguous.
      The “art world” has proven itself time and again to be mired in political, economic, and fashionable concerns, focused more on minting celebrities and selling high priced status symbols, rather than encouraging creativity and fostering growth among artists. Some thrive in this environment and others are marginalized by it. For anyone who considers art a calling and a personally rewarding pursuit before anything else, it’s probably best to just ignore the opinions of critics, judges, marketers, etc.

      1. As you can imagine (since you know a bit about my academic background), I have opinions on how college/university eduction has moved more and more in the direction of direct job training and why that it both a problem and a corruption of what a post-secondary eduction used to aspire to.

        Your point is, in my view, correct. I’m going to restrain myself from writing the chapter on that subject that will appear if I let it go. (For a little frame of reference, I served time as a college academic senate president. Don’t judge. 😉

        I have a subtle variation on your “just ignore” point — in many (but admittedly not all) cases it is perhaps worth hearing those voices, but it surely is important to not surrender to them. The truth is that among those folks you can find someone to like and dislike just about anything.

      2. Maybe that’s the crux of it. When such people have something substantive to say based on their subject matter knowledge, proven expertise, and lack of bias it can certainly be useful. Whether they like or dislike your work, however, is a subjective judgment and should be taken as such.

        David Hume defined what he considers to be qualities that distinguish a person as a good judge of art. I propose that these are good ways to measure any feedback you get: always ask yourself whether the person who gives you the feedback meets these qualifications. According to Hume:

        “a true judge in the finer arts is observed, even during the most polished ages, to be so rare a character: Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.”

      3. Those seem like good qualities for one who intends to offer art “criticism” (in the positive sense of the word), at least as an ideal.

        I do think that there is value in hearing the voices of some who fall short of this level of perfection, as long as we can keep our wits about us and hear what is worth hearing and not pay attention to that which isn’t.

        The practice of critique is worth reflecting on. You will hear things you agree with, things you disagree with, things that someone sees in your work that surprise you, and more. You’ll also hear some nonsense, some sensible things that make sense for others but not for you.

        Leaving aside ideal critics (from whom all words are those of wisdom) and jerks (whose “opinions” are best ignored), there is something to be learned from the sum total of imperfect responses, too.

        At least I think so. 😉

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