Those who have only a superficial knowledge of the possibilities of our art contend that the photographer is a mere mechanical realist without power to add anything of himself to his production. Yet some of our critics inconsistently commit themselves to the statement that some of our pictures are nothing like nature. This is giving themselves away, for if we can add untruth we can idealise. But we go further and contend that we can add truth to bare facts.
—Henry Peach Robinson
It may seem to some that representational photography—photography aiming to literally re-present appearances as-seen—does not quite meet the criteria for art. Art, by most formal definitions, is an expression of human skill and creativity. Representational photography of naturally occurring subjects—requiring relatively common skills and little-or-no creativity—seems on its face to come up short on both counts. I think that the distinction of art in photography is, in fact, more nuanced than that. The nuance, which seems to me unique to the medium of photography, is this: not all representation is objective representation. Representational photographs can in fact be creative and subjective—portraying objects in ways that a random person would likely never see them if it were not for the photographer’s skill and creative imagination.
Sometimes the path to truthful answers requires asking the right questions. In the simplest case, a person who sees a photograph may ask, “is this what I would have seen if I was there?” If the answer is “Yes,” the photograph may be considered as an objective representation—perhaps one of great documentary and journalistic importance, but by definition not a work of art. If the answer is “No,” the photograph may be considered as creative (novelty being a requisite for creativity), even artistic—a product of the photographer’s mind, rather than a mechanical reproduction. Such a photograph may still be representational in the sense of rendering accurate details and colors, despite being a subjective creation that a random person would not likely have seen. This can be made clear by changing the question to this: “is this what I would have seen if I had looked through your finder?”
Among the most powerful creative tools available to a photographer (and to artistic creators in other visual media) is composition, the deliberate arrangement of visual elements toward a desired effect—an expressive intent. Creative composition can (and, if the goal is artistic expression, should) transcend what John Szarkowski termed “habitual seeing”—the way that a random person may perceive an object or scene. A photograph that had been composed creatively may still be representational in the technical sense—an accurate depiction of light reflecting off physical objects. At the same time, such a photograph may also be novel and unexpected, and thus creative. Such a photograph meets the criteria for art—an expression of human skill and creativity—without need for further manipulation. A creative composition is, itself, a manipulation of the photographer’s materials toward an expressive end. (This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with other forms of manipulation when one’s goal is artistic expression, rather than objective representation.)
Creativity and expression are useful terms in assessing the artistic merits of any human-made product. (Most current definitions of art do not extend to products of machines, including so-called artificial intelligence, nor to naturally occurring objects.) This is because the terms creativity and expression lend themselves well to measurable qualities. Creativity is measured by such qualities as novelty, usefulness, and unexpectedness. Expression is measured by the degree that a product possesses subjective, rather than objective, meaning. Still, when it comes to art, such clear-cut distinctions may not sit well with some. This was not lost on German poet, critic, and polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In 1798 Goethe penned a brilliant introduction for a magazine he co-founded with Johann Heinrich Meyer, titled Die Propyläen. Regarding themes for art, Goethe wrote:
A theme having been happily found or invented, it is subjected to treatment which we would divide into the spiritual, the sensuous, and the mechanical. The spiritual develops the subject according to its inner relations … The sensuous treatment we should define as that through which the work becomes thoroughly comprehensible to the senses, agreeable, delightful, and irresistible through its gentle charm. The mechanical treatment, finally, is that which works upon given material through any bodily organ, and thus brings the work into existence and gives it reality.
Thinking of artistic themes as consisting of spiritual, sensuous, and mechanical qualities, is eminently compatible with the more scientific concepts of creativity and expression, but the terms may be more acceptable to those who consider art in terms of emotional and tactile experiences. This distinction also helps relate the concepts of creativity and expression to the distinction between objective and subjective representation in photography, and thus to those photographs presented as art.
The mechanics of artistic creation are the tools, materials, and skills of the artist (recall that art is defined as expression of human skill and imagination). Sensory experiences—sights, sounds, scents, tactile sensations—are also components of artistic expression when they are applied toward conveying subjective feelings, or as means of arousing interest and imparting pleasure to consumers of art.
Spirituality may mean different things to different people, but all forms of spirituality have this in common: they relate to a person’s inner (emotional, intellectual) experience, distinct from physical experiences (which, to use Goethe’s terms, fall under sensuality).
While the mechanics of making an artistic photograph are largely similar to the mechanics of making objective photographs (if perhaps applied in different measures), the sensory and spiritual dimensions differ between the two by their origins. Whatever sensory or emotional (in Goethe’s terms, sensual or spiritual) meanings a viewer may draw from an objective photograph, are inherent in the things photographed. On the other hand, the sensory and emotional meaning a viewer may draw from a creative, expressive photograph, originate primarily from the subjective experience of the photographer, expressed by way of a deliberate—original, and non-obvious—composition (and in many cases also by way of expressive processing choices).
Note that the paragraph above makes no distinction regarding representation. A representational photograph may still express a subjective—manufactured—meaning that would not have been obvious to (or even noticed by) anyone other than the photographer, and later to those who view the photograph. Such a photograph may unambiguously meet the criteria for art. More important, when a person asks about such a (representational but still subjective) photograph, “is this what I would have seen?” the answer is almost certainly a decisive “No.” This despite the fact that the answer to “is this what I would have seen if I had looked through your finder?” may well be “Yes.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t state clearly that the designation of art, in itself, is merely an indication of subjectivity in meaning, and not necessarily a measure of importance or value. There is no shortage of bad art, perplexing art, or banal art. Art is not in itself a badge of honor. Conversely, realism in itself is no measure of importance.
It’s also important to distinguish art from beauty. Not all art is beautiful, and not all beautiful things are art. Making beautiful photographs requires relatively little skill, and as such is no indication of artistic merit. As Wassily Kandinsky put it (in terms compatible with Goethe’s), “External beauty is one element of a spiritual atmosphere. But beyond this positive fact (that what is beautiful is good) it has the weakness of a talent not used to the full.”