The (blurry) line between art and photography

I’m interested in a discussion of those factors that can transform a photograph into a work of art, if indeed there are any.

Photography at its most basic is a means of capturing a specific section of the world at a specific time and place. At that level it is relatively easy to do, and there are millions of cameras, including smart phone cameras, that can do that job.

Can we articulate what things might be able to elevate a matter-of-fact photo into something that would make many people want to look at it repeatedly and possibly hang it on their wall? That would give people emotional reactions beyond the subject matter? There are great landscape and portrait photos, for example, and there are mediocre ones of the same places and faces. Are the great ones “art?” What makes them that?

The composition of the photo is critical. Sure you can take a photo of a building, but if you take care to take the photo from the best angle, perhaps with a feature or two in shot, and in the best light, and at the right level of zoom, and so on, then it can be a far better picture. Perhaps you’ve wet the stonework with a hose to make it glisten or perhaps it’s just rained.

OK, that sort of thing can change a mediocre photo into a good photo. Does more of the same make it great, or make it art? Or are there completely different factors at play?

Study Ansel Adams. If you make it to Yosemite, there is an Ansel Adams gallery and they do a hiking tour, describing many of the techniques that Adams used to generate the art of his photography.

An art critic I met once (at an exhibition of my photography!) told me he considered every photograph ever taken to be art.

In one sense, it’s difficult to argue with that - saying that a thing is only art if it meets some vaguely defined standard of worthiness means that nobody will ever agree on what art is.

You could argue that some photography was done for professional purposes, such as documenting a crime scene or recording the state of some building work. Or, perhaps for some scientific record. But then can you ever say that none of those things will have artistic merit. You can find online (on Flickr I think) albums that show every image taken by the Apollo
astronauts. Many of them seem to be taken for scientific purposes, or to show, for example, how a strut might be resting on the lunar surface. These particular images were not taken for artistic purposes (others would have been of course), but I personally find them to illicit great emotion. And as a collection I believe they have enormous artistic merit.

The line is only blurry because we each have a subjective opinion on what deserves to be called art. But that critic had thought about it and decided that it would be better to consider it ALL as art.

Still not sure if I agree but it’s a compelling argument.

Some photographs (such as Annie Leibovitz magazine covers) start with designing and setting up the setting, the lighting, the clothing worn by the photo subject, their makeup and even how they are posed. Beyond that, the photo might be retouched after (either using an old-fashioned airbrush or more likely Photoshop).

That’s very far from a crime scene photo that’s meant to accurately record the position of a murder victim and the weapon at the scene of the crime.

One of the techiques he (and his assistants) used was “spotting out” things from negatives. Mostly they got rid of dust specks and the like. But on the famed “Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine, California”, he got rid of the intials “LP” on the hillside that were spelled out with white rocks. (seen here in an unretouched print).

Adams said this about removing the letters for his art:

Well, I wish I hadn’t read this thread, because I wish I didn’t know that about that print. I like the unretouched one better–it shows more detail.

There are a lot of artists and photographers in my family and my husband’s, so I’ve heard a lot of discussion about this topic. It’s interesting that artists and photographers have influenced each other a lot. If photography is excellent at rendering every little detail, then art has to do something different. If photography is elevated artistically, then art has to do something different.

I have two prints from family members hanging on my walls. One is a la Adams, a white horse in front of a dark rock outcropping, and behind that a lighter mesa. It’s black and white (of course!) and the interplays of light and shadow are amazing. The other one, by the same photographer, he took the first day he had his Hasselblad, which was the ultimate camera at the time. It’s of an iris, with drops of dew on the leaves, and it looks like two dragons conversing. But it also looks like dew-drenched irises.

I would consider both of these art, and so does the photographer. I think it’s first of all the selection of the subject, then the composition, then the perfect execution of each step on the road towards the final print.

Well, I’ve even cleaned my glasses and I ain’t seeing the “LP”.

Where exactly am I looking?

I drew an arrow to the letters:
Once you see them, they are impossible to unsee.

What makes it art is aesthetic intent. What makes it good art is execution and creativity.

It’s not art if you use your phone to document a dent that someone put in your car door. If, however, you notice something about the dent that makes it aesthetically interesting, and you take a picture to capture that aspect of it, you’re creating art. If you take a really good photograph that highlights the aesthetics in a beautiful, interesting, or unusual way, you’re creating good art.

Where the line gets blurry is when you take the picture just to document the dent, but then later as you’re going through and clearing out space on your phone, you just happen to notice that it catches the light in a really interesting way, and submit it to a photo contest.

It’s nowhere near as dramatic and eye-catching, and better captures how Ansel Adams “felt” the scene, in my opinion. At any rate, Ansel Adams printed the hell out of his prints. If you like “straight out of camera” types of prints, you’ll be disappointed by how much work is done to massage his prints into his creative vision.

Also, don’t be fooled by where you see black on the screen in that print. I’m sure there must be actual detail there, but you’re looking at a shitty reproduction on a computer screen, so the blacks are probably much more collapsed than a real-life examination of the print would show.

Should read:

[The unretouched print is] nowhere near as dramatic and eye-catching, and the retouched print better captures how Ansel Adams “felt” the scene, in my opinion.

You use the same physical tools to create a users’ manual or a novel. Or to create a sword, ploughshare or sculpture. What makes it art is the combination of intended expression and achieved impression (and bad art is still art… just bad)

The artistic/creative element in photography lies in the photographer artist looking at the scene and visualizing how these objects and this light could constitute an original image that causes an impression on the viewer.

When an artist paints a representational portrait/scene, the art is not just about how good you are at portraying faces, scenery or landscape but about the skill in conveying the interplay of shape, color, light, textures, and implied motion in such a way that it creates an impression on the viewer – so you can do the same in photography except that those you do by identifying and selecting the actual objects/persons/scenes, their characteristics, placement and illumination (or, if in the case of landscape/nature photography, waiting for the moment when they come together); and choosing the characteristics of aperture, exposure, depth of field, focal point, etc. that bring those forward in the way you find most expressive in effect.

Or, as in Chronos’ example, photography can be a way to capture ephemeral images as Found Art.

I’d like to submit a reverse threadsh*t:

I’m thinking, “What the heck does he mean by art? OP must define his terms.” Then I see this:

Pow, done. What a great start for discussion.
Nobody has mentioned the rule of thirds and quarters. It seems strange that such a simple technique can make an image more compelling, but it often does.

Another tip is to scan the edges of the frame, trying to remove distractions where you can.

Thank you all, I appreciate all the points of view and input, although I will say I am not looking for tips on how to make better photos. Anyway, much excellent food for thought, and in my greedy way I hope for more.

Based on Jeff Lichtman’s post, we could also discuss what constitutes aesthetic intent. I can think of three basic intents for taking a photo: documentary intent, to capture a particular moment to preserve it in memory; journalistic intent, to also attempt storytelling; artistic intent, which is to what? To isolate and highlight some aspect of the real world so as to make people take notice and think about it in a new way? That might be one, are there others?

To me, aesthetic intent means an attempt to appeal to the senses or emotions. It’s art if the creator is trying to make something beautiful, or soothing, or jarring, or happy, or sad, or surprising. . .