But is it art?


The World’s most expensive photograph to date. Rhein II (1999) Andreas Gursky.
Sold in 2011 for $4.3million.

In all the writing and thinking about History and my own histories, the debate ‘Is It Art?’ keeps coming back. The debate seems to coalesce about two areas:

  • The time taken to make an image
  • Mechanical processes involved

It’s a debate I’ve had with myself about my own processes: making pictures with a camera does seem easy in comparison with making paintings or drawings, and yet the hours it can take to perfect one photographic image seems to negate this former statement. It’s easy to press the shutter button, but it’s hard to photograph things well; it’s difficult to process images, either in a chemical or a digital darkroom.

There is also a subtext which might be termed the democratisation of making art: who is allowed to be an artist has been – and still is to an extent – controlled in society by a social system whereby artists must either have independent means or patrons or spouses with a regular income. The photographer as businessperson, and thus involved in dirty mercantile activity, is not a real artist: artists have a higher calling. Art is, after all, not made for money, but for love. But we all have to eat. We can’t all lie around, writing poetry, and dying of consumption in attics…

From photography’s inception, the terminology of the artist is present in discussions of the daguerreotype, the talbotype, and yet the story is also of a relentless drive into mass production (and thus commercialism), and it is this and the mechanical aspects of the process which eclipse any notion of artistry in the taking and production of an image. Commentators, not least of all Fox Talbot, write of Nature being the author of the works, and of images making themselves. Fox Talbot wrote:

it is not the artist who makes the picture, but the picture which makes itself. All that the artist does is to dispose the apparatus before the object whose image he requires; he then leaves it for a certain time, greater or less, according to circumstances. At the end of the time he returns, takes out his picture, and finds it finished.

                                                                                                         (Talbot, 1839: online)

So whilst he speaks of the artist, he claims that this artist does nothing other than deploy the camera, and rather disingenuously neglects the artistry of choosing what the lens should frame; the craftsmanship of preparing the plates beforehand; the skill of knowing how long to make the exposure for; not to mention the skill in subsequently developing and fixing the image. 

Lady Elizabeth Eastlake writing in 1857 is equally determined that photography cannot be art because, in a long winded flowery way, she says that art selects and refines, while the camera does not: it takes everything indiscriminately (in Trachtenerg, 1980: pp58). This is the same issue noted by Ian Jeffrey in Photography: A Concise History: ‘Lured by hallowed reputations, photographers stationed their instruments in front of abbeys, castles, palaces, beauty spots – and came away with untidy evidence of building projects, repair work, scaffolding, stonemasons’ yards, street trade and tumbledown housing’. (1981: 14). Photography is not a replacement for painting or drawing, as Fox Talbot with his complicated camera lucida initially hoped, ‘holding, as he believed,’ as Lady Eastlake writes, ‘the keys of imitation in his hands’; it is, however, a different art all together.

Walter Benjamin’s account of art and photography’s early skirmishes is enlightening:

With the advent of the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction, photography, simultaneously with the rise of socialism, art sensed the approaching crisis which has become evident a century later. At the time, art reacted with the doctrine of l’art pour l’art, that is, with a theology of art. This gave rise to what might be called a negative theology in the form of the idea of ‘pure’ art, which not only denied any social function of art but also any categorizing by subject matter.

                                                                                                                       (1968: 224)

So ‘Art’ was threatened. Maybe the same process is at work with all the current talk of the demise of the art of photography due to the rise and rise of the smartphone camera: Stuart Jeffries writing in The Guardian cites photographer Antonio Olmos as saying, ‘There have never been so many photographs taken, but photography is dying.’ So Jeffries asks: ‘Isn’t what we’re witnessing a revolution in photography, thanks to digital technology, that makes it more democratic?’ And Olmos is pragmatic and agrees, but thinks photography is dying for a much more prosaic reason: ‘The iPhone has a crap lens. You can take a beautiful picture on the iPhone and blow it up for a print and it looks terrible.’

But who needs prints in a paper-free world? [Jeffries asks.] “For me the print is the ultimate expression of photography,” [Olmos] retorts. “When I do street photography courses, I get people to print pictures – often for the first time. The idea is to slow them down, to make them make – not just take – photographs.”

                                                                                                (Jeffries, 2013: online)

The slowing down is the thing. Artists, then, are slow… Ironic that Lady Elizabeth Eastlake should note in 1857 that the early scientist-photographers were seeking the ‘element of rapidity’ (1857: 52). Now that we have it, we need to slow it all down again. Unless we’re street photographers…

…In Osaka in 2011, I saw an exhibition of work by street photographer Daido Moriyama. It rained torrentially while I was there. After I’d looked at the hundreds of images on display, I sat for hours in the cafe leafing through the exhibition book I’d bought. And because it was still raining – the kind of rain that soaks you through just thinking about it – I went round the exhibition again. It was stunning even the second time around. And this time I watched the film of Moriyama talking about his process demonstrating how he selected and shot this subjects. He talked in Japanese, but the film camera walked with him as he strode through a city, Tokyo perhaps, camera in hand, cigarette between his fingers, and shot things, without breaking his step… It probably took longer for me to look at the images than it did him when he was walking and shooting. And yet each image, black and white and hung against white, framed as art, was grimy, sometimes blurred, sometimes off kilter, and always starkly beautiful… would I think that if I came across such images on the internet, not labelled as ‘art’?… we swiftly flick swiftly through images, taking them in at a glance: we Flickr them, we click and flick and click through them. Sontag makes the observation that the photograph in print does not control us like the photograph on film does, as compared to a book (or a computer screen)

The sequence in which the photographs are to be looked at is proposed by the order of pages, but nothing holds readers to the recommended order or indicates the amount of time to be spent on each photograph.

                                                                                                                                    (1979: 5)

True enough, we can walk as fast or as slow as we like in the gallery, and in a book, we can turn the pages as we please. But in a film… and maybe it was watching the film of Moriyama’s photos that really burned them into the retina of my heart. Film however, as Sontag notes, chooses how long you spend with each image. So maybe then, if artists aren’t slow, art is slow. And maybe, as Sontag suggests, film is the best medium for exhibiting photography.

Judge for yourself: for copyright reasons, I direct you to Moriyama’s site rather than post them here, but I can share images I took in Japan in response. These are almost SOOC, in that in post, I converted them to black and white and sharpened them because I shoot in RAW. For the rest, each image is as I took it.

Osaka at night

Cycle (2011) H. Newall

I would never dream, normally, of shooting in the street like this, but Moriyama’s show encouraged me. EnCouraged. I was brave, suddenly. And being in a foreign world somehow helped.


Hiroshima (2011) H. Newall

Perhaps it was because, as a foreigner it was easier to ‘see’ the street environment. It was a strange place to me: it was the city defamiliarized. And there certainly was the sense that as a foreigner I had ‘permission’ to take pictures that I would normally find it excruciating to take. I can’t take street images in the city near where I live because someone might stop me; someone might object; someone might mind… Certainly all these things were true in Osaka, but they didn’t seem to matter so much. I took the night images walking round by myself with a huge grabbable camera. Wouldn’t dream of doing that in the UK.


Subway (2011) H. Newall

Snaps. Snappy to take. Snapped fast. Not always art. Art is in the eye of the artist. Art is in the eye of the beholder. Art is beautiful. Art is imperfect. Art is dangerous. Art is a lie to tell us the truth. Arts snaps at our complacencies. Snaps.

I hate snapping. I used to take hundreds of photos on holidays, always with the hope that something might happen and they’d metamorphose between the shutter release and the prints arriving back into something wonderful. And sometimes they were quite good, but mostly they were disappointing, and mainly because I’d had no control over much of the shooting and processing. This was because I always had crap point-and-shoot film cameras and so couldn’t really do much other than control what I pointed the camera at. The rest was auto shutter, auto aperture, auto ISO: the camera was deciding everything, and then Kodak or Max Speilmann got to decide the rest. And this is why my pictures weren’t art, even if some of them looked quite good some of the time.

Art then is control over the outcome? Bayles and Orland write, ‘Control, apparently, is not the answer. People who need certainty in their lives are less likely to make art that is risky, subversive,  complicated, iffy, suggestive or spontaneous’ (1993: 21). So, control sometimes. Sometimes, it’s experimentation which requires a loss of control, but here, the camera would either try to compensate, or I’d get stickers over the photos from the Photo Lab, which said polite things but the messages implied: ‘This rubbish picture would greatly be improved if you’d stopped experimenting and taken it the way the camera manufacturers thought you should…’

Then I got a big SLR and went to Africa, and things improved a little. But I still had no control because I was not developing my images. And whilst I considered setting up a black and white dark room, I didn’t have the space, nor at that time the funds…

Then I came home from Africa with a suitcase full of Max Speilmann lions and got a digital point-and-shoot. It promised to be different. It promised to be cheaper. I pushed it to its limits. It was still not what I was looking for, although it was certainly cheaper now that I was no longer stockpiling all those packets of unlooked at prints… And then I got a DSLR, a Canon 50D. And the Apple programme Aperture. And shortly after that, Photoshop. And then a 5D Mk II… And suddenly, here was control in camera. And here was control post-production. And here were two new debates to contend with:

  • Digital photography is not as good as film photography: discuss
  • Post-production is not as good as getting it right in camera: discuss

These are big arguments I can’t rehearse here – I can, however, tell you my answers: yes, digital is freedom; yes, post-production is my favourite part – but out of it all – the snapping and the printing and the digital arms race upsizing – comes a manifesto for making images. It was there all along, this manifesto, it just took me a while to see it.

Bayles, D., & T. Orland. (1993) Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, Santa Cruz: The Image Continuum
Benjamin, W., ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in Walter, B., H. Zohn (trans.) (1968) Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, New York: Schocken Books
Fox Talbot, W. W., ‘The Pencil of Nature: A New Discovery’ in The Corsair. A Gazette of Literature, Art, Dramatic Criticism, fashion and Novelty (New-York) Vol. 1, No. 5 (Saturday, 13 April 1839) pp. 70-72. Online resource, The Daguerreian Society)
Jeffries, S., (2013) ‘The Death of Photography: Are Camera Phones Destroying an Artform?’ The Guardian, 13 December 2013, (Online)
Sontag, S., (1979) On Photography, London: Penguin

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