*Photography vs Art

Where does a photograph stop and digital art begin?

Where does a photograph stop being a photograph and start becoming something different?  We’ll call it an ‘artistic interpretation’ for lack of a better description.  Or, are they one in the same no matter what level of manipulation has been applied?  I’ve been taking pictures for a while, more of my life than not if you don’t count the hiatus I took after college when I was bogged down with three jobs.  I still have some shots from that time period, but they are few and far between.  So, I feel like photography has been a part of my life for a while.  I’ve not spent too much time thinking about it in these terms until recently.  Prior, I’ve just enjoyed taking pictures but thanks to the internet and my epiphany that there are other people out there with opinions getting me to challenge my personal understanding, I feel like it is an entertaining idea to explore.  Is anything done to a photograph, after an image has been captured, by way of any kind of manipulation actually doing something that betrays the purity of photography, or is it just part of the progression?  Well… let us explore.First let me admit, I feel that this subject is more or less indefinable because it requires too many definitions of what I personally see as intangible entities.  I say intangible because I can’t get 10 people to agree on the same definition let alone authorities on the english language.  As a disclaimer, I’m just thinking out loud in an attempt to further facilitate an ongoing conversation.  I don’t claim to have an answer to the questions posed, just opinions and personal definitions where I will appreciate others and their personal opinions and definitions, even when contradictory to my own.  Alright now, that said, lets get to “defining” some of these intangibles…

The word PHOTOGRAPHY originally came to us by way of the Greeks, literally translating to “drawing with light.”

  • “Photography” is defined by various sources as follows:

dictionary.comthe process or art of producing images of objects on sensitized surfaces by the chemical action of light or of other forms of radiant energy, as x-rays, gamma rays, or cosmic rays.


Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11th Ed.the art or process of producing images by the action of radiant energy and esp. light on a sensitive surface (as film or a CCD chip)


Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary online(the activity or job of taking) photographs or films


  • “Photograph” (noun) is defined by these same sources as follows:

dictionary.coma picture produced by photography.


Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11th Ed.a picture or likeness obtained by photography.


Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary onlinea picture produced using a camera

A bit of gray area, but more or less straight forward I guess.  The one thing that caught my eye was the use of the term “art” used in two of the first three definitions I found.  Art, or the concept of what “art” is, has long been debated by artists, aficionados and self-important college students the world over.  I’ll let you find your own definition of art, but to me, it is the use of a creative skill which produces something.  It can be music, a painting, a piece of dog poo duct taped to a piece of paper and hung on the wall (seriously, I had some “creatives” accompany me for four years of ‘higher education’).  What a creative skill is, to me can be just about anything.  That being said, I think quite a bit of the “art” I’ve seen is utter crap (even much of my own), literally in some cases, so I am pretty liberal with my inclusion I guess.  I’ve heard the term “the art of photography” used before more than once.  I don’t think it is a stretch to consider photography “art.”  Personally, I’ve gone back and forth between the idea that the act of taking a photograph is merely a documentation of something that already exists and isn’t “creating” anything (and by this line of thinking combined with my own definitions does not art make),  but when altered, the photograph can become “art” by way of creating something different than what existed, versus feeling like there is an actual artistic element to the capture of what already exists.  So, which is it, or is it neither?  I have come to the personal conclusion that photography is art, to me at least.

Like many things ‘artistic’ I personally feel that it is entirely up to an individual to determine what it is and how photography and art co-mingle.  If you take a picture and feel that you have done nothing to “create” something that did not already exist, then perhaps photography is not “art” but merely the capture and documentation of how light falls on and interacts with the world.  But, in and of itself, isn’t the capture of this onto some physical capture device creating a medium that otherwise would not have existed?  If a tree falls in the woods…  Well, I guess it can be debated.

There are those that feel that manipulation of a photograph after it’s been captured in any way ceases to be “photography” whether that be digitally or in the darkroom.  I can only assume, at this point, those that feel this way would have to admit that it at least becomes some form of art, or an artistic interpretive translation of the aforementioned photograph.  The next point I’d like to explore, assuming we are all agreed that photography is the capture of light, and art has something to do with output of a creative skill in some way, lets talk about where photography stops being photography and becomes something else.  Okay, so we live in a time where photographers have access to software and digital manipulation tools that couldn’t have been imagined a few decades ago.  Whether you shoot film or digital, you have access to digital archival, manipulation, enhancement, etc.  How many of us have rescued a poorly exposed photograph by being able to tweak the exposure levels in some type of software?

Personally, I love post processing and the tools that software has provided the modern photographer.  Like many things in life, we have a choice to not use these tools or to use in varying quantities to suit personal taste.  We can all agree there I’d guess.  The point of contention though seems to be, how much is too much.  When does a photograph cease to be a photograph?  Does it ever cease to be considered “photography”?

Recently, I read through a thread on flickr where someone had made a comment that basically said they had a friend that felt anything done to an image after capture ceased to be “photography.”  This is what tipped my interest in the topic as I feel that is a poorly structured blanket statement.  Any digital camera is providing some level of processing and compression, yes even in RAW files as the A/D conversion that happens via the camera’s processors needs to convert an analogue image to a digital file.  So, I took this comment to literally discount digital photography, but it had me thinking about past photographers.  I used Ansel Adams as an example.  I feel I would be hard pressed to find someone that legitimately thought his prints were not photographs.  But, Mr Adams spent a good amount of time fine tuning both his capture and post processing techniques in the darkroom as did many of the past photographic masters.  Simple dodging and burning by this particular argument would disqualify these as legitimate photography then and here in lies my interest.  Photographers have been altering their photographs after the fact for as long as photography has been around.  Through techniques in the development of film and print, way before digital photography existed, there have been many tricks of the trade to create an “altered” photograph.  Sure, it was tougher to clone out stray hair, or unnaturally sharpen an image before Photoshop hit the scene, but isn’t this just the progression of the art form?  New tools become available in many industries and art forms through research and development.  Did the invention and introduction of electric instruments kill music?  Does compressed air, when combined with paint in the form of an airbrush cease to be “painting,” or are these just examples of new tools being introduced to an art form further progressing it?

Sure, I feel that there are many photographers, and photographs that push beyond what I consider to be a level of processing that is “good” but I also recognize that to them, it may be just right.  As is, I see much of the high end digital work being produced by not only photographers but digital artists, graphic designers, 3D imaging engineers and the like, utilizing photography as an element in the process to just be progressing photography as an art form.  Is it photography, digital art or something different?  I guess it comes down to personal definition.  As is, it is hard to find consistency in traditional definition, so it is up to us to determine our own ideas on it as it pertains to our photography.  Is digital (or darkroom) photographic manipulation in any form a move away from an image being a photograph and change it into art, or is it just our new photographic reality?

9 thoughts on “*Photography vs Art

  1. I’m a little more zen about “whether photography is art” or not. Sure, if I can define art as expressing a creative impulse of the senses, it’s art. But the point is that the definition of art, which has never been successfully done, IMO, is just that: a semantic distinction.

    Of the dictionary definitions I like is: “the human ability to make things creatively”. Making things by rote, habit, out of dullness would not be art, but if your intent is to create something new, then photography is art.

    Intent is key. If you’re taking a snapshot of Aunt Martha by the Christmas tree, then that’s probably not art, though it’s valuable as a family document. If you try to take a picture of a bird in the sky and it succeeds and you were trying to create something new or kind of new, then wonderful! That’s art.

    The zen approach might be: sculpture is sculpture, painting is painting, music composition is … and so on. Photography is different and is just that: photography, sui generis (or the thing in itself).

    Any attempt to characterize it as this thing or that thing is just reflects your position, your pov, your point of reference in the universe. By that definition, photography is art from where I sit, right now, Apr. 16, 2010.

    I think post processing is just about the same: if you take that photo of Aunt Martha and crop out Uncle Ernie who was drunk and is divorcing his wife…, and brighten it up a bit, print it out and send one to each person who said they wanted one? That’s not art. That’s just mending a sock or buying a tube of toothpaste – daily activity that gets us by but has nothing to do with composition, framing, brightness, contrast, color balance, … That’s art, IMO.

    I think maybe the problem is that as digital photographers, possessing software that can do absolutely amazing things with the touch of a key or mousepad or wacom tablet, that we feel a bit guilty. Michelangelo to years and many helping hands to craft David and a great, great crafting it was.

    But us? Click the shutter, upload an image, crop and tune a couple parameters and bingo! A work of art. A work of art? I think so but the Puritan feeling persists that one should struggle for one’s art. You can have this pov but I’m sticking to mine: Photography is art. Post-processing is an art and sometimes we can all agree that a great work of art was created whether by Ansel Adams or you or me or Tyson or Aunt Martha.

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  2. Interesting Terry!

    Let me throw a hypothetical out though. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that same picture of Aunt Martha with the cropped out Uncle Ernie was done by someone with the intention of turning it into a piece of “art” by which they snapped a shot, perhaps with creativity (or at least in their mind creatively) and processed it in a way that they felt was visually interesting. Does it make a difference, even if you or I see it as a crummy shot of someone’s Aunt Martha next to a Christmas tree?

    I’m not necessarily admitting one way or the other as I am merely floating around this discussion, even in my own mind.

    I’ve seen some truly mediocre photographic images (in my opinion, granted) get recognition as good or even great photographs, so who am I to challenge Aunt Martha’s niece or nephew?

    I agree that many past art forms required amazing skill, patience and ability while so much of what many of us consider quality art now can be created very quickly and without much more than a basic understanding of some simple principles when it comes to modern digital art at least. I don’t think that many would consider a nicely processed image to stack up to a masterpiece by Michelangelo, granted, but that’s not to say that someone currently couldn’t be capable of producing a sculpture using the same techniques as Michelangelo used. Would someone, a skilled sculptor capable of producing such a work of art be recognized now as exuberantly as someone hundreds of years ago. I doubt it, mainly because it would be compared to those past pieces that have gained a near universal acceptance as being masterful. So much of what we do artistically as a society is very much influenced by what we grew up understanding as masterful art all the while technology has advanced our artistic output in a variety of ways. Does that make us less of an artist compared to someone who had to make due with what was available in the past, or were they asking themselves the same questions?

    Regardless, it is an interesting topic to me. One that I think can potentially have as many conclusions as there are opinions.

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  3. Ok, so Martha’s nephew, Fred, thinks he’s a photographer or an artist and starts off to create something “special” or “new” with his shot of Aunt Martha. Or maybe he doesn’t but the shot, for some reason turns out to be really great in Fred’s mind. He shows it off but everyone who sees it thinks it’s just another picture of Auntie.

    Here’s the tough part: is it still art even if no one else in the world likes it? It is still possible that this photo is art? I think so. There are examples of artists who were not recognized in their lifetime. Maybe Fred’s one of those. But I would say, that for Fred, this photo IS art.

    But I’ve created an artificial world with Fred and Auntie M. In the real world, there’s more agreement on what makes a good image or any piece of art whether it’s music, painting, sculpture of any other form.

    Here’s a bit from Wikipedia on the 1913 Paris premiere of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”. As you can see not everyone was in agreement with the composer.

    “…first drew catcalls and whistles from the crowd. At the start with the opening bassoon solo, the audience began to boo loudly due to the slight discord in the background notes behind the bassoon’s opening melody. There were loud arguments in the audience between supporters and opponents of the work. These were soon followed by shouts and fistfights in the aisles. ”

    Today the piece seems hardly the sort of thing that would merit fisticuffs – point being that art is (IMO) more in the mind of the artist than in the mind of the participant and time is often on the artist’s side.

    What’s perhaps a more important point is: Is it enduring art? For that, of course, you need agreement from your fellow humans and time. Too, there has been a good deal of total dreck that the multitudes have loved: the Keene paintings of the 60’s of giant eyed children. Egad and avast! So, I think agreement is clearly not sufficient.

    So, maybe what we need is another term for what is accepted by critics, the audience at large and what is also creative. I don’t think that word exists in English.

    Add persistent to creative and accepted so that the photos of Ansel Adams, I am quite sure, will last as long as the images themselves and accepted as great art. As you point out, Adams worked in the darkroom to create the works that we are familiar with and love.

    Post-processing is no more than any art form that doesn’t just pop out, ready for the public and critics. The “Rite of Spring” was worked on until the opening and many, but not all, pieces of art continue to evolve as the artist gets feedback.

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  4. it is really interesting that i came across this today…my partner and i just had this discussion over the weekend.

    i recently started some really heavy photomanipulation in photoshop and he asked why i would do that instead of just going with the original as i shot it. i tried to explain in the past that what i was doing (and these weren’t heavily redone, just color correction and such) was just putting the image back to what i originally saw. the new photos i was doing multiple textures, color shifts, conversions, filters and more, which i explained was my form of photography.

    he then asked if that was what i saw, then why didn’t i just compensate so that it would look that way when i shot it. i had to think about it for a min…i do start with something and usually build/change the mood of the shot to fit what i envision….so maybe it is just digital art and not just photography.

    mixed media used to just extend to things like paint+pencil+marker+collage…now i think a photograph that is worked in photoshop becomes a mixed media piece. i have worked in many of what is considered traditional medias, and i am seeing that it is the way i also approach my photography. and now i can admit that and it actually made me start thinking a little differently as to how i would frame/expose/focus on subjects.

    great blog by the way!

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    • Hi David,

      Thank you! If nothing else, it is an interesting internal dialogue to have as a photographer. Personally I feel that if the original image was captured with a camera, it is, at least at its root, photography, or at least photographic art. I used to be in the “photoshop isn’t actually photography” camp back when I was a bit more righteous and unlearned in post processing.

      Now, after having taken pictures for many more years, I have come to the conclusion that it is merely part of the process (or at least my process), and in my opinion the final result only matters to the originator (and perhaps anyone they are trying to appease). I agree with the mixed media assessment, and a category that I hadn’t really thought about encapsulating digital photography and post processing. By introducing a second medium, being a software program in this case, it does create something different than the original captured image. I see it as a continuation as opposed to a new beginning personally, but wouldn’t disagree if someone called my post processed photographs mixed media art.

      I guess that I have come to a point where I could care less what others do, and as long as they enjoy the result, good on them. It doesn’t stop me from having a reaction, or opinion on their photography, but I now recognize it as just that, my opinion. Like I mentioned in the post, I have seen what I consider to be mediocre photographs get praised, and others that I feel are beautiful images get torn apart by “experts” for one reason or another. I guess, some of us need rules to define what is “good” and perhaps others of us choose to ignore or at least carry around a grain of salt when rules are applied.

      David, thanks for stopping by and weighing in! It’s greatly appreciated.

      Cheers,

      Tyson

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  5. 2 years later, I think that one of the issues that needs to be considered is the rampant proliferation of digital cameras (phones) in everyone’s hands and instagram. All of this instills a new attitude where everyone is an artist, evidenced by all the “creative” effects made possible with such tools. If everyone is an artist how do we distinguish what’s art? I’m not trying to make art elitist, just considering that art must still remain unique and a bit precious for there to be value.

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    • Thanks Dan,

      I do truly feel though that cream will always rise. While these apps and devices have put tools in the hands of the masses, it doesn’t undo quality in my opinion. One thing I feel is really great is now there are more people who may have not had the opportunity in the past to artistically apply themselves giving us the potential to unearth talent. It may muddy the waters so to speak, and it may be harder to truly find the gems because of it, but I don’t mind and like the fact that it will make those with talent need to really prove themselves as there is a larger need to rise above the voluminous bloating as a result of accessibility by the rest of us.

      Thanks for commenting and continuing the conversation.

      t

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