In 1917, when Marcel Duchamp named a urinal Fountain and submitted it to the Society of Independent Artists exhibition in New York, the show’s curators were appalled. At the time, it was perceived as a slap in the face to everything that art is considered to be — beauty, craftsmanship and creativity. Since then, Fountain and its replicas have been displayed at famous galleries such as the Tate and the Royal Academy of Arts, featured in many art magazines, and the piece was even voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century in 2004.
This opens up the seemingly controversial question of what qualifies as art. Many philosophical aestheticists have pondered this for centuries. According to Britannica, art is “a visual object or experience consciously created through an expression of skill or imagination.” And this perhaps explains why photography can be so divisive.
We tend to act as photographers in our everyday lives, whether it’s taking a picture to send to someone digitally, or capturing a family gathering. At the same time, there are some very creative, well-known photographers out there who have helped place the art form on the map, including the likes of Alexey Titarenko, Annie Leibovitz and Tyler Shields. So, is photography truly art, or just a click of a button? We believe it’s the former — here’s why.
It demands technical skill
It’s very easy to dismiss photography because seemingly everyone can do it. If you want to take beautiful pictures you don’t even need fancy equipment as most smartphones have high-quality cameras nowadays. Yet as good as these are, they just cannot compete with a good digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR). What’s more, exceptional photography requires talent and skill.
While you could technically set a DSLR to automatic mode and produce genuinely breathtaking photos, a great photographer will know the ins and outs of their camera, equipment, and editing software. As such, this proves that photography demands technical skill and not everyone has the knack to create gallery-worthy images.
It requires imagination and creativity
Art is about being creative and imaginative in order to come up with interesting ideas and intriguing ways to present a vision and bring it to life. When it comes to the composition itself, some photographers take calculated pictures, while others prefer the spontaneity of everyday life and scenery. Kyle Thompson, for example, takes meticulously designed portraits in abandoned buildings or deep woods, while Marco Grassi snaps nature shots that capture unaffected landscapes.
Either way, camerapeople consider everything from lighting to the different shapes and colors, as well as the emotional, mental or aesthetic purpose they want to achieve. For instance, Thompson is looking for the eerie, while Grassi shows us the vastness of the globe — two different versions of creativity. Other photographers, such as John Hilliard, use art as a fully conceptual medium. His images are completely abstract, utilising different techniques to explore whether a camera truly represents reality.
It evokes and captures emotion
Have you ever looked at a really exceptional picture and just felt something? It might have been the composition, the expression on the subject’s face, or the general ambiance. At any rate, effective photographers focus on triggering an emotional reaction from the viewer. Everything you see in art is intentional — there’s rarely ever a mistake or coincidence.
Manipulating emotion through visual elements is one of the key features of art, and a striking example of this has to be Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl. The photo has even been compared to the Mona Lisa, with the intense look in the girl’s eyes making a viewer feel both mesmerized and uneasy.
It provides a different perspective on reality
Photographers use different techniques, angles and perspectives to encourage viewers to observe a subject from a different point of view. Craig Whitehead is a master of this, capturing fantastical-looking images thanks to playful viewpoints and reflections. According to The Raw Society, he is “one of those photographers that catches your eye and through his use of color, composition and his attention to detail, makes you feel the rain, the colours and the light of his city”.
Another great example of a photographer presenting a new reality is Irving Penn. As one of the most well-known Vogue photographers, his talent and skill enabled him to create images that didn’t just communicate a message, but also took objects or people and made them look like works of art. Just like how Duchamp’s readymade urinal was labeled a fountain, photographers use their images to emphasize a certain message or beauty in things that often goes unnoticed.
It employs symbolism
One of the most beautiful things about art is the way it utilizes symbolism to illustrate an idea. Photography is often mistakenly perceived as a very literal art form due to the fact it captures real life. However, there are many ways to not only manipulate reality for the sake of symbolism, but also allow one truth to describe another.
It is common for photographers to employ certain motifs to express emotions or principles. In popular culture, for instance, we know that different colours mean different things –– blue is calm or cold, red is passionate or angry, and so on. This is often applied to photographs too. The same applies to lighting Take this photo by Robert Frank, where the American flag is well-lit at the center of the picture while the people are shadowed in the background –– implying that they are less important.
Overall, it’s clear that photography is art as it can provide a representation of reality in a way that’s intended to evoke emotion or communicate an idea. From a purely aesthetic perspective, though, photographs can be as stunning as a painting or sculpture, which is one of the reasons they’re not only displayed within art galleries, but also as home decorations for everyone to appreciate.