It's a great question, isn't it? Right from the beginning of photography (Joseph Nicephore Niepce View from the Window at Le Gras in 1827 and Fox Talbot's views of Lacock Abbey in 1835) through to the modern day (think of Andreas Gursky's The Rhine - £2.7 million at auction in 2011!) debate has raged over whether a photograph can be considered as art? How should we address this question? Let's look at the reasons why many feel that photography is not art; then ask briefly what we think art is; and then finish with our own assessment of photography as an art form.
First the objections. There are in essence five main reasons: photography is derivative from other art forms - principally painting; photography is mechanical; it's too easy; it's repetitive, and finally photography merely records reality. Some of these objections are historical, some are more prevalent now than ever before - think how easy it's become to take a picture on a phone, zap it through hipstamatic and come up with an 'arty' image - some are just plain wrong, and some have a grain of truth which we photographers have to accept and deal with. All these objections hold photography back and undermine its status as an artistic endeavour.
In the beginning photography clearly was very derivative. It did borrow heavily from painterly conventions. Daguerreotype portraits, cartes de visite, early still lives and landscapes - all used the poses, compositions and conventions of painting. That's not really so surprising - photographers 150 years ago were influenced by the cultural context from which they came.
Coupled with this is the idea that photography is essentially easier than painting. Photography is certainly quicker than painting. Even back in the mid nineteenth century with all the technical difficulties of producing an image it was certainly quicker to make a photograph then to make a painting. Nowadays an image can be taken and posted online in seconds. This difference in time needed to create something has an impact on perceptions of artistic input. The one is quick, the other slow and laborious. As a result the latter is therefore more valuable, more 'artistic'.
What about the claim that photography is simply mechanical? This idea suggests that it is not the photographer, but the camera that makes the image. Give anyone the best equipment and they will produce great images, especially if they shoot a lot and have half an eye to editing out the weak images and keeping the strong. We photographers unwittingly play up to this idea - obsession with the latest kit promotes the illusion that the camera is the most important link in the production of images - And marketing happily feeds this obsession - it's what drives the wheels of business forward. The tech doesn't even need to be the super expensive/exclusive. Incredibly sophisticated photo improvement software can be yours on your phone for 69p - heck, some of it's free! A few clicks and a boring image is cropped, super saturated or converted to black and white, and uploaded to Facebook for the approval of friends. In this sense the vast majority of photography is mechanical. It is skill-less... This clearly isn't art, it is at best photography as craft. The link between the mechanical and the sense that photography is a craft rather than art also goes right back to the roots of perceptions of photography in the 19th century. Painting was the preserve of the upper classes (you had to be economically independent to be able to indulge the time to become an artist). Becoming adept at using photographic tools was much more the realm of the middle/lower classes - the skilled artisan, rather then the establishment artist. A snobbery certainly, and one that persists today in the general impression that a painted ranks higher than a photographic image.
Photographs, unlike paintings, can be printed (now: cut/pasted) an infinite number of times. This hugely undermines their value - they are not unique. This is much harder to do with paint. Hence the financial value of paintings in contrast to photographs. This is one difference between the two forms which is undeniable and will always create at least a monetary discrepancy between them. But sheer financial value is very different from artistic worth. Just because paintings will always sell for more money than photos doesn't really have any impact on the question of whether photographs can be considered as art or not.
The last reason why photography is not art is also - paradoxically - the reason that ultimately photography can metamorphose into an art form. That negative claim is that photography merely 'records reality'. 'Art' is supposed to be more imaginative. It is not just a record, but an interpretation of reality, transposed into paint (or sculpture, or words, or music). When we look at a painting we see not only the object painted, but we are also acutely aware of the touch of the artist - through the paint itself and how the artist has manipulated it. When we look at photograph the hand of the photographer seems more distant. We are less aware of the creator of the image, and more aware of the object being recorded.
In one sense this is true: We take photographs because we want to remember the reality of what happened. This is the case for everything from huge historical events through to the minutiae of everyday family life. Such photographs are incredibly important. Whether it's the memory embedded in billions of wedding photographs, or the blurred images of soldiers landing on Omaha beach in 1944, we need to see them to remember the reality of those events.
But in another, artistic, sense, this is not true. Photographs don't merely record reality, they interpret reality too. The act of taking a photograph involves a series of decisions that can be as creative as any other art form. Those decisions lie with the photographer. The more coherently and decisively the photographer makes those decisions, the more the resultant image is a reflection of a strong personal vision. At its loftiest, most intellectualized interpretation, art is the ability to translate a personal view of the world into a physical manifestation that can be sensed and understood by others. When we look at photographs we are looking at the culmination of a series of decisions made by the photographer. In this sense photography clearly is art. The mechanics of production and the easiness/difficulty of reproduction are immaterial. The vision, and the skill with which that vision is shared - this is what is important. The greatest photographers bring that skill to bear on their images. And those images are without doubt, art.
© Tom Peck (image copyright belongs to image owners)