When Photography Crosses Into Art

Photography is sometimes art and art sometimes uses photography. But what is the determining factor?

The answer is that photography is art when it mirrors contemporary art concerns. So just what do I mean by that? Well tough as it might sound, contemporary art moved beyond just being beautiful or representational back with surrealism, futurism, and all the other ‘isms’ of the modern age. Now of course we are past modern art and into post-modern and post-post-modern. But a common thread in all the modern+ art movements has been to move beyond beauty and representation. What matters is meaning, having something to say, going beyond appearance to some deeper levels.

An image from my Time and Space series

Now that doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with beauty and representation. In fact contemporary art practice would certainly be all the better for some interest in beauty (IMHO). But it does mean that a work that is mostly concerned with beauty and representation is not contemporary in an art sense.

Another characteristic of contemporary art practice is a lack of interest in process. It doesn’t matter how you do something, all that matters is the final result and the meaning conveyed by it. This is another problem for a lot of photography to get past – much photography has an overwhelming concern with process. This is perhaps exemplified most by the alternate process people – those using gum bichromate or gumoil or some other long surpassed process. These processes appeal because of the beauty of the resulting prints and perhaps a sense of nostalgia for the believed simplicities of the past.

And I have to say that the absurdity of much of this alternate process work should be obvious to all. Not only can the look of most of them be reproduced quite well using the latest inkjets but so much emphasis is put on wonderful papers that are then matted and hidden behind glass for exhibition so it can never be really appreciated. It is what I would call process masturbation at its worse.

Does that mean that I would argue that you should not make beautiful images? No, of course not. Just don’t think you are making contemporary art necessarily. I make two completely different types of images – my contemporary art work which does not have a primary aim of beauty (though I do aim to make it so) and my landscape photography work, which is primarily produced to be beautiful but that I don’t fool myself is art.

This is what it all comes down to – what pleases you and what your priorities are. But don’t fool yourself that it is more than it is.

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