To have our photographs thought of as art is a high honor. That said, images presented as art may not fare well in camera club competitions where judges must make quick decisions based primarily on immediate impact and, of course, the usual technical and composition considerations. It is a rare judge that ever considers whether a photograph is art when he or she judges at a camera club competition.
Some photography is considered art and most major museums have an area, albeit usually very small, where photographs are exhibited. Recently I gave a talk to a photographic society in Hartford, Connecticut, and afterwards spent a few days gallery and museum hopping in New York City looking at photographs that are considered art. One art gallery had an exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe and Helmut Newton photographs — the least expensive was $25,000.
If I were to ask what is art, I am sure I would get many different answers. Most of us would prefer to reach for the dictionary for a definition of art. No doubt prehistoric cave men debated that very same question regarding drawings on the walls of their caves. I am sure the only consistent answer was — and still is — “I don’t know what art is, but I know it when I see it.” So much for a definition of art.
I have attended many camera club competitions where ribbons were given to photographs while more artistic images (in my view) were thrown out. I sometimes feel that judges at camera club competitions are bound and determined to give a ribbon to the technically perfect landscape or the technically perfect wildlife photograph of the evening.
I have judged a number of art exhibits where photography was included. The venues insisted on the best of the best. Some members of camera clubs could not understand why images that had won ribbons in competitions were not juried into the exhibit.
Are there criteria for judging photographs as art? What are the criteria and who is to say? For centuries the French have had an expression describing that “certain something” about a work of art that makes it unique and sets it apart from everything else in that genre. The French say it has a “je ne sais quoi” quality, i.e., trying to express the inexpressible when the work has a spark and appeal that defies a simple explanation, and even may be undefinable. Such is the nature of art.
While photography is a member of the visual arts family, all photography is not art. What makes a particular photograph a work of art? There is no simple answer. In my view too much attention is devoted to the technical side of photography and not enough to its emotional aspects. Perhaps that is because technical features can be tested and measured whereas the emotional/feeling side of photography is subjective and not conducive to easy analysis and interpretation.
One must develop a certain mindset to make a photograph to be considered art — a mindset much different from making an ordinary photograph — and that mindset begins before the image is taken. You first have to see and feel art before you can photograph it. Technical craftsmanship is not enough. To be considered art, a photograph must be felt as well as seen.
Photography as art involves not only the photographer but also the viewer. Ultimately, the photographer relies upon the ability of the viewer to see and feel photography as art. Some viewers can and some viewers cannot.