Can a photograph be considered a piece of art?

Written by Harriet Clifford

When I visited the National Portrait Gallery last week and immediately found myself in front of a headshot of Kate Middleton, I couldn’t help but think: “Lov

When I visited the National Portrait Gallery last week and immediately found myself in front of a headshot of Kate Middleton, I couldn’t help but think: “Lovely, now where’s the real stuff?” 

Yet when I had a look around a pop-up photography exhibition in my local town-centre a couple of weeks ago, I circled the room several times, struggling to choose which one to vote for as my favourite. 

In the end, I decided on a stunning silhouette of a stalk perched on top of a post, which emerged from a calm body of water. I think I was drawn to this image because of its composition: the large bird balancing on that tiny surface seemed almost impossible, and the centrality of the stalk felt pleasing to the eye.

It also seemed to me that the photographer had captured a very intimate moment, which allowed me to get a glimpse of the tranquillity of nature, perhaps before the bird took flight, or a fish rippled the water.  

What is Art?

According to the Oxford Dictionary Online, art is defined as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture,” – or, as the act of “producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” 

Using these two definitions, surely there is little doubt that the photograph I described is a piece of art. Had I seen the same image as a painting, I don’t think it would have had the same effect on me. It was the fact that it showed a beautiful moment of reality that gave it its power.  

Beneath the Surface

The question has been raised in the past, as to whether photographs can capture more than just surface appearances. I suppose this is the aim of any photographer who is attempting to do more than simply take a holiday snap. Although photographs do capture reality, the composition, subjects, colours and lighting, can all be manipulated to suggest almost anything.  

While this is all true, some people argue that the actual ‘taking’ of the picture is done by a machine, and therefore the result cannot be classed as art. I, personally, disagree with this view, as I feel that the camera only comes into play for a fraction of a second, simply as a way of capturing something that the photographer believes to be powerful or beautiful.  

By contrast, the moments leading up to pressing the button are filled with the photographer’s creative skill and imagination.

An Artists’ Work

Similarly, once the photo is on display, it’s the composition and subject matter that are largely analysed, critiqued and interpreted; all of which are a direct result of the photographer’s decisions. 

If it’s the machine that’s the issue, then I guess all those ‘artists’ who use stamps, stencils, and printing devices can all be scrapped too?

Other photography critics argue that because the essence of the scene is already in existence, simply ‘framing’ it and freezing the moment in time is not art. 

But isn’t this what many painters and sculptors do? An artist who paints beautiful landscapes sees something in the environment around him and transfers it onto the paper in front of him.  

Yes, this involves skill and talent, but so does capturing the perfect photograph.   

If I haven’t given a definitive answer, then it’s simply because I honestly don’t know.  Is it possible for one photograph to be called art, but not the other?  Or is it the case that if something has the potential to be art, then it already is by default? I suppose that’s up to you to decide.

What do you think? Have your say in the comments section below.