Don’t let anyone tell you that photography isn’t art…
May 22, 2022
Steve Fairclough reveals why photography should be considered art…
I’ll warn you in advance…this op-ed may include regular instances of name removal, but I promise it’s all done with a good reason.
One of the greatest joys of covering all aspects of photography is having the opportunity to interview some of the world’s best exponents of the art (remember that word) of photography. I had the privilege of making a film with Don McCullin (Google seek the light if you feel so inclined) and have interviewed the likes of Steve McCurry, Albert Watson, Terry O’Neill, Tom Stoddart, Harry Benson and Steve Schapiro, to name a few.
The reason for mentioning them is that, like all photographers I’ve interviewed over the past 30+ years, I’ll always ask who or what first inspired them to pick up a camera. About 50% will name a family member or mention names such as Don McCullin, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Richard Avedon, W. Eugene Smith, Bill Brandt, Diane Arbus and Mary Ellen Mark…but that leaves the remaining 50% or so that isn’t primarily inspired by photography, and that’s where the art comes in.
Ordinary PA readers may recall a 2021 ‘lockdown feature’ we made with Roff Smith, who made a series of stunning portraits of him cycling in the English county of Sussex… but the footage looked like more to Edward Hopper’s paintings than to documentary or sports photographs. Indeed, Smith willingly cited Hopper, JMW Turner and Claude Monet as his main inspirations.
Such an artistic eye is reflected in the work and choices of American photographers like Stephen Wilkes (arguably most famous for his superb From day to night composites), who named his inspirations as Brueghel the Elder and Hieronymous Bosch.
Famous American portrait photographer Vijat Mohindra’s favorite inspiration is surrealist artist Salvador Dali; British portrait photographer Andy Gotts named Caravaggio and Rembrandt; Albert Watson attended the Royal College of Art to study film and television and Liam Wong’s neon-filled nighttime Tokyo cityscapes are clearly inspired by the classic 1982 film. blade runner.
The point of all this is that it’s clear that a lot of great photographers get their creativity from art and moving media, not necessarily from photography.
Add other variables to the mix – shooting in color (or black and white), conveying emotion, composition, angles, technical skill, technique, working with light, understanding physics – and it’s obvious a host of artistic and technical decisions must be made before the shutter is even pressed.
If we literally look at a dictionary definition of art, it says, “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, usually in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”
OK, well, there’s no mention of photography there, BUT don’t tell me that photographs don’t require skill and imagination and convey beauty or emotional power – in fact, this is the very essence of what goes into the creation of the vast majority of photographic images.
Sorry, no more name dropping to get my point across…
Many moons ago, when David Bailey wrote a regular column for PA, we gave Bailey a panoramic disposable camera for one of her family vacations. Whether you love or hate his work, Bailey returned with stunning images that demonstrated an artistic eye few could match.
The late and great Terry O’Neill once said that he didn’t really like cameras (except for his old Canon 7 rangefinder with a 50mm f/0.95 lens) – he said that ‘he would much rather someone could invent an imaging device that he could put in his eye, so he could blink and take a picture of what he imagined in his head. You see, we are back to the creative imagination – the essence of art. So don’t let anyone tell you that photography isn’t art..
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of amateur photographer magazine or Kelsey Media Limited. If you have an opinion you would like to share on this or any other photography-related topic, email: [email protected]
People of Interest: Famous Portraits and Photojournalism of Harry Benson
The stories behind some of Terry O’Neill’s best portrayals
Fighting for Rights: Steve Schapiro
Interview with Don McCullin: Life in Black and White