We all take them. We might even frame them. Sometimes we hang them on the wall. We might even add a signature and a date. Does that make it art?
Is a photograph, framed or unframed, signed or unsigned, a work of art? Almost two hundred years after the invention of photography, some of the biggest names in the art world – and some of the most prominent art auction houses – continue to struggle with this very issue: Is a photograph a work of art?
Photography as Art
Photography has experienced an interesting history of prejudicial ideas. We have long used photos to record events; to record images of people and places. A camera is a technical device that recreates images using scientific methods (initially as a daguerreotype on glass and then on specially prepared photo-sensitive paper using chemicals to process) and technological methodology. But does the creation of an image through a device known as a camera make the finished product into a work of art? Arguably, photography is a medium of expression, but whose medium: The camera’s or the photographer’s? What is this elusive relationship between photography and art?
The importance of photography to the art world has been an issue of controversy and heated debate since the first daguerreotype was revealed to the world in 1839. The debate over the photo’s position in the art world revolves around the simple fact that a photograph reproduces an image.
As American photographer/artist, Mark Chamberlain points out, “the camera’s ability to mechanically record what it aimed at gave it instant value for reportage in a manner far more powerful than the painter’s tools. The popular perception was that the photograph does not lie, that it recorded reality. This gave the photograph unparalleled power.”
Is it true that a camera does not lie? What about the photographer’s ability to adapt to changing light conditions, his/her ability to manipulate different exposures, his/her altering the position of the camera to capture a different angle of the image? Is this not the same as a painter or a sculptor capture what he/she perceives?
Art at Auction
Measuring the value of a work of art has never been easy. Personal preference always wins in the end, and contemporary artists of any media have always been an easy target for disinterest in the art market. Things are changing, though, and contemporary art is beginning to witness substantial sales figures in both private purchases and at auction.
Christie’s, one of the leading art auction houses in the world, recently hosted an evening of contemporary art. Although paintings continue to command the highest sales, photography as art is showing a substantial increase. The works by contemporary photographer/artists, Josephine Meckseper (b. 1964) and Sarah Lucas (b. 1962), have more than doubled what they sold for in 2001, breaking the record yet again. A six-part self-portrait by Lucas (1997) sold for £290,500. The artist’s manipulation of the photo-image creates a very modern, almost an Andy Warhol (1928-1987) type of rendition. As Darren Flooke, co-founder of the Independent art fair, says, “Sarah Lucas is having a moment. She’s reinventing herself as an outsider Modernist queen; half punk, half Hepworth.”
Photography, Art, and the Future
Photography has taken on a new image (no pun intended). It has re-created, re-invented a new medium of expression and, if the artist says that a photograph created/taken by the artist is a work of art, then it follows that the photograph is a work of art. After all, art is what the artist says is art. Christie’s auction house is taking notice, as are the big spenders in the art world.
Photography is art.
Goldner, Liz. Photography as Art: Is the Debate Over? (2009). Accessed October 21, 2013.
Shaw, Anny. Photography proves its mettle at Christie’s, but painting holds top spots. (2013). The Art Newspaper. Accessed October 22, 2013.
Smyth, Diane. Is Photography Art? (2011). The British Journal of Photography. Accessed October 22, 2013.