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Classic Themes in Photography >

33 - What's Art?

What is art? is a big question.

I was surprised, though, when Google came up with only 91,100 listings for the question.

Here are two listings of note.

What Is Art and Why Does It Matter?, from the Yale University Art Gallery

Excerpts from Leo Tolstoy's 1896 essay, What is Art?, posted courtesy of Julie Van Camp, a philosophy professor

Here, we'll answer the question, briefly, by confining our answer to why art is important for our ways-of-working and our photographs.

Even "Family Documentary"

Photographers Need Art

Many of my students are not interested in art photography.

They want to do better photographs of their families, for example.

Yet, better photographs, in general, have aspects of art photography in them.

Let's say you have children or nieces and nephews.

Julia Margaret Cameron wrote:

... I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me, and at length the longing has been satisfied. Its difficulty enhanced the value of the pursuit. I began with no knowledge of the art. I did not know where to place my dark box, how to focus my sitter, and my first picture I effaced to my consternation by rubbing my hand over the filmy side of the glass. It was a portrait of a farmer of Freshwater, who, to my fancy, resembled Bolingbroke.

Having succeeded with one farmer, I next tried two children ... and I now produced a picture which I called "My First Success."

Personal sympathy has helped me on very much. My husband from first to last has watched every picture with delight, and it is my daily habit to run to him with every glass upon which a fresh glory is newly stamped, and to listen to his enthusiastic applause. This habit of running into the dining room with my wet pictures has stained an immense quantity of table linen with nitrate of silver, indelible stains, that I should have been banished from any less indulgent household.1

When you learn from Julia Margaret Cameron, your photographs of children will be better.


By learning how she worked, along with looking at her photographs.

Often, we only look at the photographs, the product, rather than the ways-of-working, the process.

That's the reason for this book.

The discussion about what is art often is often mostly about the objects:

Which objects have an aura called art and which don't?

What makes them good art, bad art, or nothing at all.

The discussion often turns to function, and asked what these objects are for, what they can do.

The above threads appear when the question is answered from the perspective of the viewer.

Odd, isn't it, that it's the viewer of art who is often its final arbiter, not the artist.

The answer to the question, from the perspective of the photographer, is different.

For photographers, art is the doing of art, our ways-of-working, along with the photographs.

For many photographers, the picking up of a camera is more important than the resulting photographs.

The Photographer Perspective: Warhol

Years ago I photographed some graffiti on a wall in Washington, DC.

Art is anything you can get away with.

The graffiti writer attributed the quote to Andy Warhol

I add to Warhol's statement:

As long as you don't hurt anyone.

If you're working in branches of photography that are less about personal expression, such as photojournalism, forensic photography, medical photography, and advertising, photographers must follow the ethical principles of each area.

The Photographer Perspective:

Value, as in Money

Do you want to sell your work?

If a collector buys a print, is your work art?

The Photographer Perspective:

Value, as in Recognition

Recognition is a great motivator.

Photographers need to join groups, whether it be in person or online, and to submit to contests, and to get shows in our local public libraries, and so forth.

The Photographer Perspective:

Value, as in Ways-of-working

It's art if you like your way-of-working.

1 Cameron, J. M. (1996/1874). Annals of my glass house. Reprinted in L. Heron & V. Williams (Eds.), Illuminations: Women writing on photography from the 1850s to the present. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Also reprinted in Newhall, B. (1980). Photography: Essays & images. New York: Museum of Modern Art.