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Is Photography a Fine Art? An Old Debate Is Reignited in the UK

Author: Jamie Ayers

A photography exhibition in a gallery.

Michael Summers/flickr


Photography’s status as a fine art is still very controversial, and art photographers and enthusiasts are working tirelessly to silence the naysayers.
Since the first camera was invented in 1839, critics have challenged the notion of photography as high art (as documented by contemporary-art-dialogue.com). These naysayers maintain that cameras are lifeless, mechanical devices used to document a moment in time  therefore, no matter the concept, execution, or quality of the image, the photograph will never be an acceptable medium for artistic expression.
Over the years, however, photography has also gained widespread acceptance as a valuable art form. For those who truly appreciate art in all its forms, the sheer number of beautiful photographs and incredibly talented photo artists is enough to disregard the critics.
But, as a recent argument between two columnists from the Guardian proves, the age-old debate is still raging: is photography a form of artistic expression, or simply another piece of technology?

Point: “Photography Isn’t Art!”

Jonathan Jones, an art critic for the Guardian, has written several scathing pieces contesting that photography cannot and should not qualify as fine art. Jones’ fundamental argument is that photography functions more as a reflection of the amazing modern age we live in than as a meaningful form of creative expression.
Jones uses the recent sale of Phantom by Peter Lik as an example of what goes wrong when photographers presume to be artists. Phantom sold for a record-breaking $6.5 million, and in Jones’ opinion, all this means is that silly people are buying silly photos for extravagant amounts of money.
He considers Lik’s work to be a derivative, hackneyed, overpriced photo that deserves neither its praise, nor its price tag. According to Jones, the overblown sales of such photographs are giving the “actual” high art industry a bad name.

Counterpoint: “Photography is Art and Always Has Been!”

An artistic photograph displaying the movements of a dancer.

Hernán Piñera/flickr


In response to these quips, Sean O’Hagan, another writer for the Guardian, makes the case that photography has always been an elevated form of expression. Conceding that technology has made the dissemination of photographs easier, O’Hagan insists that it does not make its aesthetic value in any way automated or mechanical. It is the photographer’s eye, technique, and production that makes his or her work stand apart.
He explains that while the average Instagram feed probably won’t change anyone’s life, it’s impossible to deny the artistic value of visionaries like Diane Arbus, Jane Brown, and William Eggleston. Their work “sings on the gallery wall [and] makes you look at the world differently”.
O’Hagan feels that the sale of a few overblown pieces isn’t enough to condemn the world of art photography as a whole. As with mediums like painting and sculpture, the existence of a single derivative work does not make the art form itself derivative. Some photos just clearly stand above the rest as beautiful, inspired masterpieces  no matter how cheap and tawdry others may be.

The Debate Rages On

As O’Hagan so astutely points out, “a great photograph occupies its own space” and “makes its own rules” without competing with other art forms. Aspiring photographers should not be deterred from their work just because some critics don’t approve. Historically speaking, being condemned by critics is almost a rite of passage  as Web Design Schools Guide points out, just ask van Gogh, or Monet. Work hard, trust your instincts, and let your passions be your guide.
Once you’ve shot some photos you really love, honor your works of art by trusting Printique to print them. The experts at Printique will ensure each of your masterpieces are handled with the utmost care, resulting in stunning, high-gloss prints worthy of any gallery wall.