Art Vs. Photography

February 12, 2010

As part of my job as a graduate student at West Virginia University, I teach a section of a lab class on photoshop techniques. As part of the module, I incorporate a presentation on the ethics of photography, photo-journalism, and photo manipulation. I end up asking my students about where the line between ethical manipulation and unethical manipulation is drawn, and it seems to always land near the line between informative photography and artistic photography. As an amateur photographer as well as an artist, I tend to see it a bit differently.

I have problems with the term “fine-art photography” and “artistic photography”. True photography, for me, is a way of capturing a moment, a small flash, of reality. Good photographers have enough experience with the medium, and with the capabilities of their equipment, to understand how to make the reality they’re seeing appear on film in an artistic manner. A recent collection on The Big Picture blog featuring photos from India show how with just a camera and a creative photographer, a picture can be made artistic. Some of the photos are very artistic, some less so, and some are simply photos. And this is why I separate photography from art. Art, no matter how un-artistic it is, is art (just ask Bob Ross). A photograph can be artistic, but it’s always a photograph, and it is always somehow informative.

Technology complicates the matter. We now have digital art that can be made without any physical materials, or with a collection of materials including forms traditional art, photography, and digital media. This seems to be where the line between ethical and unethical manipulations as far as photojournalism goes lies. It becomes the line between photojournalism and advertisement photography, or other informative non-photojournalistic photography. In class, I bring up the famous Kim Kardashian photographs to point this difference. I try to stress that it’s not about her cellulite – it’s about the creation of an image that no longer represents reality. Programs like photoshop are taking a medium that is supposed to be a means to preserve moments from reality, and allowing users to turn such images into pieces of art by removing the reality from them.

I guess the point here is to stress the idea that what we take for granted as true may no longer be an actual representation of reality. I wonder if there are really any ethical ways to manipulate a photograph for journalistic purposes. The technology that accompanied photography always allowed for some manipulation – cropping, dodging, burning, etc – but when you can adjust the saturation of colors, increase contrast, spot heal any flaws that showed up in the image, are you really representing reality? Some would argue yes, that this technology merely allow us better ways to adjust for flaws in the equipment used to take the photo, to correct white balance, exposure, etc and create a better representation of what the situation really looked like, but then we are relying on a person’s perception of the situation, not the actual representation of the moment, and this falls into the realm of art, and out of the realm of photography. Call me a purist, but I almost feel that digital manipulations take photography from the medium of photography to the medium of digital art. It’s concerning, also, that so many student’s don’t recognize this. It’s always interesting to hear student’s responses (those that do respond, most choose to sit quietly and wait for me to give in and give them an answer) because so many are unsure what exactly the technology they’re learning is doing to the image, and are even more unsure of the actual value of a depiction of reality versus a manipulated version of that depiction. Perhaps it’s another effect of the digital age – but it makes teaching this sort of stuff nearly impossible.



  1. Excellent point(s). I am a photographer and I often feel encroached upon (and very often cringe as well) when I see obvious digital manipulations categorized as photographs. I have nothing against digital manipulations/composites, considering that compositing and pictorialism were the dominant style for 30 or so years after the dawn of photography. It is the lack of distinction between a manipulation/composite and a photograph that is deeply concerning, as you say. What is more concerning is that not very many people (professors of mine included) take the time to explain this distinction to younger would be artists/photographers/graphic designers. The general consensus is: if part of the image came out of a camera, and some of that image is still recognizable as photographic, then entire work could be categorized a photograph. As a younger photographer, it seems like I might just watch the demise of straight photography being distinguished from heavily manipulated images.

  2. My approach to photography is like working with any other art medium. If I am painting or drawing, you work with various media until you find what works. You can mix and blend and experiment. You are after a final result.

    A culmination of techniques, inspiration and often stumbling upon some happy accident that clinches the piece. Should it be any different for the photography medium? That is a subject that stirs much debate.

    I personally don’t place restrictions on what I do with the digital media nor if I was working with film. Since the birth of photography in the late 19th century, photographers were superimposing images and playing around with developing techniques and colour modes. There is the film lab and the digital lab. One big difference is that in the digital lab no chemicals are involved in the developing of the image to the print process.

    You cannot replace though a great first shot. Everything falls into place. The light, the composition, the moment. But I work on the basis that if I chose to experiment with the shot before print I’ll do it. It is my shot!

    I vistited an Art Gallery recently and commented to the director that one thing was missing. ‘What’s that?’ he said ‘You have some great work here but no photography.’

    He replied ‘And there never will be! Photography is not art!’

    The purists really in any artwform are like someone trapped in quicksand who won’t grab hold of the outstretched hand of help.
    What did the old masters use as medium?
    Just about anything that was available.

    Imagine Da Vinci with a digital SLR and Photoshop.

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