Is Photography Art? (a common question asked by many photographers)
"I don’t know if photography is an art or not an art. I have no idea of all this." - Henri Cartier-Bresson
A few months ago, I joined an online conversation about photography and art. The question raised by one of the photographers was, "Is photography considered art?" My response to their question was, "Yes and no, it just depends." There are many photos taken by photographers that are not art. Not every picture I take I consider art.
Most information available for learning about photography would be regarded as technical training - learning how to use all the functions on your camera and how to process the images that you take. In turn, very little is written about the actual art of photography. To make matters worse, most photographers insist that there are "no rules" for taking great photos. Ken Rockwell once wrote an entire article on composition, then at the end stated that "rules in art suck." Sorry Ken, not very helpful.
Today, in photography especially, most design rules are tossed aside for self-expression and creativity. John Sexton, a former student of Ansel Adams, once claimed that there are no rules in art. Really? Are you sure about that John? If there are no rules in art or photography how would we be able to tell a good photograph from a bad one? Without rules in any discipline, you can't effectively measure anything which, in turn, makes it impossible for someone to learn new skills.
Currently, being trained as an artist is much different than being trained as a photographer. At an atelier, you are taught a particular set of skills that become the foundation of your education - much in the same way you would learn how to play a musical instrument. In other words, teaching is based on a system of progressive learning - one skill placed on top of another. With this type of study, there is very little room for "self-expression" and "creativity."
Additionally, a classically trained artist will spend a lot of time studying geometry. If a painter is following solid design principles, they will use t-squares, rulers, compasses, and calipers to compose their work. Unfortunately, a photographer doesn't have the luxury of time or precision when it comes to designing their photographs. For this reason, most photographers are not taught the basics of classical skill-based art.
However, all is not lost. If a photographer is willing to take the time and study real composition principles, they can effectively produce a work of art on the fly. Henri Cartier-Bresson was a photographer who did just that. In fact, Bresson was able to create hundreds of masterpieces because of his education in classical art. He understood how to divide the 35mm Leica frame based on the Dynamic Symmetry armature of the rectangle. For this reason, he was able to produce a large, consistent body of work in his lifetime.
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