What Makes A Photograph Art?

February 28th, 2010 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

What defines art, in your opinion?

L’Accordéoniste, 1911, by Pablo Picasso. Public Domain Image.

With all the discussion about the relationships between art, nature and photography lately on several excellent blogs, I thought I would put in a word or two, or at least add some words from masters of the past, as that seems to be my emerging role.

I made a comment on each of the three blogs involved in the discussions, that were sharing recent posts about art, the nature of art, the relationship between art and nature, and how photography relates or substitutes in the discussion for the word ‘art.’ Each of the three blogs are well worth reading for their take on these subjects: Guy Tal Photography Web Journal, Paul Grecian Photography and Carl Donohue’s Skolai Images. The discussion veered in the direction of what made something “more” art or not and while this made little linguistic sense, the argument itself was solid.

Here’s my comment on Skolai Images:

As I wrote on Paul Grecian’s blog, the eminent photography critic John Szarkowski once claimed that Ansel Adams photographed entirely for his own enjoyment. Several photographers and photography critics including Philip Hyde made vehement and effective counter-arguments to John Szarkowski’s statement. Hopefully I can dig up that material and share it with you, if you are interested. It touches on what you say here and on what Paul recently said in his post. Echoing those who have gone before, I say as Paul did that the appreciation of art is part of the process that makes it such. An audience is part of what makes it art. However, the SIZE of the audience does not make it MORE or LESS art. Isn’t something either art or not, like the old adage about being pregnant. You can’t be MORE or LESS pregnant. On the other hand, I completely agree with your idea that art is certainly not limited to creation by humans, or even by what we perceive as “living” beings. Though perhaps it is easier for us to talk about art created by people. Harder to relate to birds and other wildlife, though some are friends of mine, maybe more so than some people.

There’s a lot going on around here currently, but I started rummaging around. I haven’t found the John Szarkowski rebuttal material yet, but will sooner or later. My dad, master landscape photographer Philip Hyde, talked about it some on a tape I made while interviewing him. I remember I asked him specifically about John Szarkowski’s claim in that interview. I will find that tape as well. In the meantime, I did run across a book called, Dialogue with Photography: Interviews by Paul Hill and Thomas Cooper. Hill and Cooper interviewed Paul Strand, Man Ray, Imogen Cunningham, Brassai, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Cecil Beaton, W. Eugene Smith, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Andre Ketesz, Brett Weston, Minor White, Wynn Bullock and others. The interviews that caught my eye were Paul Strand at the beginning and Brett Weston at the end. For more on Brett Weston see the blog post, “The Hidden Brett Weston.”  I’ll start here with a few quotes from Paul Strand and share more in another post. Other popular posts about Paul Strand include: “Straight Photography And Abstraction,” and “Ansel Adams And Paul Strand On Self-Promotion.”

Paul Strand talked about Alfred Stieglitz and his gallery, “291.” Paul Strand said that Alfred Stieglitz welcomed and supported many of the modern art painters at the time such as Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Constantine Brancusi. Alfred Stieglitz liked certain modernists and their art because, “this art was being trampled on in the same way that photography was,” Paul Strand said. “Photography as an art was denied, ridiculed, attacked—especially by the academic painters, who thought that the camera might take their livelihood away. The acknowledgement of the validity of photography as a new material, as a new way of seeing life through a machine, was questioned and fundamentally denied. Well, here were these pictures by the Cubists, which were also looked upon as the work of idiots.”

This relates back to a comment on my post, “Photography’s Golden Era 2.” Derrick Birdsall, threw out several more good thought-provoking questions: “…if you can buy a quality print from a new up and comer for less $ than from a seasoned professional – is that bad? The seasoned pro had to start somewhere and was an up and comer at some point… How does one make that transition from up and comer to seasoned professional? …other than simply putting in the time, how does that transition work? How does a photographer develop their style so that it’s clearly recognizable?”

I will address the development of style in a future post or two of interviews of photographers to come, but as far as how certain art comes to be valued higher than other art, one of the factors has to do with novelty. It has to do with the artist doing something perceived as completely new. That is one reason why an Ansel Adams print is worth so much compared to Joe the Photographer. Same idea applies to a Pablo Picasso painting.

But more from Paul Strand on the art of photography, “There was a fight going on for the integrity of a new medium and its right to exist, the right of the photographer to be an artist, as well as the right of Picasso and other artists to do the kind of work they were doing, which was a form of research and experimentation into the very fundamentals of what is, and what is not, a picture. I think it is very important for young photographers to find out about the whole development of the graphic arts, not simply come along and show photographs that could not stand up to Cezanne for a second. You cannot claim that photography is an art until your work can hang on the same wall.”

Certainly, as Derrick said, everyone starts somewhere. Most paintings are not on par with Paul Cezanne and they do not have to be. There is room for all levels of skill and talent in painting, photography and other mediums, including bird songs or beehive dances, but is it art? …And, if you claim, “It’s all art,” then what determines whether it is ‘good’ art?

See also the blog post, “Man Ray On Art And Originality.”

What defines art, in your opinion? Please share your thoughts in Comments…



  1. Steve Sieren says:

    Art is anything that holds a person’s interest by a creative talent or unique accident.

  2. Thank you, Steve. I have noticed that chance or synchronicity plays a role in some of the best photographs. I observed my father relying heavily on it. He had a certain faith that he was doing what he was meant to do and that he would be led to the right places at the right times for the landscapes or close-ups necessary to properly convey each particular assignment. Is that what you are talking about when you say “unique accident” or something else? Dad did do a significant amount of planning and analysis too. Some curators and art critics have never had the mystical experience of being in the field and receiving gifts from nature. They make statements about photographers needing to be fully in command of their skills and technique to form the art as chosen by the creator. However, many times in photography, it does not exactly work that way, given at least a fundamental level of skill. Is this what you are referring to? What is your experience with “unique accidents”? How is that part of the process of art?

  3. Derrick says:

    Gifts from nature….

    I really like that. Whenever I am fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time I have always thought of it as a gift but had never put that thought into words.

  4. Steve Sieren says:

    David, I rely on that same faith but the unique accident I am speaking of is when a person picks up a paint brush for a first time and creates a work of art but can’t figure out how to do it again. I would say that is art but the critics and art curators might not.

  5. The critics and art curators sometimes are just frustrated artists who couldn’t do it because they had too many rules and judgments about what was art and they may have suffered from unfavorable comparison to great artists. That is the danger of what Paul Strand is talking about. He has a point to the extent of not presuming to call our own work art unless it measures up as something that truly advances photography. At the same time, those of us who are developing and are not yet Paul Strand or Alfred Stieglitz have to be wary of comparing too. Comparing is useful but also dangerous. It is also a handicapper because it is of the head. Some might believe that creativity and art come from the mind, but I contend that the best art or photography comes from a deeper place, or as a gift from nature, or as a happy accident, any of these are as good as the other and they’re essentially the same.

  6. I think that photography is art when you are able to illustrate beauty to others or able to evoke emotion or provoke thought in others. When you are able to go beyond something that reminds you of a scene to providing something that enables others to enter that scene with you, then that is art. Artist, camera, and viewer must be involved to create art, but I don’t shoot for others, I shoot what inspires me. That’s why you won’t find rose covered Nantucket cottages on my site, or sailboats sailing around the lighthouse at Brant Point. Those scenes don’t speak to me.


  7. Thank you, Sharon. In what you say here, you are naturally and on your own, very much in line with the great masters of straight photography, not to mention, that I feel any of them would appreciate your work. Ultimately, keeping the finding of your own voice above catering to what sells, was my father’s primary advice to young photographers and his own mission in life. All along I thought he ought to have placed more emphasis on marketing, but that just wasn’t him. He wasn’t against the promotion of his work, nor was he not good at it, he just tended to prioritize his time toward conservation more than self-promotion. Now I have come full circle and see the wisdom of his approach. The best of both worlds might be embodied in the work and career of Ansel Adam with his meticulous, rigorous concentration on creating the best art, as well as his attention to sharing it and employing good promoters, not to mention his advocacy for the medium and for the environment. The main path to avoid, it appears, if you are interested in producing fine art, is photographing for the market.

  8. We were having a discussion on another forum and the point about Ansel Adams is one I brought up – he was the photographer’s photographer. His willingness to share his methods and his thoughts about how he created his photographs has benefited us all.

  9. In a TV special about Ansel Adams on the Outdoor Channel in 2005, Dad shared some of how Ansel had impacted him. I added that Ansel Adams had the greatest influence in photography because he was a mentor to the mentors.

  10. Richard Wong says:

    In my opinion, art is attained when the creator feels emotionally connected with what they are doing. It doesn’t have to be “good” in someone else’s eyes or even in the artist’s eyes but if it is true to their emotional state at the time then I think that is art.

  11. I like that definition, Richard. I would say it applies to the quality of my own work in various mediums. When I am emotionally engaged, I do my best work. It is one of main keys to good writing. I wish my dad were around to ask if he would agree for his photography. In my observation, he was usually emotionally moved by a place, then he went into a more intuitive/visual process of selection, that also may have also involved mental analysis, to create the best photograph. Ansel Adams said his goal in photographing was to recreate for the viewer the emotional experience he had when he found the scene. Your definition is a bit more personal, and is not necessarily done for the viewer. Art people have said for years that great art is made solely for the enjoyment of the creator, which is a slightly different take still.

  12. Richard Wong says:

    The art critic definition would make sense in that context. When I see a piece at a modern art museum that just looks like someone opened a paint can and threw it up against a wall then in my view it was probably cathartic to the artist but has no artistic value in my own eyes as a viewer. However, my opinion of it shouldn’t make it any less valid of an art.

    Richard Prince on the other hand, I really don’t know if I would categorize his stuff as art because it is not much different than scanning someone else’s photo then cropping it in Photoshop then turning around and calling it my own selling it for millions of dollars at the Guggenheim.

  13. Clark Robertson says:

    David, when i participated in “Philosophy of Photography: The West” at the University of Oregon, August 1966, as an 18-year old, i was “wowed” by the words of wisdom of Ansel Adams, the Weston brothers, Imogen Cunningham, and others imparted. Even before this workshop i had done my “homework” studying the portfolios of past masters at MOMA. i was never circumspect about photography as art,
    Now 46 years later and having delved even deeper in the history of photographic art, i am amazed that the debate rages on.
    Today’s technologies, in photography and communications, have somewhat “evened the playing field”. Point-and-shoot digital cameras, and the slightly more advanced cameras, have made it easier to achieve some technical ability without thought, or at least forethought. This has raised the consciousness of the public and lowered the intrinsic value of the work of those who are seriously endeavor to make unique photographic expression. i have overheard gallery visitors too often making the comment, “oh, that’s pretty”or make no comments, and move immediately to the next photo.

    So how do i see some photos as “art” and some as “pretty pictures”? my simple answer is: what makes the viewer look, and then look again. Or, as one who attempts to make art, i would say, how are my images, and thereby my vision, unique and executed well enough to attract a sustained viewing, and sometimes to be asked or to overhear, “what is this?” Unfortunately, i do too often reveal what “it” is without bouncing the question back.

  14. Hi Clark, I appreciate this insightful comment. I agree with your criteria as one legitimate way of separating pretty pictures from art, which is not easy to do, especially with so many pretty pictures made these days as you say. One of my father’s main reasons for photographing was to get people to look closer, to take a second, and third and many more looks at his photographs and at nature in general. I have been studying Dad’s photographs all my life and I still see something new in many of them each time I look. I feel the same is true of most of the images of those who are producing good art through using a camera.

  15. H William says:

    What is art? or What is good art? A very debatable subject. Personally, I believe that the viewer will determine what they consider to be art. I’m not sure that true art is produced by determining what will sell and then attempting to produce it. In the case of the photographer photographing what appeals to you will, in my mind, always produce a more satisfying image. Sometimes it’s just the old adage, ‘f8 and be there.”
    In my case the one image that has been chosen by Dewitt Jones to be included in his “Daily Facebook Celebrations” is something that struck me as I put the dog in her pen, a simple leaf floating in her water dish. No forethought, just the brain saying, “That’s neat.”

  16. Hi H. William, It seems like you are saying that either the viewer or the creator can determine whether a photograph is art, which makes sense. To me, in most contexts, it’s all art under one definition or another. On the other hand, many would argue that there must be some criteria. If so, then most viewers who are not educated about art, probably would not be good judges. I can understand this perspective, but also feel that as ignorant of art as some viewers are, most of us in this media rich society, have a much better sense of what makes art than we might think on first glance, or that the so-called experts might feel we do. It is most people’s tastes for what art they like that need refining through education, in my opinion.

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