One of the more bizarre things that occurred in the past but that still persists is the phrase “art and photography”.
For simplicity’s sake, I‘ll place that statement at the beginning of a historical narrative of culture. It refers to the point where, unlike today, photography was new and not recognized as a possible form of art.
From there we fast forward, through the cultural battle to have photography recognized as a possible form of art, then speed further on to the battle within photography “communities” to formalize criteria distinguishing art photography from non-art photography; and finally on to an endpoint: the 20th century’s conceptual enlightenment about how any given photograph may be experienced as art.
But during this same stretch of time, arguments also waxed and waned about what makes an image a “photograph” in the first place.
That debate of course was significant to practices. The casual and intuitive definition of photography naturally became “the activity of making photographs”, soon enough surrounded by special interests in how to convert that activity into benefits of influence or money – of status, or markets.
Arguably, we have no need for categorizing the products of artworks other than to announce their availability in terms that are attractive. Artists want audiences, and audiences want artists to supply experiences. Categorization is part of the matchmaking of the two. But what lies beyond productization – or before it? – as a reason for a taxonomy of art?
In the following I’m going to look deeply into the typical efforts to categorize art.
My expectation is that at the end, it will be clear that the differences established by categorization are not about intrinsic characteristics determining worth, but instead are just devices that provide contexts for experiencing art. This will include considering photography as a medium, as a form, and as a method, offering meaning artistically.
The overall statement to take from this will be that in our current period, it is non-sensical to ask whether a photograph is art; rather, the question is, is an artwork photographic, and if yes, how does that contribute to the meaning of experiencing the art work?
A medium is a channel of communication.
In terms of communication, a meaning is the understanding of a message that has been received.
Messages are intended to influence a recipient.
In a typology of messages, the primary practical consideration is of how to transmit meaning successfully and making an appropriate choice.
The “message” is, in other words, an “artifact” used to store and carry retrievable meaning.
A “medium” transports a message.
Art that was made for communicating visually offers an experience that is dependent on both expectations held by the viewer and purposes attempted by the maker.
The relationship between the two – viewer expectations and maker purposes -- is therefore the goal of the artwork’s makeup.
Typically, if only by analogy, a medium is expected to “transport” the maker purpose to meet the viewer expectation.
Meanwhile, the two factors, separately, are each highly sensitive to the affects of the environment in which the artwork is being formed.
Uncontrolled, the range of environments and affects is innumerably large.
Because of that, the number of variants possible as particular instances of any “type” of such relationship is virtually infinite. Most controls on that variability intend to predispose some alignment, not just meeting, of purpose and expectation.
A Genre is a conceptual tool for identifying types of those relationships.
In defining it, I start here with a compilation of descriptions currently offered in Wikipedia’ discussion of “Genre”:
A Genre is a category of artistic composition, characterized by similarities in a wide range of characteristics, methods they used to influence their audiences' emotions and feelings. The concept of genre began in the works of Aristotle, who applied biological concepts to the classification of literary genres, or, as he called them, "species". They generally move from more abstract, encompassing classes, which are then further sub-divided into more concrete distinctions. The distinctions [among] genres [or] categories are flexible and loosely defined, and even the rules designating genres change over time and are fairly unstable.
In the same Wikipedia discussion, the following additional details are mentioned; but here I have grouped them myself, with my own headings as well, in a way that applies universally across different types of artwork:
· subject matter
Those variables are the basis of the following examination of why classification is used as a part of experiencing artwork -- in particular, visual artwork that is distinguished as “photography”.
To understand photography now as a distinct approach to image-making requires clarifying our language about the idea as well.
The most important thing to initially consider about the idea is the use of a camera to produce a selective image for display.
What distinguishes a camera from being just an optical scope has always been the camera’s inclusion of a second mechanism that could re-produce the image seen and arranged by the lens, to display the image.
That second mechanism, the display mechanism, rapidly evolved in history from externally lit viewed surfaces such as glass, paper/fabric, or even smoke, to self-lit viewed surfaces such as electronic video screens, but the evolution of viewing surfaces did nothing to additionally distinguish cameras from scopes.
Between the camera lens and the display surface, a third mechanism must be identified – a transmitter – something that helps move what the lens detects without interference, from the lens to the display.
So we have a lens-transmitter-display “architecture” that distinguishes a camera from anything else.
As technology advances, we realize that the lens and transmitter are increasingly integrated into what is called a sensor. The purpose of the transmitter is to assure that what reaches the display meets expectations.
But in the conventional non-technical idea of photography, the combination of a lens and film is what people recognize as the sensing apparatus. The expectation is that both components are always connected to each other.
We also already know that simply exposing photo-sensitive film or paper to light, without a lens, uses the film or paper itself as both a sensor and as a display. In this case, however, it can be very unpredictable as to what will be visible or recognizable in the display… That makes intention, not just circumstance, an issue worth considering as a factor in what we choose to call photography. And in art, our special interest is where the selecting and directing of light is intentional.
So, most importantly, within this architecture of the camera, we are more specific about what the lens does.
When we put a lens in a sensor, the importance of the lens is that it effectively selects and directs the exposure.
Having stated the matter that way, we realize that intention applies equally to the mechanism used and to the purpose of its user.One is not more important than the other; they each call for the other. In fact, now, we recognize the mechanism as an instrument and its user as a performer.
Regardless of any technological advances at any time, this architecture (form) of the “camera” is also the operational model (function)of the activity called “photography”; the goal of both is to selectively determine what is detected; to begin its transmission, and to complete it as display.
In terms of art, what matters most to us about it is how that transmission results in an experience with meaning. Our conventional term for this is “expression”.
Instrumentation “provides” the universe of sensory effects that become the raw material of composition and invention.
Mastering use of the instrument (craftsmanship!!) maximizes the range of ways that its user can produce a communication as a designed expression that creates an experience for the receiver.
Throughout the history of “photography”, users have explored and demonstrated different ways of creating designed expressions to create experiences. Obviously, this exploration is also what has always been done by users in all forms of work called art.
Our question, now, is this: what meaning is intended, and needing to be satisfied, by declaring that some work is “photographic” or is not?
What difference, having what kind of value, is highlighted by positioning any work as “photography”?
An image maker always has at least two options as production paths.
One is to have the image in mind (the “imagination”) at the start, and then take steps with means to realize it as a communicable (sharable) expression.
The other is to experiment with what kind of image(s) can be produced with a given technique, and to assess what kind of meaning is invoked by the product.
There is no special reason why both of the two things should not be active and affecting each other in real time. The initial idea of an image may exist before there is a decision about how to render it for display. In the process of rendering it, many different options may be tried, with some discarded and some not. And what is discovered along the way can alter the initial idea into something else.
Discovery increasingly plays as much a role as does intention.
The simultaneous evolution of imaging technologies from chemical to digital, and from mechanical to electronic, has generated a vast array of effects and, likewise, abilities to combine them.
Meanwhile, “mixed-media” has made it clear that the image may find its particular expressiveness only by allowing differing techniques to blend in one purpose. There is nothing unusual about this in “art”; for example, theater exists almost entirely in the mixed-media mode.
And most importantly, anything that we have previously experienced as a “photograph” can now be digitally simulated beyond any practical difference in impact on experience. This means that nothing in the displayed image is something that necessarily actually existed visually as a precondition of making the image. All appearances are manufactured by the image-making following the pre-existing mental idea of the image. What that just described is exactly what people typically expect with painting and drawing; the point here is that computers are the newest imaging instrument, beyond styluses, pens, brushes, and even cameras.
Today, when it is possible to generate images digitally and physically that are indistinct from even artifacts made with no use of electronics or automation, calling any image a “photograph” is primarily an effort to predispose how a viewer is intended (by someone) to interpret the image.
In the above example, the left square is a “photo” of a white paint chip. The middle square is a photo of the left photo. And the right is a completely unrelated white graphic created in a digital art application. Having been told, in that way, how to interpret the imagery, we can choose to either accept it or not, but if we accept it we actually experience the respective images differently from each other. In this display here, it is otherwise impossible to identify which one is “not a photograph”.
We demonstrate that interpretive difference to emphasize that selectivity and direction form the basis of generating meaning with an image.
While the image has a form, the form is essentially a rhetorical instrument. More on that point, below.
The Mystique of Technique
Beyond some factual historical legacies, the notion that “photography” is a “medium” or “technique” is effectively obsolete.
But interpretation (whether anticipated or actual) is still quite current, bound up in certain ideas about how the artist’s selectivity and decision-making are affected by choosing certain instrumentation.
The essence of the difference between photographic technique and others is in the distinguishing use of a lens. Whether this is appreciated as a literal practice or as a metaphor, the significance is the same.
The most significant aspect of using a lens is that it leaves things out of the view, in order to emphasize what is in the view. Then, by being the selector, and possibly modifying what is within the view, it begins to create a resulting visual “element” – an item that will be a compositional feature of what is finally displayed.
There is nothing prohibiting that element from being the “whole” of the composition instead of being only a “part”. The choice is simply an artist’s decision to make.
That decision will be one dimension of the interpretation of the image. That dimension begins to shape interpretation ((the meaning in the display) during the formation of the image.
Technique is one way that artists predispose interpretation.
In painting, for example, we are familiar with the difference between a brush stroke, a figure, and a illustration. These are all in the range of visual description.
We are likewise familiar with the difference between a gesture, a depiction, and a representation. These are all in the range of intention.
Intention “gives meaning” to description, and that is exactly why the “expression” of the image is mainly what we can call visual rhetoric.
There is nothing about that rhetoric that tells us what “the difference” is between a so-called painting and a so-called photograph. Both images feature characteristics that we deign to be the “materials” of the display for the image.
However, with language, we typically attribute the rhetoric directly to materials that we say distinguishes, for example, a painting from a photograph.
We have a long-standing convention that classifies works by identifying their materials – that says some things are paintings because they are painted, made of “paint”… and other things are made of “ink” or “sound” or “words” – so what then is the corresponding material distinguishing a “photograph” from some other type of work product?
With a so-called photograph, we of course must say that the “material” directly experienced in the display is light itself – not really anything else.
We have to say this because the display mechanisms in photography range so widely, from glass to paper to fabrics to electronic screens. The same picture can appear simultaneously on all of those displays, and any one of them as displayed can be experienced as the “original” form of the image.
Being printed does not make it a photograph. Being projected does not make it a photograph. Being on a video screen does not make it a photograph. The image is rendered in the display.
Among the various clauses in dictionary definitions of “render”, two of the most prominent are:
· to transmit to another: deliver.
· to cause to be or become; make.
Seeing What is Viewed
At this point, our line of thinking about classifying something as photography leaps to two conclusions.
One: the very term “photography” decomposes to photo (light) and graph (drawing). “Drawing with light” is the essential description of photography as an action.
Two: We think of the products of the activity as a type of media. The term “media” cannot avoid referring to the term “medium”. However, we understand that a “medium” is a transmission channel, and that “media” is the formexperienced in the medium.
If we identify an experienced display as a photograph, we are allowing the experience to assume that what matters most is the effects that are created as visual elements by using a mechanism to optically select and direct light.
It is inevitable that the meaning intended by photography is based on the experience of seeing. In real life, seeing is not just sensing light; rather, it is completely about resolving images to a point of recognition. We literally measure our existing “ability to see” by testing how much visual information is needed to result in recognition.
Current and Future
In art, Categories and Types of influence are describing something more important than any particular type of form or instance of form.
However, as a viewer, recognizing the use of the form adds more information about the intention of the artist, because the use of the form as an instrument is strongly associated with techniques of influence.
That does not in any way preclude or prevent the invention of unprecedented associations of materials, techniques, forms, and messages as influencers on experience.
But what so-called “photography” has as its home turf is not the meaning of what is seen.
Instead, photography’s home turf is the meaning of seeing, itself – as produced or provoked through display.
That said, the more this is done by emphasizing the discipline applied with an actual or virtual (metaphorical) lens, the more likely the image is to be deemed “photographic” in display.
Ultimately, being photographic is both more interesting and wider in scope than is dwelling on “what is a photograph?” And it is more interesting especially now – given that any new work of art is so much more open to being a product of multiple integrated approaches to visualizing ideas for display.
Being photographic is a concept superseding “medium”, “media”, “method”, and “genre” as a useful categorization within the effort to understand the making and experiencing of art.
Four Important Paintings in the History of Photography
These are examples of things that occurred in works absolutely not categorized as photography. Rather, the history of experiencing art images has always been very strongly conditioned by the culture considered “local” to its viewers. In that context, changes that added new expectations and experiences have been highly relevant to similar evolutions in the way photography has been received and even subsequently solicited.
Expulsion of the money changers from the temple
Representation of the “real”, not mythological or symbolic.
by Kazimir Malevich. The first version was done in 1915.
Presentation of imaginative space in lieu of illustration
The Treachery of Images (French: La Trahison des Images)
Exposing the artifice of “realism”
Ralph Goings 1970
Simulated documentary, questioning the appearance of objective truth
- October 2022