Is photography art?

Created date

November 24th, 2015
still life photo
still life photo

“Photography is an art of observation; it’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place.”—Elliott Erwitt, advertising/documentary photographer 

It’s been said that a photographer is an observer, while an artist who paints is an interpreter. I think that’s an over-simplification in the case of the photographer.

It’s true that a photographer captures a scene that unfolds before him, which probably will not be seen again exactly the way he observed it. The lighting will change; the foliage will change; and cloud formations, people, and animals will be different. 

“Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes a precise moment in time.”—Henri Cartier-Bresson, world-renowned French photographer    

A painter starts with a blank canvas and interprets what she observes. Her craft also enables her to create a scene in her imagination that does not exist. The result is original, never before seen. She interprets what she sees or imagines. 

However, the photographer does not just point the camera and click the shutter. His keen sense of observation enables him to review many technical and compositional parameters to best capture what he observes. In a sense, he does indeed interpret what he observes. He reviews the scene and makes decisions where best to place the camera and what time of day provides the best light to photograph the scene. Looking for the best composition, the photographer may move a bit to the left in order to include a rock in the foreground. He chooses a wide-angle lens to create a greater illusion of depth. 

After taking the photo, and with skillful use of computer software, the photographer can do much of what the painter does to interpret what he has seen: add objects, remove objects, change colors, or crop to alter composition. In essence, he “paints” a picture digitally. The tools at his disposal free him to expand his vision of what he observed. He can interpret what he saw any way he desires. 

The photographer, then, both observes and interprets and, like the painter, creates art.