Art Photography

What Is Art Photography

What Is Art Photography

From the moment photography was invented in 1839 to the middle of the last Century, had raged a heated debate on whether it is a form of art or simply a way of using an optical-mechanical contraption to document reality. 

Now we know that photography is indeed an art form. Moreover, its unique features make it distinctly different from its closest relative: painting.

What makes Photography the Art? To answer this question, we need to go back to the definition of art itself. 

Even though Merriam-Webster defines art clearly and concisely as “something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful, or that expresses important ideas or feelings”, things are not that simple. 

Leo Tolstoy wrote a whole book called “What Is Art”, yet do not expect to get all the answers there. 

However, going back to the classic definition, one can see that photography possesses everything to be an ideal medium for creative expression. 

Yet, there are ways to use photography for purely practical purposes, and one can argue that it is its primary earmarking.

Photography is a language that uses visual elements instead of words; therefore, it can be used for artistic purposes just as any language. 

Like English, which is perfectly appropriate for writing a rental contract with a landlord and equally suitable for creating the most beautiful poetry, photography serves its dual purpose without contradiction.

What distinguishes a true artist is having something important to say and striving to deliver this message to the world. 

It is the human ability to interpret any information (including visuals) in various ways that give an artist the freedom from being literal. 

Good photographers do it exceptionally well. Their work is always open for interpretation; it asks questions rather than gives answers.

As with any visual art form, photography exploits vulnerabilities of the human visual perception. 

It can make us experience emotions that move us and compel us to do things that we otherwise would not even think of. 

Why can photography influence people so profoundly? Unlike painting, photography requires an actual physical object to be there to take a picture of it. 

This very fact is the reason we perceive any photo as something more accurate than any other type of visual representation of reality. 

This is genuinely unique to photography, and it took some time for artists who chose photography as their means of creative expression to understand.

Pictorialists, who were the first group of photographers positioning themselves as fine artists, were trained painters for the most part. 

Traditions and techniques of painting greatly influenced those who were not still. Hence they did not understand photography’s unique property and merely saw their work as photographic paintings. 

Despite the profound visual and emotional appeal of pictorial photography and numerous techniques that pictorialists developed to distance themselves from “simple craftsmen”, their art was not groundbreaking. 

The graphic movement emerged during the early years of photography. It became especially active in the last quarter of the 19th Century when photographers were still confined to working with stationary objects and people. 

Limitations of the photographic equipment were responsible for pictorialists’ sparse understanding of what photography is capable of.

Thanks to Oscar Barnak, who built the first successful 35mm camera and advances in film technology, photography broke free. 

Henri Cartier-Bresson, armed with a small and discreet Leica, essentially invented and perfected the genre of candid photography and its applied form, photojournalism. 

Cartier-Bresson coined the famous term “Decisive moment”, which became a trademark of his style and a recipe for his innumerable followers and imitators. 

Doing strictly “candid photography”, Cartier-Bresson figured out how to successfully capture the unexpected by being spontaneous. The spontaneity enriched photography immensely by making it even more believable.

Browsing through hundreds of the most famous photographs of the past, you can quickly notice that every one of these pictures is more or less spontaneous. 

It is the spontaneity that helps a photographer create an illusion of ease and effortlessness. 

The spontaneity makes photography so similar to Jazz, as opposed to the strictness of painting, which makes it so similar to Classical music.

On the one hand, photography does represent reality and cannot exist without it. On the other hand, it can distort and misrepresent truth with different degrees of subtlety. 

This is the reason surrealists embraced photography so eagerly. Using both purely technical means (like double exposures, montage, forced perspective, cross-processing, solarisation, etc.) and semantics (multiple meanings, allusions, context manipulation), they managed to create pictures seemingly highly personalised in a sense that each spectator tends to interpret these photos based disproportionately on his or her subjective perception and identify with the images on a very personal level. 

No wonder that fashion and advertising professionals adopted surreal photography so quickly and effectively.

One of the notable differences between painting and photography is the fact that the photographic technique is transparent. 

It means that by being rather complex and challenging to master, the technical skills of a painter are considered an indispensable part of his artistic talent. 

Photography is not like that at all. Current advancements in photographic technology made it possible for anyone to take a technically good photo and even accidentally create a masterpiece. 

Therefore, when an image is technically perfectly executed, it is perceived as something not worth talking about. 

Only when something is wrong, the viewer will note a problem with focusing or exposure. 

Even a good understanding of the properties of light does not turn one into an artist, as simply being in the right place at a proper time can result in a very aesthetically pleasing photo, even though it was taken without any awareness of the lighting conditions.

It is the transparency of photographic technique that makes photographers look for things that define photography as art. 

It is the very reason artists who use photography as their means of creative expression see the world differently, give us a new and unusual view of reality and find ways to play with our emotions making us feel and even see things that are not even there.

Fine Art Photography Ideas

Art Photography

You can learn more about fine art by working on various photography projects.

Here are a few that will help you familiarise yourself with the genre:

Moody Lighting

Photograph an object in moody lighting. Your lighting doesn’t have to be professional. It can be direct or subtle, natural or artificial. This will enable you to work exclusively with light and find potential in details.

Play With Colours

Fine art photos don’t have to be realistic. 

If you enjoy colour correcting and editing your photos, experiment with unnatural tones. This will encourage you to get out of your comfort zone and embrace unusual themes.

Use Simple Backgrounds

Take photos in austere locations. To make your subject stand out, photograph it in an area with very few distractions.

This can be a field on a cloudy day or a white room with no furniture.

Photograph Patterns

Find patterns and symmetry in nature. The great outdoors is filled with an abundance of acceptable art subjects, including trees, beaches, and skies. 

Balance, curves, and even crookedness can all be used to create an eye-catching photo.

Try More Creative Angles

Experiment with angles and rotation. A simple process can completely change the meaning of your image. 

A slight change in perspective can transform a simple location into something that someone wants to hang on their wall.

Don’t be afraid to play with angles and rotations during your photoshoot and in your editing program.

How Photography Became an Art Form

This is the first part of a series of posts on whether computers can create art, adapted from my extended essay on that topic. 

Before the invention of photography, realistic images of the world could only be produced by skilled artists. 

In today’s world, we are so swamped with pictures that it is hard to imagine just how special and unique it must have felt to see a well-executed realistic painting. 

Professional artists’ skills had steadily improved over the centuries; by the 19th-century, artists such as the Pre-Rafaelites and the French Neoclassicists had achieved stunning visual realism in their work.

The technical skills of realism were inseparable from the other creative challenges in making images. This changed when photography automated the task of producing images of the real world.

In 1839, the first two commercially practical photographic processes were invented: Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s daguerreotype and William Henry Fox Talbot’s negative-positive process. They were mainly presented as ways to produce relevant records of the world. Of the two, the daguerreotype was more famous for several decades, primarily because patents restricted talbot’s process. Improvements to Talbot’s method eventually made the daguerreotype obsolete and evolved into modern film processes.

Portraiture and Other Practical Uses

Portraiture was the main driver for the early adoption of cameras. Then, as today, people enjoyed possessing pictures of their friends, loved ones, and ancestors. 

Portrait painting was only available to aristocrats and the very wealthy. In the 18th Century, several inexpensive alternatives were developed, such as the silhouette, representing an individual’s outline, typically hand-cut by an artisan out of black paper.

The daguerreotype offered an economical way to create a realistic portrait. It was very slow and required locking the subject’s head in place with a head brace for several minutes while the issue tightly gripped their chair so as not to move their fingers. 

Nonetheless, numerous daguerreotype studios arose and became commonplace as technologies improved, and many portraitists switched to this new technology.

Within a few decades, photography largely replaced most older forms of portraiture, such as the silhouette, and, today, no one seems to regret this loss particularly. As much as I appreciate the mystery and beauty of old etchings and portraits, and even some contemporary portraiture, I’d usually instead use my mobile phone camera than try to paint everything by hand.

Another early use for the daguerreotype was to produce souvenirs for tourists: by 1850, daguerreotypes of Roman ruins completely replaced the etchings and lithographs that tourists had previously purchased. 

As the technology improved, photography became indispensable as a source of records for engineering projects and disappearing architectural ruins, as well as for documentary purposes, such as Matthew Brady’s photographs of the horrors of the American civil war.

Is Photography Art?

Artists and critics debated for many decades whether photography is art. Three central positions emerged.

First, many people believed that photography could not be art because it was made by a machine rather than by human creativity. 

From the beginning, artists were dismissive of photography, and saw it as a threat to “real art.” 

Even in the first presentations of 1839, classical painter Paul Delaroche is reported to have blurted out, “From today, painting is dead!” Two decades later, the poet Charles Baudelaire wrote, in a review of the Salon of 1859:

“If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon supplant or corrupt it all together, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude which is its natural ally.”

A second view was that photography could be helpful to real artists, such as for reference, but should not be considered equal to drawing and painting. 

For example, despite his public denunciation of Photography, Ingres’ later paintings show considerable evidence that he worked from photographic reference.

Finally, a third group, relating photography to established forms like etching and lithography, felt that photography could eventually be as significant an art form as painting. This group, including hobbyists and tinkerers, avidly explored its potential.

The Effect of Photography on Art

Photography ultimately had a profound and unexpected effect on painting. Painters’ mimetic abilities had been improving over the centuries.

Many painters of the 19th Century, such as Pre-Raphaelites like John Everett Millais and Neoclassicists like Ingres, painted depictions of the world with stunning realism, more than had ever been seen before. 

However, cameras became cheaper, lighter, and easier to use and grew widespread among amateurs and professionals. 

Realistic photographs became commonplace by the end of the 19th Century. If photorealism could be reduced to a mechanical process, then what is the artist’s role?

This question drove painters away from visual realism and toward different forms of abstraction. 

James McNeill Whistler’s Tonalist movement created atmospheric, moody scenes; he wrote: “The imitator is a poor kind of creature. 

If the man who paints only the tree, or the flower, or another surface he sees before him were an artist, the king of artists would be the photographer. 

It is for the artist to do something beyond this.” The Impressionists, who sought to capture the perceptions of scenes, were likely influenced by the evocative “imperfections” of early photographs like the Boulevard du Temple, shown above.

In contrast, Symbolists and post-Impressionist artists moved away from perceptual realism altogether. Edvard Munch wrote, “I have no fear of photography as long as it cannot be used in heaven and hell. I am going to paint people who breathe, feel, love, and suffer.” 

Vincent Van Gogh, describing his artistic breakthroughs around 1888, wrote to his brother:

It would help if you boldly exaggerated the effects of either harmony or discord that colours produce. 

It is the same thing in drawing — accurate drawing, accurate colour, is perhaps not the essential thing to aim at, because the reflection of reality in a mirror if it could be caught, colour and all, would not be a picture at all, no more than a photograph.

In other words, Munch, Van Gogh, and many other artists of their generation viewed realism as the job of photography, and the goal of the actual artist was to find a way to go beyond realism—to do something that cameras could not do.

In 1920, many decades later, André Breton, a founder of Dada and Surrealism, prefaced a statement on Dada with: “The invention of photography has dealt a mortal blow to the old modes of expression, in painting as well as poetry. … Since a blind instrument now assured artists of achieving the aim they had set themselves up for … they now aspired … to break themselves of the imitation of appearances.”

It seems likely that photography was one of the major catalysts of the Modern Art movement: its influence led to decades of vitality in the world of painting, as artists were inspired by photographic images and pushed beyond realism. 

Without photography, perhaps modern art would never have existed.

Pro-Photography Movements

Meanwhile, photographers attempted to develop and advocate for their art form. 

In the United States, these photographers called themselves the Photo-Secessionists, since they “seceded” from custom and traditional art forms. 

They argued that the artist’s considerable control over image creation expresses their vision, making it an art form.

The Pictorialist movement, beginning around 1885, pursued a particular visual aesthetic in creating photographs as an art form. Pictorialists exercised considerable artistic control over their pictures. 

Some used highly-posed subjects in classical painting and carefully manipulated their images in the darkroom to create very formal compositions. 

Many of their works had hazy, atmospheric looks, similar to Whistler’s Tonalism, softening the realism of high-quality photography. 

They seemed to be deliberately mimicking the qualities of the fine art painting of the time, and today much of their work looks somewhat affected.

The Photo-Secessionists pursued various strategies toward legitimising their work as art, such as photographic societies, periodicals, and juried photography exhibitions. 

Their results and achievements made it harder and harder to deny the artistic contributions of photography; culminating in the “Buffalo Show,” organised by Alfred Stieglitz at the Albright Gallery in Buffalo, NY, the first photography exhibition at an American art museum, in 1910. Photography was firmly established as an art.

Subsequent Modernist photography movements shed the artificial styles of Pictorialism. This included photographers like San Francisco’s Group f/64, who explored combined sharp-focused, naturalistic imagery with abstracted compositions.

Lessons for AI and Art

Art Photography

This story provides several lessons that are directly relevant to AI as an artistic tool.

When the camera was first invented, it looked like the machine that automated the creation of art. No skill was required. Many artists feared and disparaged it. They predicted that it was going to destroy high-quality art and put the best artists out of work.

What Happened?

  • A new art form was created: Photography. This form has its unique styles and creations.
  • Old art forms were reinvigorated. Perhaps modern art would not exist had photography not raised questions about the artist’s role in realism.
  • Old portraiture technologies became largely obsolete. In practice, this meant that portrait studio needed to learn and adopt the new technology.
  • Photography became available to hobbyists; image-making was “democratised.” Nowadays, anyone with a mobile phone can take a picture.

This pattern repeated with the invention of computer graphics. Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith (who later founded Pixar) tried to interest Disney animators in the new technology in the early days of computer graphics. 

Smith later said, “Animators were frightened of the computer. They felt that it was going to take their jobs away. We spent a lot of time telling people, ‘No, it’s just a tool — it doesn’t do the creativity!’ 

That misconception was everywhere.” Today, computer animation is an enormously successful new art form, and it relies on the talents of vast numbers of animators and other creative and technical professionals.

I believe that the same pattern is repeating itself with the new artistic AI tools. 

Naive spectators, who do not understand current AI technology or art (or both), worry that AI will make artists obsolete. 

Don’t believe the hype. These new tools open enormous creative opportunities for art and culture; they do not replace artists but, instead, empower them.


So what makes photography art? The answer to this question depends on your photography style, where you find inspiration, and how you take photos.

In my opinion, what makes photography art is the imagination, dedication, and time that you pour into your work. It’s time you invest in researching, understanding, and admiring the fine art genre.

Many photographers agree that what makes photography art is something anyone would want to exhibit in a gallery. It’s a work of art that would make almost anyone feel something.

It’s something you’d want to see on a wall, in a gallery, or on the cover of a book.

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