Is Photography an Art? / by Chris Hall

Peter Lik's 6.5 million dollar photograph, Phantom.

I recently read an article in The Guardian by Jonathan Jones where he says unequivocally, ”Photography is not an art.  It is a technology.”   In the article he bemoans the fact that landscape photographer Peter Lik has sold his photograph, Phantom, for 6.5 million dollars, setting a record for the most expensive photograph ever sold.  Jones’ criticism of the work is specific, saying that the photograph records a naturally occurring phenomenon, that it is something anybody with I-Pad could capture.  He also says that Lik’s photograph is cheaply nostalgic, that it references painting from over 100 years ago.  Despite Jones’ anti-beauty, anti-aesthetic argument, I find somewhat of an accord with what he is saying about photography being too readily accessible.  

I have grappled with similar thoughts myself from time to time.  There is something about the quick, instant nature of photography that, as a painter who has to lovingly labor over a canvas, leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  The photographic process, well, it just seems too easy.  Since the advent of the digital camera, it seems everybody is now a photographer, and all the hard work of making a good photograph has been simplified into an automatic point and shoot technique.  You do have to have some creative instinct, such as how to recognize a good composition and what makes something interesting or beautiful, but a lot of the technical input, from lighting and lenses, to old fashioned dark room techniques has been replaced by autocorrect technology within a camera’s or computer’s software program.  This already compounds the problem that a lot of times a person really “takes” a photographic image, and does not “make” a photographic image.  To be sure, some photographers such as Joel Peter Witkin and William Mortensen do go to great pains to arrange subject matter within a composition, and then manipulate the image after the photograph is taken, but often the photographic process and aesthetic is one of being a good documenter of something that already exists.  In the case of Peter Lik, we could argue that the real author is Nature, not Peter Lik.

Below are images from Joel Peter Witkin and William Mortensen, respectively.

All the same, however, I shouldn’t be so hard on photography.  The camera is technology, but so is a saw, and so is a paintbrush, they are all tools.  What matters is the person behind the tools, their talents, and what they are thinking and hope to accomplish.  It requires a good eye and a poetic nature to recognize a good photographic subject when one sees it, so there is that.  Though they do not flock in numbers the way they do toward photography, there are plenty of amateurs who paint and sculpt, too.  Good photography is most certainly possible.  A good photograph can move us in the same way a good painting can move us.  I am inclined to think that despite it all, in the right hands, photography is an art.

If there is any argument at all left concerning Peter Lik's Phantom, perhaps we could discuss whether or not an art that can be easily reproduced can ever really be worth 6.5 million dollars.  Does Lik destroy the negative or delete the image file?

You can read Jonathan Jones' article here:  http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2014/dec/10/most-expensive-photograph-ever-hackneyed-tasteless