I think all art is about control – the encounter between control and the uncontrollable. – Richard Avedon
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While Edgar Allan Poe dubbed the invention of photography to be ‘the most extraordinary triumph of modern science’, Charles Pierre Baudelaire pronounced photography to be the biggest mortal enemy of art.
And yet, centuries later the classification of photography under an either/or section of art and science hasn’t been reached.
Is photography an art or is it science or is the lovechild of both?
Science Behind Photography
In 1853 photography was argued against being an art form for it lacked the ability to elevate the imagination. But in 1858, the South Kensington Museum held the first ever photography exhibition.
Labeling photography as more of a documentation technique to capture a moment without stimulating the imagination is the most frequently given justification for it being a form of art. But how does one hem imagination within a practical checklist approach? How does one say that there are certain requisites to trigger the imagination, and photography doesn’t fit the bill?
Imagination is mainly personal while one may see the literal meaning of a picture, someone else might spin an untold story that the picture reads only to them.
To loosely describe art, it is something that has an aesthetic appeal, something that holds beauty. Aren’t camera-clicked images beautiful? Didn’t you ever see a picture and were in awe of how pretty it was?
There is definitely science involved in everything from composing to editing images. There’s a calculation involved in taking picture – whether it is adjusting the shutter speed or manipulating the ISO – it’s a lot of math but so is art.
Leonardo Da Vinci’s collaborator Luca Pacioli said: “Without mathematics, there is no art”. Whether it is the Golden Ratio that artists adhere to or the Fibonacci Circle, so by the same admission, paintings too should not be called art then.
You might want to read techniques from some of the most renowned professional portrait photographers.
The golden proportions determine how the table and them emblem on it would be placed in the painting.
Some say that photographs aren’t created but captured. While an artist creates, a photographer is just a recording medium. Because where an artist creates a scene – even if it’s a replica of a still object – they still do so stroke by stroke but, a photographer merely takes a picture, without creating anything in the literal sense.
But most photographers today echo the idea that clicking great pictures is a combination of being well-versed in the technical aspect and having a vision.
You might be able to work out the settings but what to expect from a photograph, what does an artist see and aims to capture is his vision. And how is he not creating that? His vision, his interpretation of even something banal and mundane steps into the picture, how is that not creation?
Noted portrait photographer of the 1800s, Julia Margaret Cameron always maintained that her photographs were an expression of her knowledge and perception of art.
And what about edited images? Even if we were to undermine a photographer’s claim of it being art on the absence of ‘creation’, aren’t edited images created through distorting, restoring, and altering through editing applications like Photoshop?
What do we call that then?
Everyone’s a photographer today with the advent of the camera-enabled smartphone. And the primary purpose (besides getting tons of likes on Instagram) is to express their creativity. Photography is categorized as a creative profession for it expresses the photographer’s own understanding of the subject.
But even then a lot of people justify photography not being art, based on the fact that a picture still comes from something while art could be completely imaginary and abstract. If you’re a painter and you have a vision of something, you can paint it out of nothing, but as a photographer with a vision of what you want to capture, you would still need physically existing elements to base it upon.
So maybe photography has a big part of the artistic features, but it isn’t strictly art?
But where does it define art to be something that has to be borne out of something else? Art has just come to be synonymous with anything creative.
When it comes to ascribing pictures to be artistic, it needs to have a creative aspect. And one of the basic essentials of a good picture is creativity.
And there’s no dearth of creativity in modern-day photography.
What qualifies anything to be termed artistic is also its capabilities to evoke emotions. And photographs do conform to this requirement, pictures are not just capable of capturing emotions, but also bringing them out in the viewer.
This again is subjective, what one chooses to see in a photograph defines what emotions they feel surfacing. While someone might see an old ragged teddy bear, someone else might see a childhood companion forgotten or lost, they might glimpse into the feelings of the child who might have lost his toy, and the melancholy associated with this for it could be even metaphor of a kid trying to find his way in the big bad world, alone.
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But a lot to do with photography is undoubtedly science. From the make of the equipment to developing pictures, everything involves some science. Even clicking pictures do; the law of reciprocity that governs exposure by adjusting aperture and shutter speed is science. Selecting lenses to fine-tuning the focus, it’s all science.
So while all photos are by default a work of science in action, are all photos passable as art? Maybe some do adhere to the general ‘principles’ of art and are therefore artistic, while some might be a part of the in-between land. For instance, if you go around clicking passport size photos, that possibly won’t be called art, right? But if you go around clicking passport size photos of refugees who spent close to three months on sea and their pictures show their first reaction of relief and hope they feel. Would a collection of such powerful emotion-conjuring pictures not qualify to be called art?