The question about whether photographic images can be deemed as art has been debated since the early years of the medium. To this day, I feel that the best response to this argument came way back in 1932 from an art critic called Redfern Mason who said, ' is an art when the photographer is an artist' (1).

If an artist sets out to create a piece of work then it shouldn't matter which medium they choose to express themselves. However, if I play devil's advocate, I can identify three inherent elements of photography that could jeopardise it's status as an art form:

1.  Immediacy

The fact that photography can be used to create an image so quickly does not sit well with the traditional concept of value being derived from the amount of skilled labour that has been invested in a work of art. Also, with so many uncontrollable variables being brought together in a split-second, how can an artist intentionally use photography to achieve their vision? How can photography be comparable with traditional creative methods such as painting, where each and every brush stroke has been deliberately applied by the painter to achieve their desired result?

2.  Fortuity

Some of the world's greatest photographers, academics, and philosophers have acknowledged that luck can play a big part in achieving a successful photograph, especially in the field of spontaneous photography (2). This element of chance makes it theoretically possible for anybody, regardless of talent or training, to make a superb photograph, but does this make them an artist? Ever since the invention of photography, advances in camera technology and the simplification of photographic techniques have progressively increased the chances of capturing a great image. Automation of things like exposure settings and focusing has meant that a lucky shot is now even less likely to be ruined by the human input of an inept photographer.

3.  Replication

A physical photograph normally exists as a print that has been made from an original source like a film negative or digital file. Because of this, a photographic print could be thought of as a copy or reproduction – neither word having positive connotations when used in the context of art. Rather than being made by the original photographer, it is possible for prints to be produced by an appointed studio instead. Depending on the techniques used, the print makers and retouchers involved in the process could be considered as artists in their own right.

Photography has been promoted by the art industry for many years now. Rather than being driven by genuine conviction, this could stem from a need to develop the market without having to rely on the continuous creation, or reselling, of more traditional art forms. In order to make photographic images marketable as art, the three aforementioned impediments need to be dealt with. Studying these issues, and respective solutions, can help us to understand why a certain type of photography has been favoured by the commercial art world.

The bulk of contemporary photography that is sold in galleries and auction houses tends to consist of staged images, which have each been meticulously planned by the creator of the piece. It is easier for potential buyers to accept these kind of photographs as art because they understand that the photographer/artist intentionally created the image to be exactly as it is. Taking time to arrange the subject matter and exercising control over everything in the image frame can dispel the first two concerns, immediacy and fortuity. So, with staged photographs, the element of chance has been removed, or greatly reduced, and a quantity of skilled labour and intent has been demonstrated. However, types of spontaneous photography may not fulfil these specific criteria and could therefore be set at a disadvantage. The majority of images that fall into this non-staged category must possess other redeeming features, such as historical significance, in order to be valued as art.

The third issue, replication, is fairly easy to overcome; the number of prints made from the original source is limited to a fixed number, which results in rarity and therefore value. Collectors can be asked to buy into the image as a concept rather than as a physical article, which means the actual print does not need to be unique - or even made by the photographer.

In the 21st century, is it possible for us to make spontaneous photographs that can be classed as art, or must they be planned and set-up in order to qualify? We should really be asking ourselves a new question: why are some photographs classed as art, but not others?

Paul Bradshaw


1. “Modern photography is a pioneer art which aims at the discovery of hitherto unrealized beauty. Of course, some people will deny that photography is an art at all. The answer to that objection is that photography is an art when the photographer is an artist.” - Redfern Mason, San Francisco Examiner, August 1932

2. “Photography is a brief complicity between foresight and luck” - John Stuart Mill

“Most good photographs, especially the quick and lyrical kind, are battles between the artist and luck” - James Rufus Agee