Is photography an art? For that matter, what is art?
There are no universally accepted answers as to what makes art “art”. Don’t believe it – look it up. (If you really wish to go down a rabbit hole, go here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/art-definition/ )
For many, it distills down to: it is art if the artist intends it to be art. Okay, that’s pretty broad, but it contains the kernel of necessary, essential truth; i.e., that art is deliberate. This is implied, even in a dictionary definition along lines such as: Art is the the conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements, or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty. Or: Art is the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
This discussion can go on and on. But the point of this small essay was not intended to answer “what is art”, but whether or not photography is art! To even answer that, we must assume that art is, well, art. Art exists, and we know it when we see it. Art is the given.
Once we accept art, the question of whether or not photography is an art is easy to answer. It is summed up very simply by photographer Ruth Bernhard, who said: “Photography is art when it’s used by an artist.”
Paul Caponigro said: “Photography’s potential as a great image-maker and communicator is really no different from the same potential in the best poetry where familiar, everyday words, placed within a special context, can soar above the intellect and touch subtle reality in a unique way.” The analogy of poetry is apt. The poet uses words out of a dictionary. All the words are in the dictionary, and we can all use them. But the poet arranges a few of them in a way that transcends the usual. It is the deliberate act of the arrangement of words that makes poetry.
So it is with photography. The light is there, and any or all of can capture the light on film or a digital sensor. The challenge is to do it in a way that transcends the usual.
That is the hand of the artist.