It’s Good, but is it Photography?

Photography is generally defined as the practice of creating pictures by recording light on a light-sensitive surface. Yet increasingly these days in photographic circles there is plenty of imagery being proudly presented – and warmly received – that on a personal level I would struggle to classify as “photography”.

This is one of photography’s contemporary grey areas. It is a matter of debate how much manipulation can occur whilst still preserving a photograph’s status, and this threshold varies depending on the genre of photography. In journalistic use for example then essentially no content alteration can take place, and the situation is largely similar for “natural history” images in photographic circles. The threshold is far more liberal for categories such as art photography, and it was a circular with this image from the London Salon’s 99th Exhibition 2010 that prompted this post:

Quality Street - Michael Hughes

Slide 080 of 196, London Salon of Photography 99th Exhibition 2010, Quality Street © Michael Hughes. One of the eight prestigious medal winners. Quality Street... quality photography? The London Salon of Photography clearly think so.

Take that image out of the photographic context, and a lay person could describe it as an image. Others might describe it as artwork, or a painting, or even a drawing. Possibly some might describe it in colloquial terms as a “photo”, but very few would identify it as being a photograph taken by a camera.

Yet, “the aim of the London Salon is to exhibit only that class of photographic work in which there is distinct evidence of artistic feeling and expression.” (emphasis added) — London Salon of Photography

My unease stems from the acceptance of this genre of work as photography, and not any concern over their artistic merit. Ultimately whether a piece of work is of good standard or not is a matter of opinion and depends on who you ask, but the classification of the work should be more straightforward.

A work heavily influenced by Photoshop is not necessarily any less deserving than one created directly in camera. They are, however, difficult to compare and have no place in a photographic competition or exhibition.

In the same way that you wouldn’t generally compare a watercolour with a photograph, or a sculpture with a poem, I would argue that comparing some of these artistic works with photographs is inherently flawed. Although they share pixel and paper and ink mediums, they require a different skill set. I would hope that a photographer is judged on his ability in creating photographs, not on their ability sitting behind a computer workstation.

One of the counter arguments is that these artistic works have their beginnings in a photograph or, in the case of collages, several photographs. Yet the point to recognise here is that the author is merely taking the original photograph(s) and turning it into something else. For example influential British artist David Hockney refers to his photocollages as “joiners”, an acknowledgement of the fact that they were something beyond photographs.

The law recognises an artistic work as “a graphic work, photograph, sculture or collage”. From the legal point of view, the threshold for the creation of a derivative piece of work – deserving of its own legal status and copyright protection – is very low. If I took a photograph and then did significant things to alter its form in image manipulation software such as Adobe Photoshop, I am in essence creating a new work. When viewed in this manner, would you consider the new work a photograph?

If it helps, consider this analogy. There are numerous painters, particularly those who work with oils, that paint from a reference photograph. Sometimes devalued by those within artistic circles, it is nonetheless a common practice by painters of all standards. With oils sometimes taking months to put together, a reference photograph can greatly help the artist to capture the lighting and mood from a specific moment in time.

Famous French Impressionist Edgar Degas utilised photographs to help him freeze the movement of dancers to help him translate that into his painting. I would be very surprised if you found many people trying to argue that those Degas pieces are photographs or that they should be included in photographic exhibitions or competitions, just because they began from a photographic image. Is what Degas did with oil and canvas really all that different from what some modern image workers are doing with Photoshop and pixels? The artist is taking a photographic image and making radical changes to its form and composition. The resultant work should be considered a different medium.

Fish in the Sea - Steven Le-Prevost

Slide 086 of 187, London Salon of Photography 98th Exhibition 2009, Fish in the Sea © Steven Le-Prevost. Again a medal winner. Is it an oil painted from a photograph? Is it a simulation of an oil painting made from a photograph? It's an award-winning photograph, according to the London Salon of Photography.

I stress again, this post is not here to cast aspersions on the artistic merits of these derviatives from photography. They are artistic works deserving of appropriate appreciation. The question is, are they photography?

Photographic circles need to start realising this to preserve the art of photography before it becomes further muddied and diluted. You shouldn’t need to know that somewhere along the line a piece of art was a photograph before it was altered, to appreciate it as a photograph. You should be able to pick out a “photograph” from a rogue’s gallery of artistic works, without needing a caption to tell you.

Are we as photographers so ashamed or limited by our choice of medium that we have to imitate different art forms to stand out?

Perhaps I am a purist, but I would hope that a brilliant photograph would be recognised instantly as two things – not just brilliant, but also as a photograph.

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2 Responses

  1. I concur with a lot of what you say, and agree that there should be a distinction between photography and what is, essentially, graphic art. I think there should be sufficient recognition for graphic art images that they have their own categories in salons and competitions. This way the creators will not be tempted to “pollute” photographic competitions with these images. The issue will always be where to draw the line.
    I personally also find over=processed images beyond what could occur in nature and therefore digital art too.
    I am not against deleting or moving the odd item in PS – but I firmly believe that no-one should be able to tell when they see the final image. This I believe is the crux of the matter: “Can you tell?” If you can tell there has been manipulation it is either crappy photography or digital art. neither of which should be accepted of rewarded in a “photographic” competition or salon.

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