Is Photography Art?

by Dr. Robert Berdan
February 24, 2017

White pine section through a microscope by Robert Berdan ©

I brought this photograph taken through my polarizing microscope of a cross section of pine wood to the Calgary Photographic Society many years ago. What ensued was a heated discussion that this was not a photograph, even though I ensured them it was taken with my Olympus OM-1 camera attached to my microscope. The photo was featured in an Art book called Design Synectics by Nicholas Roukes in 1980. The photos abstract qualities suggest art but to a scientist it reveals information about how the molecules are aligned in the wood. I argue in this essay that some photographs can be considered as Art.

Some photographers and collectors feel that Black & White photographs are closer to art than colour photographs, but I beg to differ. I don't think it matters if the photo was cyano type, black and white, colour or the photographer used some other process. The photo above was taken on the West Coast of Vancouver Island with a 70-200 mm lens.

"One of the primary purposes of art is to relate the experiences of one individual (the artist) to another (the viewer), to relate the existence of one thing to another." Brooks Jensen

A search of Google will reveal numerous essays on the topic of photography as art with some articles supporting the concept and others disagreeing. To my surprise even some pro nature photographers don't consider their photographs as art. Of course everyone is welcome to their opinion, but I have thought long and hard about the topic and offer some arguments for at least some photographs being considered as art, but certainly not all photographs just as not all paintings, drawing, or writing should be considered art. The camera does seem to do much of the work, but my camera has never taken any photos with out my guidance and it certainly hasn't taken any photos without me at remote locations at 4:00 am! It's not the time to take the photo that matters it's the time finding the right image, then processing it in a way to fulfill the photographers vision that can elevate a photograph to art. At the end of this article I offer links to other opinions on the topic you may want to read as well. I believe photographers can be more than technicians, some can become artists.

Pine needles and water drops abstract by Robert Berdan ©

This photograph was taken in my backyard using a 60 mm macro lens using F2.8 for a shallow depth of field. Again the picture has an abstract feel - yet it is only water drops on pine needles. .

Sumac trees in Autumn, I used a long exposure 1-2 secs and moved my 70-200 mm lens during the exposure to create this abstract image to produce a sense of motion.

Photomicrograph of Potatoe starch grains by Robert Berdan ©

You would probably never be able to guess what this is. It is a squashed potato - showing starch grains at 400X in a polarizing microscope. The starch grains act like crystals in polarized light.

The concept of photography being art has been promoted by certain photographers, most notably Alfred Stieglitz, in the early 1900s. The main criticism of this view – that photography is a mechanical process whereby a camera takes the shot and thereby does all the work – is inherently flawed. While it is true that anyone can create a photograph with the push of a button, it is equally true that almost anyone can draw a simple picture, paint or write a short story. Even “abstract” paintings done by animals have been known to fool art critics. As for the camera doing all the work, I can assure you that my camera has never gone out on its own and taken any pictures that I am aware of.

Suns rays through forest by Robert Berdan ©

Sun's rays in early morning through fog and trees near Millarville, Alberta.

Sunrise point Lake, NT by Robert Berdan ©

Sunrise, Point Lake, NT. Many nature photographers start with trying to capture the beautiful light at sunrise or sunset, then soon enough find out that only a small percentage of sunrises and sunsets are colourful. It takes patience, planning and being in the right place at the right time to get capture nice light.

Colourful stones on the Shoreline near Killarney, Ontario. 70-200 mm lens.

Autumn trees reflecting off a pond - 70-200 mm lens, Ontario.

The real question here is when does a photograph become art? This is more difficult to define, given the wide variety of photographs and their different styles. Generally speaking, art is created by artists, with an artist being someone who dedicates a significant amount of time to producing and compiling their creations. Artists usually create art with specific intentions and with the aim of imparting their persona and style into the work. For photographs to be considered art, the images should provide evidence of skill and craft, although I have seen work that is deemed to be art where this does not appear to be the case. While imagination may be considered to be an important component of artistic impressions, it can’t create a legitimate work of art on its own without skillful execution. I firmly believe that to qualify as art, photographs must command the attention of an audience, with images resonate and lingering in the minds of the viewers. While a modern digital cameras make it possible for almost anyone to take a good picture, doing so consistently demands skill, vision and passion.

This photograph was taken in the harbour in Ucluet on Vancouver Island in the evening. I used a very long exposure and just moved my camera - again resulting in an abstract image. I did it for fun to see what would happen.

Abstract photo city of Calgary by Robert Berdan ©

Trees and building in downtown Calgary. You can find abstracts almost anywhere you live.

Radiolarians photomicgraph by Robert Berdan ©

Radiolarians form delicate silica shells (microscopic plankton from the ocean) 400X .

For some artists, validation comes in the form of publication of their work or exhibitions in art galleries. For other artists, such validation often arrives posthumously, alas. There is plenty of good art and bad art out there, but being so highly subjective, it’s not always clear what’s the difference. While some may regard commercial success as an indicator of good art, many recognized artists were quite poor when they were alive. Other artists have achieved fame and fortune, but had their work widely dismissed by the experts and critics of the time. Fundamentally, art must express an artist’s feelings or emotions about a subject to an audience. Likewise, true artists are usually assumed to possess significant skill, along with an appreciable investment in time, to be able to produce genuine works of art with sufficient originality of thought and purpose. In the case of a photograph, a single exposure may only take a fraction of a second, but taking a good photograph can take many attempts before you are able capture something truly outstanding. In photography, the time we spend searching for images is an important indicator of the person’s artistic merits. Images often begin as an abstract idea (per-visualization), but it takes being in the right place at the right time to compose that image into a meaningful artistic expression.

Dwarf Birch and willow on cliffsidde abstract photo by Robert Berdan ©

Dwarf birch and willow growing on cliff side in the Northwest Territories - 70-200 mm lens.

Photographs don't have to appear abstract to be considered as art - this image of a Marsh Wren was actually inspired by a painter I encountered at an art show who had painted the bird inspired by a photograph.

Ferns and rose petals, Bamfield, Vancouver Island.

Green paint and rust abstract by Robert Berdan ©

Metal surface with green paint and rust - taken with a 60 mm macro lens in Yellowknife, NT.

sun reflecting off water abastract by Robert Berdan ©

Sun reflecting off water - 70-200 mm lens. Very simple image - but you might not know what it is at first glance.

Effective composition is gained through experience, intuition, and study of the elements of design – as in the other visual arts. Post-processing of the image can vary from modifying the film during development and printing to manipulating and processing an image with a computer and software. All of these elements require skill and craft – usually taking years of dedicated pursuit to gain true proficiency. Based on these premises, I believe that some photographs can definitely be considered as art. But that does not mean that all photographs are art – just as not all writing or drawings should be treated as art. Being different things to different people, clearly defining what constitutes art can be difficult. Like all other forms of visual communication, art is often a product of a human’s mind to connect and express the world around it at the time.

Anton and Sarina in Kayak in front of Aboriginal artwork on rock wall off the coast of British Columbia.

Aurora borealis over Prelude Lake NT by Robert Berdan

Aurora Borealis over Prelude Lake, outside of Yellowknife, NT - 10.5 mm fish-eye lens. The aurora is light painting in the sky and it constantly moves and changes and for me is one of the most beautiful natural wonders.

While some of the original cave paintings have been dated to more than 40,000 years ago, we can only speculate to their real purpose up to this day. As pictures and graphic symbols became the essential rudimentary tools for human communications and the development of language over the centuries since, they have now become a universal communications vehicle that transcends the linguistic and cultural differences of people the world over. As the timeless truism states, “A picture is worth a thousand words”.

Photomicrograph of Citric acid crystals abstract photo by Robert Berdan ©

Crystals of citric acid which occur in citrus fruits as viewed in a polarizing microscope creates an abstract pattern resembling art 400X.

In summary is photography art? I believe some photographs can be. If nature can inspire artists why can't it inspire photographers to create art? RB


References to other essays on the topic

Photography: is it art?
The Line Between Art and Photography
10 Reasons Why Photography Sucks and Isn't an Art Form
Photography Isn't Art.
How photography evolved from science to art


Authors Biography & Contact Information

Portrait of Robert Berdan

Robert Berdan is a professional nature photographer living in Calgary, AB specializing in nature, wildlife and science photography. Robert offers photo guiding and private instruction in all aspects of nature photography and Adobe Photoshop training.

Email at:
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Phone: MST 9am -7 pm (403) 247-2457.

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