In the art world there are always going to be those that seem to disparage photography by implying it is not art. Some of those would instead label it more as a technology to capture imagery. Case in point is an article that recently posted to the Guardian in which Jonathan Jones an art critic made the statement that a photograph which sold for 6.5 million was merely like a “posh poster you might find framed in a pretentious hotel room”. His premise stems from a reaction to a previous article he wrote in which he implied that photography does not belong in galleries. To be fair he does not exactly state that photography is not something to be appreciated, but he definately does not appear as if he holds if to the same esteem. His implication is that photography is lifeless and flat as an art form. While I don't agree with his premise, after speaking with photographers over the years I believe he is not alone in his sentiment. Professional critics rarely set the standard in my book, but I suspect the mainstream art market tends to lean in his direction. I base this from talking with photographers who tell me it seems to be challenging to locate galleries willing to carry their work even when they know from their successes that their work does sell. I tell them, its not easy for traditional artists either. Far be it for me to not encourage any photographer working toward entering into the art market but be prepared to knock on the doors of a few more galleries until you find those that do see photography as art.
The debate on photography as art is not a new debate. Sean O’Hagan, writes a counter argument for photograph as an art form, within the same publication which does a good job of rebuking Mr. Jones’ article by citing multiple photographers whose work sells very successfully through various galleries. But I think Mr. O’Hagan fails to point out why photography is not seen in some circles as an art form like a painter's work would. To me the entire debate should first be looked at through the lens of common sense as well as economics.
Let’s take for instance a painting which looks like and was accomplished by simply splattering paint on a canvas. As someone in the art printing world I see first hand that there is a market for such work. Even if there was not, I still would not dismiss it as art since in the eyes of the artist it was more than “simply splattering paint”. But instictively the average person may wonder how often an image like that is created via skill and experience. But it's hard to compare it to photography. Even a decent photographer has to consider countless variables to get that perfect shot, and even then may have had to make multiple attempts. And that is not even considering what is involved in the process if they work in film and process it themselves.
But I think the debate misses the real underlying point as to why photography is looked down upon by some in the art community. With galleries that choose to shy away from photography I think it is more economically driven. Let's face it: most galleries are not shuffling works out the doors in the hands of buyers in high volume every day. While I don’t know what is considered an average sale for a gallery I feel it is safe to say many of the buyers are those with higher levels of disposable income. This means the average gallery is engaging in low volume, high ticket sales. With the gallery only keeping an average of 50% commission on the sale, it can be difficult to keep the utilities on, doors open and staff paid unless they are bringing in a steady stream of potential customers willing to pay those prices. Unfortunately photography is not valued as high in the eyes of consumers so those galleries so selling photography might harm their bottom line.
Picture the following scenario. A couple enters a gallery with the intent to purchase some artwork for their new dream home. The husband is bored, would rather be on the golf course or engaged in some activity other than tagging along with his wife to buy “pretty pictures”. The wife knows what she wants but the husband does not care. That is until he sees the framed photo for a couple hundred dollars versus the painting the wife wants for a couple thousand dollars. What do you think the husband will want? While this scenario could easily be in reverse with the wife wanting the less expensive piece and the husband wanting the painting, either way the gallery must contend with the possibility of price determining the profitability of the sale.
While the scenario oversimplifies the impact photography has on galleries it does not address photography as an art form. Nor does it provide a way for a gallery to justify pricier prints of photos. For that the consumer would automatically need to know the extent the photographer was willing to go to get that shot. Was it something he or she was just strolling along and happened upon by accident or did the photographer spend a lot of time and effort in setting upon the perfect shot. This is not always something easily concluded by even some experienced art and photo critics. Who knows if the photographer just happened to capture the perfect sunset because they were in the right place at the right time or if they planned it all along. If the latter, then it may not be easily appreciated. With a painting it is much different. The labor to create that work of art can be more easily perceived by the non artist while the work to capture a certain photograph might be only understood and appreciated by another photographer who has attempted a similar shot.
I believe unless photography is valued in the market as well as original works, the debate will continue to rage on. There will likely always be those that feel photography is a lesser or not even a form of art. To those those what I find ironic is that there are many artists who cross both disciplines, enjoying creating paintings as well as taking beautiful pictures with their cameras. Most that I have met this this category would disagree and state photography is indeed an art form. I myself am one of those people (although not near as active as I would like to be) and in the process of crossing from traditional art mediums to photography experienced my greatest success in the world of digital / computer generated art. That enters a whole other debate. Perhaps we will explore that one on another day. But to review the discussion by Jonathan Jones and the counterpoint by Sean O’Hagen checkout the following links below.