Maybe Photography Isn’t An Art Any More, Maybe It Never Was

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Alec Soth: A few years ago Robert Frank said, “There are too many images, too many cameras now. We’re all being watched. It gets sillier and sillier. As if all action is meaningful. Nothing is really all that special. It’s just life. If all moments are recorded, then nothing is beautiful and maybe photography isn’t an art any more. Maybe it never was.” What do you think about this?

William Eggleston: I don’t disagree with any part of that statement.

via LBM Tumblr.

There Are 38 Comments On This Article.

  1. Reading a Walker Evans bio. He’s in Cuba, he’s there a month- on assignment, he’s hanging with Hemmingway, there is political strife, he loves photography and he records about 300 images.

  2. It doesn’t have to be art; it can be communication. It can be common everyday communication or “artistic” communication. You get points for style. Just like linguistic communication: some of it is artsy and stylish, some of it ain’t. And, there’s a continuum…it doesn’t have to be just one or the other.

  3. Art is about intent, if I create it with the purpose of being art, then it is art.

  4. vinit gupta

    I don’t understand one thing.is the “ART” is the most important thing in this world,there is no other important things in world then Art. dose it really matter is photography is an Art form or not.i could be medium of communication or a tool to express/research,any thing so if photography be remain photography ,it will be a wonderful thing . i love photography not because it is a art or science ,i love the photography ,i use as toll to do social research and keep my memories alive , to meet new friends and encounter with new places ,culture .i am least bother weather somebody is considering photography is an art or not.

    • Well said, those who worry about whether photography is an art or not should make more photographs (or paintings or whatever). They otherwise have too much free time and tend to get into trouble.

  5. James Alford

    I heard a good quote once that basically said just because everyone has the tools, doesn’t mean they’re creating great works of art. The entire world has access to pen and paper, and I’m sad to say great novels can still be fairly rare, and paint and canvas is available all over and yet awesome masterworks are also rare. Just because everyone has a camera doesn’t mean they are making masterworks.

    BTW this is not a quote but a paraphrase.

  6. Umm… No.

    Why does beauty need to be unique? And why does something need to be beautiful to be art? Aesthetics are only a small part of the creative process. They are a tool for representation, not an end in itself.

    Ubiquity does not negate art, either. Just because every teenager scribbles hearts in their notebooks doesn’t mean that painting is no longer an art form.

  7. This comment by Robert Frank is interesting and has lead me to think about what I’m doing, or not doing. Thinking about today’s state of photography, I can’t help but to think their are millions of people that seem to have obsessive compulsive snapping away at the world in front of them. I showed my 92 year old father Instagram and he said whats the point of this. I tried to explain and then I laughed and thought you have a point. Is it a marketing tool? Does it get you work, do you sell prints. No on all fronts. It’s seems my Instagram feed is a unique collection of marbles I have picked up along the way. My Marbles are pretty and I have a unique assortment for everyone to like.

  8. christine

    “If all moments are recorded, then nothing is beautiful ” I DISAGREE

  9. Life has it’s surprises and if you can show it in a piece of art what ever the medium fine, if it makes the viewer think then you have reached part of the meaning of art.

  10. A. Noninoni

    As usual, I agree with Eggleston. If you want to create art, the last thing you should worry about is creating art. Just take photographs. Do your best. Don’t worry about anything else.

  11. Pure numbers don’t mean anything. I’ve always like this from Stieglitz:

    “Yes, there seems to be millions on millions of photographers and billions of photographs made annually, but how rare a really fine photograph seems to be. ‘Intersting’ shots.’ It’s a pathetic situation—so little vision. So little true seeing.”

    -Letter from Alfred Stieglitz to Edward Weston, 3 September 1938

    • Just like shells on the beach. There are many and they keep on coming. Every now and then you find a perfect, beautiful creation of nature and it is art. It is art because it stirs your heart and you find it beautiful.

    • Susan Page

      Stieglitz seems to be taking an elitist view. Another way to look at it is that many more people are practicing photography and are producing meaningful work. I don’t think that’s pathetic. Photographers have always shot hundreds of images to get one or two keepers. Some will shoot hundreds and get no keepers. That hasn’t changed. We can celebrate those who truly see without judging everyone who’s just having fun or recording family event to be pathetic.

  12. I respectfully disagree with Mr Frank and Mr Eggleston.
    Mr Roper’s earlier reply is excellent.

    This kind of thinking stems from our too limited ability to articulate what differentiates art from other activities.

    For starters, we have too few words for different types of photographs; essentially we have one word for all types of photography – photography. Can you imagine using one word for all kinds of writing? Why is it that artists in that medium have much more clearly and usefully articulated significant differences in many different types of activities.

    • I am in close contact with many people around the world, e. g. photographers, photography collectors, editors, art universities professors etc … Why do i talk about that? Because their interest in art photography gives me an answer. Yes, we live within a web made by Instagrams, Panoramios, Google street view photos and so, but it does not mean that if everything is captured, nothing is beautiful. Our eyes also see everything around us, but we choose what is beautiful for us and what is not…

  13. I think the more people making photos, the better. Who cares if it’s art. It’s still a creative activity, and creativity is good. I refer to my photographs as “art”, not because they are so precious or belong in the Louvre, but because they exist for their own sake, since I don’t do weddings, commercial work, etc.

    • This is exactly what I do. Although I get money from my photographs, books, workshops and so, I don’t want to wake up and take photos for bills (I hope I will never have to :) … I can shoot what I want, how I want and when I want.

  14. Maybe writing isn’t art anymore. Their are too many words, and if everyone writes everything down, then words are just not that special and words become just meaningless recording of events and it’s all just silly. Maybe writing really isn’t art. Maybe it never was.

    • Donnor Party

      I think there is a distinction between pics and words. Words aren’t instantly understandable. You have to STOP and READ a page or two. You have to choose to read something. Images, however, are almost instantly undersdtanbale, and its an involuntary process. So we take in more images than words, which devalues all images. As an example, if I look at a book cover, for the photo, and read “Danielle Steele”, I pass. Unfortunately I’ve looked at the photo or illustration, which I’ve internalized.

      IMHO.

  15. Oh Please… This is complete and utter nonsense. It’s not about the camera(s) it’s about the vision. We are having our “Is Painting Dead” moment and painting is doing just fine thank you very much. There is this big universal photographer worry out there and I can’t wait until its over and we can move on. Yes you can network 50 miniature cameras and record an event from every angle but it will not be interesting. Give me a great lens and I can change the way you see something forever. Great Photographers will always be able to do that. That is why we should not worry about this.

    • Donnor Party

      Well, its not about the vision its about perception, and the public is overwhelmed with visuals, such that an Irving Penn portrait is only marginaly more powerful than a GNC Muscle Milk banner ad. I’m not sure if this is what they were getting at, but this, I believe, is the damage wrought by billions and billions of images.

      One might be able to change the way people see things or otherwise affect someone, it does happen, but only if you can get the eyes and the addled minds behind them to pay attention. This affects the market for photographers. My suggestion is to put red in an image. People like red.

    • Susan Page

      Yes, it is about the vision, not the camera, the lens, or the software. Give ten photographers the same assignment and the results will be wonderfully diverse. One of the pluses of all the images (cell phones, i pads, etc.) is that more people are getting excited about photography and are developing their own eye.

  16. Everyone on Earth can sing, and yet singing is an art. Everyone on Earth can dance, and yet dance is an art. Now that everyone on Earth makes photographs, photography is still an art. Truly transcendent work elevates itself above the mundane drone of the ordinary.

  17. I think there is a possibility that Mr. Robert Frank’s statement tells of his being afraid of his own images becoming meaningless in a raging sea of images. Perhaps he’s jaded. He’s not a lone pioneer of imagery, and people can now create images with just as much technical expertise (better) through use of modern tools. The playing field is even…

    There certainly is more work out, and perhaps the odds of a single photographer affecting the entire world in ways that masters of past were able to affect the world are over, because technical skill is no longer an obstacle (ever since the Kodak Brownie, everyone has been able to make a photograph). Now there are hundreds, thousands who must share centerstage. I live in Austin, and everyone plays the guitar, including me… But, I love that. I love that music is everywhere! Everyone is Austin is writing a novel, or making a film, or blah blah… everyone! It’s amazing!

    I love looking at the work of professional photographers I know, or have met. My closee friend George Krause’s work never ceases to amaze me now matter how many times I see it. He is a true master photographer, master printmaker, and has contributed much to the medium of photography during his career, and is still working at age 76!

    But, I also love to look at my friends’ work, those whom do not consider themselves to be “photographers”. Their Instagram photos have such a charm, and are created with the same innate drive that lives in all of us.

    Creation is an imperative. It’s in all of us. Not all of us will create “masterpieces” in the medium of our choice, but that is no reason for anyone to discourage, degrade, or belittle the choice for anyone and everyone who chooses to create using the tools that modern technology have given us at the potential risk of devaluation of his/her own work.

    Yes, all action is meaningful. Breath, the simple act of breathing is meaningful. Every kiss that is captured is meaningful, ever tree, lake, landscape, portrait, animal, etc etc is meaningful… And, if it’s not meaningful to the art world at large, it’s meaningful to the person whe created it.

    Well, before I continue to ramble…. The point is this:
    Keep making photographs, keep writing, keep singing, keep dancing, keep on keepin’ on. If what you’re making just happens to be “bad art” or whatever, be proud that it’s yours. Love what you do, pour your passion into it. Share it with the world, or dont show it to anyone. Keep it to yourself.

    But, dont stop.

  18. Remember back when Adobe unveiled Pagemaker and all the graphic designers thought they were out of work? Having the tools doesn’t mean one has the aesthetic sense to create art or the impulse.

  19. Yes, there are more and more images in digital media now, but must they all be included into the “art” category?

    I agree most photos are used for recording life purpose nowadays, but there are still some outstanding and unique photographers who use their cameras to discover beauty and create “art”.

  20. If all moments are recorded in lieu of being felt and experienced, then it is then that the beauty of the moment is lost. Our society is over saturated in every possible way with tools to dull our senses. It’s irrelevant if you choose not to participate in the dilution.

    Mr. T Roper brings our attention to Stieglitz’s observation–– that there is so little vision. So little true seeing.

  21. Mr. Bill

    Mostly, I agree with ‘Robert Frank’, except to expound on the thought, “As if all action is meaningful. Nothing is really all that special. It’s just life”. I, suspect ‘all’ is meaningful and that everything is ‘that special’. Perhaps not on a scale each of us is capable of understanding, though. Being unable to “see the forest for the trees’, for me, is the easiest explanation. Imho, we’re all contributors, through our specific medium of ‘art’, which may, at sometime, define what our “life” was all about.

  22. Paul King

    As a degree Fine Art Practice student I confront the question of ‘art’ within photography on a daily basis. “Art is in the eye of the beholder” will always hold true, but the is the “beholder” somebody who appreciates ‘Art” or somebody who simply thinks an image is “nice”?

    While I think too many people try to elevate the definition of ‘art’ in an attempt to make it an elite preserve of the few, I equally think there are too many photographers who will define any image as ‘art’ simply because they think it makes their work sound more important. The vast majority of photographs, while providing pleasure to the photographer and friends, are no more than ‘snaps’, and in that respect I agree with the comments of Frank and Eggleston.

    My challenge is to create images that rise above the humdrum in a manner that will enable my tutors to consider them to be ‘art’ rather than ‘snaps’. If anybody thinks that is an easy task please let me know the secret of success. My tutors are not photographers and therefore I have to convince them with each of my images that you can have art in photography as opposed to disciplines such as painting and sculpture.

    The quantity of available photographs has no relevance to questions of art. There are millions of painters around the world, but just because they are painters does not make their work ‘art’. It, as always, comes back to “Art is in the eye of the beholder”.

  23. That’s why I love wedding photography – the ugly red-headed step-child of photography.

    Robert Frank says: “Nothing is really all that special. It’s just life.”

    Almost everything is special on a wedding day. There’s so much electricity in the air. Everybody has permission to feel deeper. Everyone expects themselves to look better. Everybody takes part in the choreography and tradition of The Day. Everybody is so hopeful at this ancient celebration of creation.

    The bride looks so good – no matter if by day she’s a Tomboy, a shy plus size lady, a hard edged boss, a wallflower usually un-noticed – she’s poured so much time and expectation into this long-planned day. One could scarcely hope for an occasion more brimming with photographic beauty, feeling, opportunity.

    It’s no wonder that Mr Frank’s depressing Marxist POV (“Frank’s interest in documenting the tensions between the optimism of the 1950s and the realities of class and racial differences…”) clouds the beauty and hope, the individual specialness, that I am privileged to see every day in my work as a common wedding photographer.

  24. The famous artist, Georgia O’Keefe, once defined art as “… a way of filling an empty space in a beautiful way.” In that regard, and especially considering all that can now be done with post-production techniques, how can we possibly ever run out of photographic art?