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What is a Photograph ?

With apologies, these are some of my thoughts about what is a photograph as an art form.  As I read the older ones, I like the ideas, but maybe not the writing.  I hope, that with time, some part of these thoughts have improved.

Photography as an Art Form

Last week I talked at Highfield Hall about Photography as an Art Form.  I may be able to write more but there are a number of simple propositions that are the core of what I want to say.

1.  Photorealism is as much an aesthetic in photography as it is in painting.

2. Although photography is a useful tool if one's objective is documentation, there is no reason that a photograph has to be a document.

3.  If you are in an art gallery, you should be expecting a work of creative imagination, not a document.

4.  The f64 group made a big mistake for photography by defining themselves by technique rather than by aesthetic objective.  Since then photography has been trapped by expectations of fstops and megapixels.

5.  An acquired image is a plastic form, not a fixed form.

6.  My relation with the forest is more important than the fine detail of its trees, leaves, and twigs.

7.  Art is a shared fantasy.

8.  The usage "artists and photographers" needs to be retired; so does the classification in bookstores, "art" in one section "photography" in another.

What is Art ?

A couple of painter friends and I meet for coffee every week on the Cape to talk about our work and big questions like what is art. My contribution comes from the period when I was first entering shows and confronting exclusions that suggested that photographs might not be considered art. I wanted to know what terms could be used to enter a rebuttal discussion.

Also, as I was making inkjet prints on watercolor paper from digital files created from scanned negatives, I got myself into the question of just what is a photograph and how to call what I did....what to put on that little line of the entry card that said "medium".

This is what I came up with and have been working by.

First, I would hesitate to call this a definition of art...maybe elements.


1. the artist or subject.

2. the object...something the artist/subject engages with or reacts to. might be the artist him/herself. The easy example to imagine is a painter looking at an inspiring scene. We have subject and object.

3. the medium. what stuff is the subject going to use to convey something about the engagement with the object? Oil on canvas? Clay? Ink on paper? Sounds on a flute? Body motions?

4. the method. highly related to medium, but not the same. paper is a medium. painting on it is a method. printing on it using an engraved plate is another method. drawing on it is another method.

5. the art. this is the hardest part. something intangible that results from the artists engagement with the object and takes form in their application of method to the medium and elicits a reaction in the viewer/audience.

6. the audience. art is not complete without an audience. maybe art does not exist without an audience. if a tree falls in the forest and there is noone to see the painting I made of it, is the painting art? But this is a little sterile. It is not just the existence of the audience, but what happens in the soul of the audience when confronted with the art. Is it shocked? Stimulated? Pleased? Inspired? Amused? Turned on? Made thoughtful?

What is more important....what Leonardo did to make the Mona Lisa, or what the Mona Lisa does to us?  Not sure, but if there were no "us" there might be a Mona Lisa, but it wouldn't be art.


For a few years I have resisted using any of the effects filters in Photoshop - actually I have just been using Photoshop Elements so far - but I have been working on ground where it might make sense at some point. I like to work with abstracting in my images. Hard to say what that means in any specific or differentiating way as it's hard to think of a great image that does not abstract. I do know that I am not looking to max out the resolving capabilities of lens or image receptive medium; this is just not important to me. I am also interested in the common ground between paintings and photographs.

One of my favorite images - "Knotting a Persian Rug" - often gets the compliment that it reminds people of a Flemish primitive painting, specifically of a Vermeer. This is an incredible compliment to get, and I realized this more after I really dove into Vermeer courtesy of a great website that seems to have everything anyone one could ever want to know about him, including superb high resolution reproductions of his paintings. Here is a link to the "The Essential Vermeer".

Getting wrapped up in Vermeer led me to make a picture which consciously appreciated his setting and lighting and subject. This image - "Tired Maid" - was captured in my room in the Pensione Sorelle Bandini, where I have stayed on my visits to Florence each of the last three years. I really like this setup and I hope to do a series of portraits in this spot when, and if, I get back to Florence and the Bandini this Spring.

I made a 12x18 inch varnished print of "Tired Maid" for my show at the Vagabond Gallery last summer (August, 2005), mounted in a black floater. In December, I made a smaller, 8x12 inch varnished print, and put this one in a subdued gold frame with a Florentine profile. I just found out on Friday that it was accepted in the Falmouth Artists Guild annual juried photography show.

I am glad of that, and eager to see the show when I get back to Cape Cod (am in Budapest now), but I am also waiting and hoping for the Falmouth Artists Guild to open their main, summer juried show to photography. I have been urging this idea for a number of years as I think it would be very exciting for me creatively and hopefully for the larger community to have photographs hung side by side with paintings. I have seen interactions between photographers and painters grow at the Guild in the last few years, and the number of shows excluding photography has happily shrunk.

The Cape Cod Art Association just took this step in 2005, opening up all of their juried shows to photographers, and photography to their juried membership categories. The Association has created a very active photography program, with courses, workshops, and a photography club.

I taught courses at both the Guild and the Art Association last summer, as well as at the Cataumet Arts Center. I enjoyed everybody, and the work, and became persuaded of the excitement of class photo shoots, securing my favorite image of the summer on an outing to Nobska Light. Its title is "Beach Chat in the Late Afternoon".

I used Photoshop (i.e. Elements) on this image to remove one of the photo shoot participants from the middle ground of the beach. I don't think anyone can object to this, especially if they understand that my purpose with this image is to convey something of the excitement and romance and beauty of this spot on a late summer day, something other artists, such as painters do as well, routinely adding and removing elements to support the composition and their desired impact.

I think the key is that my purpose, clearly conveyed, is to do art, not to document or report. If this image were appearing in a newspaper, as news, or as documentation of what the scene was like at Nobska on a certain day in August, 2005, then I and the newspaper would be under an obligation to communicate that this photographic image had been changed, and a person removed. But, in an art gallery, or on a web site of "fine art", I don't feel that I am under any obligation to state that, although I am aware that people may have a lingering expectation for a photograph to be of something that was "really there". Actually everything you see here was "really there" but some more was there that you don't see. And that is in fact true of any photograph, isn't it??

I worked through this question of modifying images a few years ago when I first encountered the tools that made this possible. The result of that "thinking through" was the essay What is a Photograph ?

What is a Photograph??

It is not a document.

There is a profound expectation of a photographic image that it is literal, of reality. This is understandable because a camera plus film make a very good „recording” medium, but to say this does not mean that the recording is „real” or, that what starts as an image projected through a lens must be a recording. 

As an example consider my image of two girls in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence feeding pigeons. What would your reaction be if I told you that I had added the pigeons? The girls? One of the girls? Took away two pigeons who spoiled the composition? Added two pigeons to complete the composition? What if I moved four pigeons? How about desaturated the predominantly blue background to emphasize the two girls in their bright red and yellow dresses?

I have done only the last of these, but I think I have the right to do any of these, IF, the big IF, I do not deceive.

This need not to deceive comes precisely from everyone's expectation today of "what is a photograph”? Deep deep down we believe that a photograph IS a recording, a record, a document, unless somehow the image shouts at us otherwise.

Given this deep seated expectation, and given the dynamic changes being brought about by new dimensions of technique in photography, I believe it is urgent to examine this „disclaimer” I am proposing.....”This photograph is not a document”. That is, if I wish to be honest, if I do not want to deceive.

I think it is these dynamic changes, happening right now, that are the reason for the title of this show – „What is a Photograph?”. The title is not an arrogant presumption….”I know what photography is and I'll tell you”. Rather it is a watchout, .......”Photography may not be what you think, look again !” The title of this show is an invitation to explore, an invitation to be open.

The openness of the answer to the question "What is a Photograph?” is evident in the variety of techniques and the quality of work presented on these walls
- Mark Chester's abstraction in black and white of a painting within a photograph done in a silver gelatin print
- Mary Doering's glowing essence of flowers done digitally
- Mikael Carstanjen’s crystal ball fantasies using digital composition and combination techniques
- Sean Palfrey's visualization of wind through a fine overlay of the sea
- Tom Mignone's seascapes progressing from realism to essence pulling information out of his images until only from, motion and color remain
- Emily Ferguson’s discovery that a lab error is a world of abstract possibilities enabled by Photoshop

This watchout extends to those who exclude photographs from "open" shows for "the fine arts". It was running into one such exclusion that first made me think that the question "what is a photograph" is a valid one. You can't exclude it if you do not know what it is or at least define it, and the dynamism of photography today makes it harder and harder to define.

Actually the deeper message here is that such an exclusion is a missed opportunity to understand and be stimulated by the interactions going on between photography and the other visual fine arts.
A key enabler of some of what is presented here is the explosion of digital techniqes ranging from image capture (digital cameras and scans of existing images) image manipulation (of the file, on a computer…use the term neutrally) to image printing, which can be done on light sensitive media such as a silver gelatin print or on plain paper, or on canvas or on water color paper, or, probably, on a wall. 

In the midst of all this change, the disclaimer "This is not a document” is worth considering because the viewers may think they know what you did…you took a picture with a camera, that went on film, positive or negative, and you printed or projected the resulting image. From this assumption of the process -- which in this view is essentially one of recording - there is then a kind of comfort that you have rendered something "real". 

Under this assumption, if someplace along the way, you did something to fundamentally change the image, well, you violated it, you "doctored" it. You deceived.

This was the view of Susan Sontag some years ago. 

„ The consequences of lying have to be more central for photography than they ever can be for painting, because the flat, usually rctangular images which are photographs make a claim to be true that paintings can never make. A fake painting (one whose attribution is false) falsifies the history of art. A fake photography (one which has been retouched or tampered with, ........falsifies reality.” On Photography, 1977

With all due respect this view is, at least today, wrong.

Just why should it be a violation for the photographer to form and change the image in a way that he or she wishes to stimulate some reaction in his or her viewer?

Can the photographer not be an artist too?

A painter in this audience sits before a boatyard or a cranberry bog, and perhaps rotates a building, or leaves out three trees, or puts one tree in, or intensifies the color of the sky or mutes a distracting glare from the window of a building.

Here is a landscape from Chester County Pennsylvania, from the Brandywine Museum. An archtypical view of sycamore, farm buildings and fields by Andrew Wyeth. It is so archtypical in fact that, as a specific view, it is a total fabrication. This view is a compilation in the artst's imagination of elements you could find anywhere and everywhere in Chester County.

The result is a profound rendering of the Chester County landscape. If a painter can do it, why cannot a photographer?

I believe that in principle the photographer artist can….but, there is a cultural overhang here, which I have been referring to.

The cultural overhang stems from an assumption that the basic technique or the instrument imposes or is the same as the message.

Of course it is not the technique or the instrument that imposes the message. It is the artist and the context.

I have a brush….Do you know what I am going to convey with it?? Do you set rules about what I may convey with it? A highly realistic literal presentation…..or a fantasy?

I have a camera….Do you know what I am going to convey with it?

Well you think you do….something real.

Of course this expectation was violated with the first black and white photograph. That is not real that is an abstraction from the colored world that we see. Then we got color. Was that real? Fujichrome may be vivid but it is not the way the world looks. And, sorry Rochester, but neither is Kodachrome.

Put the world through a lens that is not that of the human eye, project it on a surface that is not curved as the retina is and you have a selected, abstracted, intensified, distorted image of what the artist saw. All of those modifications become tools in the artist's hands, his or her "medium", to present to the audience what and as, he or she wishes.

Of course, if you put that image in a newspaper, then you are likely making an additional representation that this is "real". And your audience discounts all those issues I just mentioned, and expects the photograph to be a „record” and the photograph can be judged on that „real” standard.

Put a photograph in an art gallery and you ought to be conveying to people that it is a work of imagination that is meant to stimulate delight and provoke thought in the viewer. Then I think the standard to invoke is „art”.

Somehow though the cultural burden is such that even though they may be in an art gallery viewers of photographs think that they are reading the newspaper (or at least some may think so).

So, maybe the photographer ought to acknowledge the false burden he/she labors under, and where appropriate, disclaim, "this is not a document", but it is a photograph, and I am a photographer, practicing a fine/Fine art, and with every hope that a valid piece will delight, please and inspire.....but not deceive.

And extremely grateful to Andrea York for having provided a sympathetic home, and such a community of artists to be inspired by.

Copyright 2002, Robert Manz