Does Photography Have an Inferiority Complex?

I recently saw a photographer promoting the process he uses to create ‘fine art photography’. His images look exactly like paintings with an aesthetic closely aligned with that of the 19th century British romantics such as Constable. The images are well done and effective but to my mind pointless, but my opinion is not relevant in this case. What is relevant is the photographer’s decision to define his work as ‘fine art’ by attaching it to a broadly recognised understanding of what constitutes ‘fine art’.

The need for legitimacy for photography by aligning it with what is more commonly accepted as ‘art’ is strong within many photographers, but it is not only a longing for the days of emotive, figurative painting that photographers look too for validation.

Is it not enough to be described as a photographer? Why the need to be described as an artist?

If we were to be cold and analytical at this point we would turn to a dictionary definition of what art is. So, let’s do that. Art is the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power. No mention of photography there, but of course that does not matter. The important aspect of that definition is the identification of expression or application of human creative skill and imagination.

There is no mention of a gallery space, specific school of thought, required reading or training, practice or output.

Photography does not have to align itself with painting, sculpture or drawing to be described as art and yet there seems to be a need to do this to support its validation as such. I recently attended a photo festival where the majority of the festival’s exhibitions were staged within one building, a well established museum and art gallery. On the ground floor a large room was home to a traditional photography exhibition in which prints were framed and displayed with a sense of narrative between the work by disparate photographers from different periods of practice. The exhibition was seamless and the work both complimented and supported the different agendas and approaches adopted by the photographers included. In short, it worked!

On the top floor of the museum contemporary and historical paintings are displayed in the high ceilinged rooms within the roof of the building. This has always been an eclectic mix of work by recognisable names. It is a space I have often visited and enjoyed. However, as part of the festival photographers had been asked to ‘respond’ to the paintings photographically. The resulting photographs had then been hung alongside the work that inspired the photographers. And here was the issue. The photographic work could not stand up to the painted work and looked weak in concept, execution, and thought.

It was the equivalent of candy floss being put next to a three course meal produced by an expert chef and calling both a substantial and fulfilling meal.

The photographers who had created the work all described themselves as artists, which is fine, but by doing so they had placed themselves into an environment in which they could not compete. The photographers within the ground floor exhibition mainly referred to themselves as photographers and in doing so placed their work within a photographic environment. They were accepting the importance of photography as an art form in and unto itself.

This is not an article criticising those photographers who see their work as art and wish to refer to themselves as artists or one in which I am dismissing the importance of photographers being informed by a broad range of art practices. It is an observation and reflection on what I see as an issue worth discussing.

Photography now has a long and rich history. It is informed by art practice and is an art form, but it is not one that needs to adopt the clothes of others to be seen as important. It does not need to sneak into the back door to be allowed entrance to the art conversation and it does not need to ape paintings of the past to be called art.

As John Berger stated “I can’t tell you what art does and how it does it, but I know that art has often judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent and shown to the future what the past has suffered, so that it has never been forgotten.” I think that is a pretty accurate description of photography, photography that does not need to try too hard to be something more than it is.

Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).

Grant’s book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99

© Grant Scott 2021

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