Photography! What Is It For?

I recently visited an exhibition of non-camera based colour photography with my wife, father and youngest daughter. For those not engaged with contemporary art practice it could be seen as a challenging experience. The gallery space was similar to any other. High ceilings, white walls, large spaces, well framed and presented work. The kind of exhibition any photographer would aspire towards.

The work was presented as projects under an umbrella title that gave a containing theme to the images created over many years.

The first floor confounded the family. They didn’t understand what they were looking at, why it was being lauded and why it was being described as photography. I could see images that I found interesting but I too was confused by the juxtaposition of images that confronted me. However, the exhibition continued on the next floor so we traipsed up the staircase to see how the theme developed.

The next floor was filled with large colour prints similar to those on the ground floor but focused on different colour relationships. A comment was made that the colors worked better on the ground floor and then my father questioned “What are they for? I didn’t know what to say or how to respond. I instantly thought of explaining the purpose of art but just as quickly realized that this would be both condescending and impossible. Before I had a chance to say anything he said “I could see them in an office to help relax people.” Again I was thrown. I asked whether he thought they were relaxing and he replied “Yes!”

I suggested that maybe this is what the photography we were looking at was for. I was met with a shrug.

I am sharing this experience with you because I am always more interested in the reaction of people with no formal engagement with photography seeing work in exhibition spaces than those who are more experienced or formally informed. Such responses are pure, unadulterated by prior reading, dogma or theory and as such have a directness and honesty that can challenge understanding without an agenda. The comments my father made forced me to think about the images I was looking at in a way that little of the writing on photography I have read has done. I like to be challenged but I don’t want to be preached to and that sense of preaching is often present in photographic writing in my experience.

I am still thinking about my father’s question, I think it’s a good one. It will stay with me as an ‘ear worm’ tickling my conscience whenever I look at work. Maybe it will for you also. If that’s the case then let me know. However, if his question doesn’t resonate with you that’s fine. You may already have your own answer that you are happy with. If this is the case I suggest that you do what I did and take a family member not interested in photography to an exhibition and listen to their reaction, you may just find your own new question to answer. One that you have not considered before.

The exhibition referred to in this article is Garry Fabian Miller:Adore at the Arnolfini, Bristol

Image: The Colour Fields, Golden Yellow Encloses the Softest Pink, 2021 Garry Fabian Miller light, water, lambda c-type print Courtesy the Artist and Ingleby Gallery ©️Garry Fabian Miller

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). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.

© Grant Scott 2023


  1. Most interesting. My wife and I recently went to the opening of 3 shows in the one gallery which I am currently writing a review about. I mentioned to her that I found two of the shows disappointing as they were all traditional prints that really didn’t address what their authors claimed their shows to be about, whereas the 3rd show of videos was great because it was challenging contemporary artworks and fully addressed the issue its author was tackling. My wife’s response was that she loved the 2 traditional shows but simply didn’t get the third one!

  2. I also went to see that exhibition at the gallery in Bristol. I loved it and thought that the images were beautiful… but then I’m a photographer with 25 plus years experience and 6 years spent at art college (Bournemouth and LCP) studying photography and art. I also went with my
    GF who is an artist and teaches art… but I also think that you don’t have to have a fine art or photographic background to appreciate work such as this; it can work purely on an aesthetic and emotional level as these colourful and emotive works do… I think…..

  3. “I know what I like and I don’t like that!” So said renowned theatre historian Arthur Ballet in 1973 to a lecture hall filled with undergraduates. He used the phrase to describe critics of avant-garde theatre who refused to educate themselves before passing judgement. His remarks are still relevant.

      1. You wrote that responses from people with “no formal engagement with photography” are “pure, unadulterated by prior reading, dogma or theory and as such have a directness and honesty that can challenge understanding without an agenda.” While Arthur Ballet may have found your faith naïve, today, especially in the USA, rightwing propagandists count on the ignorance of the uneducated or visually illiterate in order to manipulate them. Anyway your remarks seem contradictory for someone so well educated.

      2. Perhaps I am not so cynical and have more faith in human nature. I told a story and came to an educated conclusion. You don’t have to agree, but contradiction is not one of my failings of which there are many others.

  4. I cannot remember where I got the advice about Modern art from, but I read somewhere (?) don’t try and understand it, just respond to how it makes you feel. Over the years that has boosted my enjoyment of modern art and I understand the frustration and in some cases anger of people who are confronted by it, and feel it is some elitist trick to make them feel small and stupid. If everyone had your dad’s attitude there would probably a lot more people at modern art shows and less of a photography club prejudice towards pictures that look like pictures!

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