Exercise: ‘Photography’

Read ‘Photography’ (Chapter 2) in Howells, R. (2011) Visual Culture on the oca- student website. Note down your own response to Howells’ arguments. 

Howells & Negreiros’ (HN) Visual Culture dedicates a chapter to photography. It provides a survey of photographic technical developments and examples of works that influence the photography as art debate, and explores the broad uses and subject matter of photography. The purpose of the survey is to offer context to the key debate, ‘photography representation and style: is it just about the subject matter?’. Or, if photography is only about subject matter and not an artistic interpretation, how can photography be considered art.

HN explore the for and against arguments at length, citing a number of commentators, including Roger Scruton (against) and Nigel Warburton (for). The central test they seek to answer is whether a photograph can represent a ‘aesthetically significant intention’, through a photographer’s decision. While they do not express their own position, they give the last word to Nigel Warburton. He proposes that ‘it is only in a series of photographs that a photographerʼs choices can be made clearʼ – a photographerʼs work must be contextualised in a series for ‘stylistic features and intentions to emergeʼ and demonstrate photographyʼs status as ‘a medium which has the capacity to embody important and aesthetically relevant intentions’.

Throughout HN’s discussion we are faced with degrees of choice and intention. While a painter may have the possibility of many artistic choices, it is argued that a photographer has fewer, particularly when a camera is highly automated; so it is more difficult to uncover aesthetic intentions, exercised through choice. Who then is to judge when intention is significant? Is the careful framing of a scene and choice of moment using a fully automatic iPhone camera a significant intention; or must a camera be used where there is control over technical choices? Megan Halpern and Lee Humpreys explore iPhoneography as an emergent art in a journal article . They conclude, ‘Iphoneography represents an example of an emerging art world currently in the process of legitimation by distinguishing the process, artifacts, and actors from mass consumers of iPhones and photo apps.’ Their article explores how artists are not just concerned with the moment of capture, but also with remediation post-capture. This is not new in photography.

If the camera is considered to be a tool, in the same way a paintbrush can be, then it can either be used to paint the wall of a garden shed without artistic intent, or to paint a mural with artistic intent. The art is not dependent on the tool its but the use of the tool; it can either be used for utility (recording subjects) or for art (representing a vision of how an artist sees). Therefore, I share HN’s perspective that it is about intention. But who judges that intention is more problematic – particularly when a photographer may not consider their own work to be art, but photography; while the institutions of art declare that same work to be art and exhibit it as such. Who decides?