Photography: Art or Craft?

The Soft Serve Sentry

Bear with me, as I’ll be spending a fair share of this entry essentially thinking out loud; the purpose of this post isn’t so much to issue the last word on something as it is to hopefully start a discussion.

To begin with, let’s establish the definitions from which we’re working. Art, according to the folks at Webster’s, is skill acquired by experience, study, or observation. It could also be loosely defined as the application of imagination to a chosen medium; some have also posited that anything created with artistic intent is, by definition, art. Whether the end result of those creative efforts is actually art, however, seems to be defined by a mixture of cultural consensus and historical perspective.

So it would seem that trying to pin down a definition of art itself (much less whether an individual piece is art or not) is a bit like trying to nail Jell-o to a wall. Let’s see if we have any better luck with Craft. Webster’s again: an occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill <the carpenter’s craft> <the craft of writing plays> <crafts such as pottery, carpentry, and sewing>. Well, at least we have some agreement between the two on the skill part.

Let’s put aside the dictionary for a bit, since that’s getting us nowhere. In popular culture, art tends to be seen as something inspired, while craft is somewhat looked down upon as something decidedly pedestrian. Craft has also often denoted something more practical or workmanlike (think of the Bauhaus emphasis on creating objects that might be pretty to look at, but had, above all, to be useful) if not downright kitschy (Martha Stewart, hot glue guns). While photography has its practical applications, those aren’t the first thing most of us would think of when we consider, much less enter, the medium.

Perhaps a more useful distinction can be drawn between art as the end result and craft as the process from which it comes. Ah, now I think we’re getting somewhere. If getting to “art” is somehow fleeting or ephemeral, then craft is the way we attempt to catch that lightning in a bottle. Put differently, anyone can get lucky and create one work of art. Craft is the process by which you take at least some of the chance out of the equation, devoting enough time, effort, and sheer repetition to the process – your process – that you can get the same results consistently.  

 Ansel Adams, who we discussed this time last week, once said “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” Stop and think about that for a second: one photograph a month, if you’re lucky. And he didn’t mean, “Go outside once a month, take one photo, and you’re done.” If you get lucky, ten percent of your photos will be competent enough to be worth keeping; a much smaller percentage of those would be the ones that somebody besides you still wants to look at a year from now, ten years from now, or when you’re pushing up daisies. Getting even to the point that Adams is talking about – not a hundred significant photos a year, remember, just twelve – took years of practice on his part, and will take years of practice on your part, mine, or anyone else’s who really cares enough about their chosen medium to get it right. That means not just photography, but any other thing to which you care to apply yourself diligently enough to be any good at it, whether that something is photography, sculpture, writing, pottery, or knitting.

Unless you’re using your camera the same way you’d use a steno pad — strictly to document, giving no more thought to art than if you were making a shopping list or jotting down a phone message — at some point or another, each of us has the urge to capture something artistic. Paradoxically, it’s when we start paying more attention to the craft than the art, beginning to hone our vision and the technique with which we express it, that we increase the odds that we create art instead of having it just happen (or not) by chance.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments section.

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