Art or Craft?

Headlights on a mountain road at sunset

Is photography a “pure” art or is it a craft? One of the arguments against photography is it is too quick and easy. Anyone can do it. It only takes a moment, not days or weeks to create. Let’s examine that.

It’s a medium

Photography is a medium. It is a technology for expressing images. It seems to me that any medium that produces the results the artist wants is a valid medium. I know people with formal training in painting who switched to photography because it better expresses what they want. I have also known people to go the other way, moving to painting after doing photography. That indicates they are equivalent medium.

Any art form is a craft

An artist is a craftsman. To be at the top of your field you have to develop an excellent ability to use the medium you have selected. For photography that is one thing that distinguishes the person who “just takes pictures” from the artist. A tremendous depth of craft and technique has to be mastered to make great fine art photography. I have used photoshop for nearly 20 years and I am still learning new ways to use it all the time. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t spend some time learning and practicing to improve my craft.

What is art vs. craft?

Some have said that art is based on creativity while craft is skilled application of technique. Something you learn from practice. That is a little obscure, basically that if you build the same things over and over it is a craft. Hmm….. That might sweep out a lot of artists.

Most of us have an inherent understanding of the difference between art and craft, even if we can’t articulate it clearly. Hardly anyone would claim that selfies at Disney World are art.

The harder part seems to be asking ourselves if the “art” we are presented is really art. What is that indefinable but perceptible thing that takes a work from just a well executed piece of craft to being called art? We often call it creativity, but that is hard to define. But we all have our values and preferences. I know the things I call art. I’ll leave it to you to define your own.

The point for this blog, though, is that the question of art or craft is independent of the media.

Photography is too easy

The story here is that you just point at something, click the shutter and you have an image you are trying to sell as art. It was too quick and easy. You have to suffer for art. It isn’t art unless it required hours of labor.

So if it is easy it’s not art? But a good painter thinks painting is easy. A good sculptor thinks sculpting is easy. A good writer thinks that is the hardest thing in the world. Oops – wrong argument. The point is that easy is relative and subjective.

It seems to me the discussion should revolve around did you, could you, would you. Did you take a picture just like that? Or did you look past it? Could you have done this? Ignoring the “my kid could have painted something like this splotch of color” reactions, could you really have captured this image? Do you have the technical knowledge, the equipment, the time to invest, the image processing skill, and the eye to have seen and composed the image? And would you? Would you really see this, or would you have walked by in a fog of busy thoughts that occupy most of us too much?

Capturing an image in the way the artist wants it can take days, months, even years. Realize that some of the images you quickly dismiss were long term projects. And for an artist, an image is never finished out of the camera. Each one requires extensive processing. This is one of the great creative processes in photography.

Are you ready to say it can’t be art unless it was hand carved from marble?

It’s a creative act

The same amount of creativity goes into photography as any other work that considers itself art. The technology may be very different, the process may be different, but it is still creativity. Creativity is hard and requires a lot of work on the part of the artist. Good art is art and craft. There is something that sets some works apart as not just craft. It is easy to recognize but hard to define.

Because it is so hard to define, be careful. It is fair to say that an image doesn’t appeal to you. Be careful judging that it is not art.