Art is many things to many people. Above all, it is a way to express a point of view, share an experience or get someone to see the world through new eyes. In short, it tells a story, and that story can entertain and educate, creating all the emotions you can imagine.
Photography is undoubtedly one way to create it. It captures light through a lens to produce images using different styles and techniques. Its use of colour, line, and form creates emotions in the viewer and can tell a story in the right hands.
Yet, in recent years, I have met many people in the art world who do not see photography in this way. They believe it does not rise to the level of fine art.
So what makes something an art form? And how do we measure its value? And most importantly, is photography art?
Let us begin by going to the heart of the matter. Art appreciation, the act of understanding and analysing artworks, will help us here.
To understand a photograph, you have to ask the same questions as you would ask about a painting. Who is the artist? What are they trying to say? What techniques are they using to say it?
As with any visual art, photography uses the image's elements to communicate — unlike a language. This language allows the artist to speak through his photographs.
It all sounds like art. But detractors will complain that photography is too “practical”. If you think about it for a second, you quickly see how empty this objection is.
After all, language is practical. You can write legal codes, receipts, and contracts with it. At the same time, you can write poetry. Is poetry not art simply because language can be used to fill out spreadsheets?
My Journey to Photography
Photo: Untitled, an unpublished photo from my series Illusion, 2020.
I think we have made it clear that photography is an art form. But we must also look at their relative value. For this reason, I can only rely on my experience as a creator.
Although I started in street photography, I was drawn to the details. Those little moments in a scene that brought everything to life kept grabbing my attention. The more I focused on these little moments, and the more my photography drifted from the representative to the abstract. Soon I had to learn new skills to evoke what I was looking for.
The COVID-19 lockdowns overcharged this process. Stuck inside, I tinkered away at my cameras and was obsessed with the development of images long after they were captured. I fully formulated my #CameraAsBrush method during this time, and my appreciation for abstract photographic art blossomed.
At no point was my photography driven by the practical matter of documentation (though photography is undoubtedly a good tool for this). Like me, fine-art photographers use their tools and understanding of communicating through images to produce art.
The value of these images lies in that communication. When I wanted to tell a story about real-life experiences on the streets, my work looked one way. But they began to look elsewhere as soon as I tried to say something much more ethereal and mysterious about human life. This appears true for all art forms: they tell a story through one or more senses (sight, hearing, etc.).
Nevertheless, it is still not considered valuable as other forms.
The Dismissal of Photography as an Art
Photo: Untitled, BRYCE Watanasoponwong, 20202.
In recent years, I have met many lovers and collectors of fine art, even fine artists who dismiss photography.
Why? For some, it is simply a money issue. Photography is reproducible and removes the “one true original” that can be sold at Christie's one day for millions of dollars. (I do not think this is a good way to judge art, but even if you think it is, a Man Ray photograph recently sold for $12.4 million.)
On a deeper level, they do not appreciate the use of photography skills. The technical expertise of the artist in painting is considered crucial. For a photograph, people can “luck” into a good picture.
But this is fundamentally a misunderstanding of where the value of fine art photography comes from. At its core, the art form is about storytelling. I would rather see a poorly executed photograph from a technical perspective, but compelling from a storytelling perspective.
The technical aspects help an artist capture a photograph in the best possible way, but this should always be measured by how well it helps tell the story.
Dismissing photography based on its technical aspects only shows a misunderstanding of what art is here to do.
Photo: Untitled, an unpublished photo from my series Illusion, BRYCE Watanasoponwong, 2020.
In the end, I believe that art should not be limited to a small handful of mediums. Traditional “fine arts” are merely a set of practices popular in a particular place and time, but things have moved on. The camera was invented, and almost as soon as people could, they made art with it.
If you use any tool to create an experience for someone who communicates a perspective or view of the world (what you might call a story), then you make art. And that means you do something valuable.
Photographer and visual storyteller based in Bangkok
BRYCE Watanasoponwong is a photographer and visual storyteller. He is interested in producing a narrative series that evokes emotion and makes a personal impact. Becoming more involved in how photography is... read on
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See the World Through My Eyes: Photography as an Art Form