Sunday, September 17, 2006

What makes photography art?
And, is digital photography art or technology?
Recently, two of our friends' kids began high school photography classes. Both girls were told that they needed to use traditional film, no digital cameras allowed, because the class was about photography as an art, not a technology.
Then they visited our house.
My wife is a photographer. She happily lent one of the girls her VERY GOOD 35mm camera to use for class, and held her tongue when the girl repeated the teacher's assertion that digital photography was not an art.
I could barely hold mine.
But I let the innocent fifteen year old and her mother leave the house before I started spouting off on the lost opportunity to educate about what makes art, the role of technology in art, and the history of supporting photography as an art-digital or not.
Photography is big at our house. My wife has taken "useful" photographs for all our years together, and she has now moved into "pure art" photography since going completely digital. She takes photographs of dogs for me when I have a portrait to paint, and kindly photographs my paintings, our children and any events in the lives around us.
So it was not surprising some time ago when our fourteen year old son asked from the rear of the mini-van, "So what makes photography an art anyway?"
Good question. And it applies to both film and digital photography.
The first goal of photography, from its dawn a hundred years ago plus, seemed to be recording accurately the reality in front of the lens. But it became clear long ago that it wasn't just reality that showed up on a print. It was a selected reality. Printing quality became better, lens accuracy greater, but the reality remains selected.
What makes photography art is the eye of the photographer; how he or she frames the image, selects what is chosen or eschewed, and any manipulation done in the darkroom or on the computer screen. The art is in the choosing of the subject, the lighting, the arrangement, the angle of the shot. Good photographers have themes they explore, a look they repeat, an angle that is theirs.
Digital photography is just the same, but without the nail biting fear that you'll miss the moment because you were conserving film.
According to many digital photographers (and my wife searched out some articles that supported this assertion), the digital process frees them from the technical worries, and allows them to create more with photography, to frame more selectively, to take risks, to try again, and to trust themselves because the camera is taking care of itself.
It is no more an art than film photography, but it is certainly no less.
And the high school teachers missed out on an opportunity to address this, to explain the history of photography as an art that had to defend itself for decades, and to discuss the role of technology and art.
I guess that's what your parents' friends are for.

On tape: Coroner's Pidgin by Margery Allingham
On the easel: Azul the Great Dane, Sonny
On the keyboard: Sexy Mother, a mystery
On my mind: Rennie McIntosh tattoos, Sealyham terriers, childhood brain development, Smallville, Shelter Point on Vancouver Island

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