There were a lot of accusations of cheating and excess manipulation from photographers when digital photography first hit the mainstream. Indeed, just the other day I was chatting to a 70+ photographer (who ran a camera shop) and he reiterated the view that digital photography is not an art, but traditional film photography is an art.
Why? Does a definition of art help? Wikipedia states that: Art is a (product of) human activity, made with the intention of stimulating the human senses as well as the human mind and/or spirit; thus art is an action, an object, or a collection of actions and objects created with the intention of transmitting emotions and/or ideas.
Beyond this description, there is no general agreed-upon definition of art, since defining the boundaries of “art” is subjective, but the impetus for art is often called human creativity. Clearly from this definition, both traditional and digital photography and anything in between can be art. Even straight documentary photography ‘stimulates the senses’, so could be classed as art, although the idea of hanging say Don McCullin or Philip Jones Griffiths on my wall seems a little distasteful (academicjournals.org). I think the above photographer, like many who spent a long time in the darkroom learning their craft, felt threatened by the ease of digital. They projected the craft or the science of photography as being the art, not their creative input.
Ansels Adams Zone system is pure science, but his photographs are pure art, there is something of his and his subjects soul in each of his photographs that triggers emotions in all of us. It’s an odd point of view that film photography is art. I’ve given a number of talks to photography clubs where I have asked the question of them “Do you consider yourself to be an artist?”.
Most photographers asked did not consider themselves to be artists, but as I discussed with them and the above definition proves, any and all of their work could be considered art. My conclusion though is that digital photography has made photography more of an art form than ever. It has democratised photography, removed the technical and scientific barriers that stood in the way of a doll truly expressing themselves through a print.
Digital and computers have made it easy, and not only to produce a high quality print, there are now many ways to convey your vision – digital projection, print on T-shirts, light boxes. Just as any person can walk into an art shop and buy brushes, paints and a canvas and make a mark, now anyone can buy and use a camera to make their chosen mark.
And the results are all around us. The quality of photography today is amazing. From the sports pages of the newspaper, to the revival of alternative processes (of which normal film is now one!), to prints on a gallery wall, there is not only a level of technical excellence but a level of creative and intellectual excellence that includes and surpasses for many people anything that happened before.
Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier Bresson will always be masters because of the strength of their creative vision. With technical barriers removed, maybe the rest of us can concentrate on getting there to and being artists, or at least have fun trying. But then, ‘artist’ is only a label.