What makes photography an art form?

1 March, 2009

If you get a chance go online and watch Guardian art critic Adrian Searle’s review of the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize currently on show at the Photographer’s Gallery.

Searle is always eloquent in his reviews and what I admire most is that he doesn’t pull his punches. In this respect he immediately questions the legitimacy of an archive being included within a photography show. Searle is speaking about Emily Jacir’s work Material for a Film. His criticism is not that the work isn’t interesting and indeed there is a lot to recommend it, but Searle rightly questions whether or not it should be classified as photography and whether it should be short-listed for one of the art world’s most prestigious photography prizes. Jacir tells the story of the assassination of Palestinian intellectual Wael Zuwaiter by Israeli agents in Rome in 1972. She uses photographs, objects, texts and interviews to piece the story together, re-presenting found images and texts written at the time. There is no doubt that this is a moving and for Jacir a deeply political tale that needs to told. Zuwaiter was assassinated for what Israeli agents believed was a key role in the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Summer Olympics 1972.

Installation shot of Emily Jacir’s Material for a film

Installation shot of Emily Jacir’s Material for a film

But this is an archival story rather than visual narrative. It is the collection of the whole, somewhat like a magazine pasted to the wall, that brings the story alive and this representation, whilst it uses photography to record the objects in order to display the story, does not have any visual language within itself.

The other three artists are more straightforward in their use of photography in their art. Taryn Simon in her work An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar offers us a view of an unseen America. On the surface the imagery is familiar. It has the feel of an advertising campaign. High-end production values and the large format brings an almost relentless detail to her pictures. It is her choice of subject that makes this work more interesting and here I part company with Searle who says he finds it rather dull. The photograph of a woman in a surgery about to or having just undergone an operation to repair her broken hymen is both shocking and beautiful. The composition, lighting and concise presentation of the content drag the viewer in closer, making us wonder what precisely is going on in this clean and clinical environment. We want to look but are made to feel uncomfortable as this is obviously such a private and personal scene. It is this tension that Simon invokes in her work that is its strength.

Taryn Simon

from Taryn Simon's An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar

Paul Graham has been nominated for his publication A Shimmer of Possibility. Large format scenes of America have become almost ubiquitous since we all rediscovered Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld. But Graham brings a different sensibility to his work. This isn’t road movie material. Rather his work is less about him and more about what he sees and what he sees as a common humanity. He has been described as poetic, quiet without hubris. All of which is true, but for me it is the humanity he brings to his work and fills his subjects with. You can see his work on his website. But it is this picture below that I think in itself is worthy of the prize.

Lawnmower, Pittsburgh, 2004 © Paul Graham

Lawnmower, Pittsburgh, 2004 © Paul Graham

The fourth artist is Tod Papageorge who has been short listed for his exhibition Passing Through Eden – Photographs of Central Park and Searle is in no doubt that this is the work that should win the 2009 prize..

Central Park, New York, 1991 © Tod Papageorge

Central Park, New York, 1991 © Tod Papageorge

Papageorge is a veteran, producing work that is easy to recognise as photography. There I agree that it should be applauded for its skill. Having been brought up on a diet of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Don McCullin and Diane Arbus, it is clear that Papageorge should be acclaimed and that his work fits within the canon of documentary photography. Shot between 1962 and 1996, Papageorge steadfastly observed people enjoying their decisive moment in the park. There is humour and as with Paul Graham there is a humanity shown in Papageorge’s subjects.

I think it is worthy of the prize, but I think Graham should get it.

Deutsche Börse Photography prize is at the Photographer’s Gallery from 20 February to 12 April 2009.

3 Responses to “What makes photography an art form?”

  1. chelsey Says:

    im writing a paper about photography: is it art or not.
    please answer the question for me.

    is photography art or not?why?

  2. Hi Chelsey

    Yes photography is art, when it is used as a medium by an artist with the intention of making a piece of art work. It is the intention that is important. In the same way that a paint can be used to decorate walls and therefore isn’t art, when it is utilised by an artist for the purpose of making art then the painter becomes an artist and the paint turns into art.

    Photography is simply a medium of expression, to visualize an idea.

    It should be said however, that not all attempts to use photography to produce art are successful, this depends on how good the photographer/artist is, but then that is also true for any artistic endeavour in any medium.

    Hope that helps


  3. Colin Hall Says:

    Photography is photography and the only reason people try to make it ‘art’ is for ego or money. There is nothing wrong with using photography to show the world your inner self, but adding the baggage of ‘Art’ will only help to blur your viewers vision.

    I’m proud to be a photographer.

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