An Age-Old Debate: Carver Center’s Photography teacher on “Is Photography an Art Form?”


Ryder Stoddard

“You should’ve died when I killed you”- Ryder Stoddard, Carver Center ’22 Senior

Kalliyan Winder

An Age-Old Debate: Carver Center’s Photography teacher on “Is Photography an Art Form?”

From the invention of the first photograph in 1835 from French scientist Joseph Nicephore Niepce, photography’s validity as an art form has always been questioned by critics and photographers alike. But why is it questioned when the category is so renowned?

To get to the answer, we first must address the question, “What is art?”

So, I sat down and asked Carver Center’s new photography teacher, Sherry Insley, the same: “What is art to you?”

Without hesitation she exclaimed “It is any form of expression. You know, like music is art and dance is art, like any sort of anything is art in my opinion. Any sort of thing that you are creating or doing or participating in that involves intentional doing is art to me. Anything can be art; I don’t think that we should limit our creative scope.”

Her answer, while broad, prompts the question if art is subjective to each person, which I was met with “Yes! Yes exactly!”. She nodded to my blondish pink undercut, “Who’s to say your hair color or the way you cut and style your hair or the way you approach your hair with intention; Who’s to say that isn’t a form of art?”

Now that we have our subjective definition, it’s time for the anticipated inquiry: “Based off your definition, would you consider photography an art form?”

And again, without hesitation, she concluded that “Yes, It’s definitely an art form.” She quickly went off into one of the main arguments against why photography isn’t an art form: “Its purely documentation”.

This argument stems from the origins of photo itself. Photography being first created in the 1800s, was a product of advanced chemistry and optics. So, due to its recent discovery, only the wealthy or government funded projects could abuse its power which mainly consisted of simple documentation (The first photo book being British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions by Anna Atkins). As the technique became less complex with new technologies as we entered the Digital Revolution, the power of photo became more widespread and easily accessible to not only the aristocracy but all people. Photography’s versatility and its semi-recent development aids to the confusion on whether photography is strictly documentation or an art form.

In her response, she considers photography’s history of “being more of scientific practice than an art form, you know, due to the chemistry and physics of light.” But now, “the camera, a tool” acts “like a paint brush” that strays photography, the art form, from documentation photography.

“Let’s say you are painting this landscape. Yes, you are by hand applying pigment to the canvas, the paint brush being the tool. Well, the camera is the tool too because it’s capturing the lighting that’s being reflected from that same landscape. But where that vision and that intent comes in is what I like to call ‘camera vision’. How you are looking at that landscape, how you’re framing it, how you’re approaching it, how you’re thinking about it, how you translate that into taking the picture, how you then use the picture later. Do you print it? Do you edit it? Do you make a beautiful darkroom print? And that’s when the hand comes in more… It’s about intent, it’s just as thoughtful.”

However, that’s not the only argument against photography, the famous art critic and essayist John Berger proclaimed that “Unlike any other visual image, a photograph is not a rendering, an imitation or an interpretation of its subject, but actually a trace of it. No painting or drawing, however naturalist, belongs to its subject in the way that a photograph does,” centering the dispute on the photo itself. And to my surprise, Insley agreed.

“I do agree with that, I do. Because it is an exact photographic likeness and you’re not doing any sort of editing. That is very different from a rendering or an interpretation. There are things that you can do to photography to edit the image… I love the saying a photo doesn’t lie because it does lie! It lies all the time. So, on one hand I agree with John Berger but on the other hand there are many things you can do to not make its a direct likeness in camera within itself.” She then clarifies that just because it is, like John Berger said, “a trace” of the subject, it doesn’t take away from the fact that it should still be considered art, no matter editing or regular photo as long as it has intent.

After hearing this argument, I only had one embarrassing thought that seemed crucial to present to her: “It’s almost like a tomato. Some say fruit, some say vegetable, but it can be used for both.”

Surprisingly, she went along with the analogy.

“Yes, yes! Its tool as an art form compared to being a tool used for gathering information… it’s a lot of things, it’s documentation, it’s science, it’s advertising, it’s recording. I mean, how much do you just snap a picture of your parking spot just so you remember, it’s not necessarily art. You aren’t using it solely for art, it has other lives.”

As we advance in society where conceptual art is becoming more mainstream for its controversial techniques that challenges our definition of art, the controversies of photography have gotten quieter in response. We view photography a different way than in the 1800s and 1900s so the conversation about photography’s validity isn’t as prevalent. So, where is this conversation going? What is our modern society focusing on photography wise?

“I think people also want to classify photography, they’ll say, ‘oh well, you’re shooting film that’s definitely art’ and I think people say that now because there’s a product, a tangible item that requires more labor… A darkroom print is worth more than a digital print compared to a painting that is worth more than a darkroom print.” I left the room shortly after with a final question that could be classified as the epitome of our society’s current position on photography and art in general:

“Is art more valuable when it is printed and hung up than it is when presented on a phone?”

Well, that’s an article for another time.