The word photograph is a noun which my 1998 Oxford English Dictionary version tells us is a picture formed by chemical action of light on sensitive film. We know things have moved on and definitions now include digital form. This is an illustration of how even dictionaries can’t yet settle on the answer to this question. Here is Robert De Mitri’s view.
I am very sceptical about the usefulness of such a debate. A conversation about what is the “eschatological” nature of photography seems to me a mere exercise of rhetoric or a sophism that by definition cannot lead to anything.
How is it possible to say what art is or what is photography, when both belong, in all their dimensions and in every aspect, to the sphere of personal and subjective? For, it is always impossible to define the subjective and at the same time, it is never refutable. And then what is the purpose of a debate, I mean?
Personally speaking, I think that photography is my congenial and favourite means of expression. I have always said this. It is the means that I use best to express myself. Not only, I think, I’m good with photography… but it also gives me great pleasure. I’m happy to take pictures.
I like Robert De Mitri’s view but can’t resist exploring the question further. Just like understanding the meaning of life there is no definitive objective answer but there is a lot to learn from the journey. The enquiry becomes immediately controversial as soon as we express an opinion that a photograph is a form of art or is a representation of reality or is a memory. It is all these things and more so let’s take a look.
Representation of Reality
Reality never stops. It is fluid, multidimensional, complex and open to all manner of interpretation. Our brains are wired to form a view of reality that can help us stay alive and perpetuate our species. There is a view that our conscious mind is a post event rationalization of events occurring that is then stored away for future use. With it in our memory we can react quicker to danger and take advantage of opportunities more effectively.
A photograph is a representation of a frozen moment in time. It is not reality but by looking at it we can agree or not that it is a version of what reality was like at that moment of time in that place. I need to be careful here. I want to say an unmanipulated photograph but that is not possible. The production of all photographs requires manipulation. So for the purposes of this discussion let’s say we are referring to images that pass through a straightforward lens on to a processing surface that gives us an image that looks like something we would see if we looked at the same thing. What a mouthful but this shows how tough this stuff is to get your head round.
Examples help. Very few human beings have been off the planet and able to take a look back at our mother earth. The first photograph of the earth from space was taken in 1947 but is not very exciting. The one taken in 1972 from Apollo 17, The Blue Marble, is an image that many of us are familiar with and accept as a representation of what the earth looks like from space. We have never seen earth ourselves from this viewpoint but most of us believe this is what it looks like. I stress most as there are a substantial number who claim this photograph is all a hoax! A manipulated picture.
The Blue Marble
Memory is a reconstruction of a past event from a very small number of recollected features. The rest is filled in. We make up our recreation of a memory in the moment with very little factual data. You can test this for yourself by trying to describe something in detail from a past event. You will see how limited the information you have is. A photograph can help to fill in some of the missing bits. Try to imagine your mother when you were young. How was her hair, what facial detail can you remember, what was she wearing and how would you describe her expression. Now do the same holding a photograph of her in your hand as you do so. Not only does it help but also the pose, the filters used and what she is doing all have an impact on how you feel in this moment of remembering.
A Work of Art
What is and is not ‘art’ has engaged people throughout history and will continue to do so for ever in to the future. The history of photography is littered with proponents and opponents of the idea a photograph can be a work of art. We have moved on from the view that a photograph is a factual record of reality to manipulated works that now interpret reality in as many different ways as any artist ever did with a paint brush.
Recently I took this photograph at the Albufera, near Valencia. I append below it a couple of reactions on social media that show the process people can go through in looking at a photograph. As the photographer I am delighted. I have captured the attention of a viewer. I have got them interested enough to keep looking and to wonder what the picture is conveying. Finally, they reach a conclusion and name it as a work of art. My niece, Sarah, asked if the white is snow. It is a picture of eel nets on their poles taken with a 30 second exposure blurring the waves on the water in to a white foreground.
Photographs are used every day as a record. They appear in passports, identity cards, X-rays, newspapers to identify or record a person, an illness or a story. They are used in evidence in the court room, to show how a recipe should look when successfully followed and for so many family occasions.
Prior to photographs we had to rely on drawings, paintings, physical examples and verbal descriptions as our record of what something is or was. It is difficult to imagine passports without photographs today as even machines can recognise our detailed chipped image as we enter through scanners at airports and borders.
Airbrushing is used a lot to distort these records. Nigella Lawson is a popular media chef and recently insisted that her photograph not be airbrushed for her American TV audiences. She wished to be represented as she is and not as some would like her to be.
Much less than airbrushing can be used to influence the interpretation of a record. The moment of capture, the convict background and other props can all be used to effect how a record is seen. The user of the record may wish to convey meaning in addition to the record. In a court room the prosecution will present records one way and the defense another with each seeking to support their own story of events.
Painting With Light
I include this as a separate idea of what a photograph is. If there is only one way to describe a photograph then this is the one I would choose. It is the light that makes the difference and transforms a flat uninteresting scene into something that captures our attention and draws us in.
There is something spiritual about the effect light has on images. In religious icons light is used to put the spotlight on any idea of belief. We are sensitive to the different types of light throughout the day. Most of us are moved by a sunrise or sunset in a way that suggests there is some connection with where we evolved from.
A photograph can be so many things and every individual probably has their own unique explanation. My answer if you ask me is it is a little bit of magic.
“Photography is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on film is captured forever… it remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything.”
“Photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
“Photography to me is catching a moment which is passing, and which is true.”
“A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”
“Photography is a kind of virtual reality, and it helps if you can create the illusion of being in an interesting world.”
“Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.”
“Photography is a way to shape human perception.”
“Photography is the simplest thing in the world, but it is incredibly complicated to make it really work.”
“Photography is like a moment, an instant. You need a half-second to get the photo. So it’s good to capture people when they are themselves.”
“Photography is an immediate reaction, drawing is a meditation.”
“Photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event.”
“Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas. It is a creative art.”
“Photography is about finding out what can happen in the frame. When you put four edges around some facts, you change those facts.”
“Photography is truth. The cinema is truth twenty-four times per second.”
“Photography is pretty simple stuff. You just react to what you see, and take many, many pictures.”
“Photography is a small voice, at best, but sometimes one photograph, or a group of them, can lure our sense of awareness.”
“Photography is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.”
“Photography is a way of putting distance between myself and the work which sometimes helps me to see more clearly what it is that I have made.”
“Photography is a major force in explaining man to man.”
“Photography is the easiest medium with which to be merely competent. Almost anybody can be competent. It’s the hardest medium in which to have some sort of personal vision and to have a signature style.”
 The Blue Marble is an image of planet Earth taken on December 7, 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft at a distance of about 29,000 kilometers (18,000 miles) from the surface. It is one of the most reproduced images in human history.
The image has the official NASA designation AS17-148-22727 and shows the Earth from the point of view of the Apollo crew travelling towards the moon. The translunar coast photograph extends from the Mediterranean Sea to Antarctica. This was the first time the Apollo trajectory made it possible to photograph the south polar ice cap, despite the Southern Hemisphere being heavily covered in clouds. In addition to the Arabian Peninsula and Madagascar, almost the entire coastline of Africa is clearly visible. The Asian mainland is on the horizon.
The name has also been applied by NASA to a 2012 series of image data sets covering the entire globe at relatively high resolution, created by carefully sifting through satellite-captured sequences taken over time, to eliminate as much cloud cover as possible from the collated set of images….Wikipedia