What determines whether a photographer is an artist? For one thing, artists have a personal objective. Before they even pick up their camera they have a specific vision of what they want to create – what’s often referred to as the ‘story they want their photo to tell’. Similar to artists who use other media, the challenge for these photographers is to actually accomplish their vision. That’s where their creativity, planning, imagination, technical skills, and post-processing talent come into play.
Another thing photographic artists share is a strong opinion of which of their photos is ‘good’. Every artist takes hundreds, thousands, of photos. Amongst them are a lot of average shots, some really awful images, and one or two photos that they believe successfully represent what they aimed to capture – whether you agree or not. Inevitably, those photos are the only ones the artist presents to the public.
The third thing I’ve noticed about photographers who can be called artists is that all have in common a persistent sense of dissatisfaction. I’ve never come across someone I consider an artist who is not still searching for a way to improve their photography. They’re perpetually looking for ways to improve their ability to capture with their camera the vision they have in their mind.
Keep in mind that the label ‘artist’ does not equate with ‘successful artist’. Most artists never find success. On top of that, many have their works derided and dismissed. That doesn’t mean they aren’t artists.
Most people taking photos have never given the above much thought for the simple reason that the purpose of their photography has never been ‘to create art’.
“Check out this photo I took!” A phrase we’ve all heard a million times. Our standard responses range from “awesome” to “looking great” to “where was that?” This usually leads into a conversation about the subject of the photo – you, your lunch, the location, etc… and the photo is never looked at again.
When people take – then share – a snapshot, they’re satisfied with the above scenario. The photo served its purpose. It got a conversation started.
For the vast majority of people taking and sharing photos today, those photos serve as a part of their overall communication – just as text does. These people aren’t trying to make you think deeply about something, nor are they trying to tell a story – they’ll do that with text messages, or verbally if they’re standing next to you.
And that’s fine. It just means that in today’s digital age, in addition to text and emojis, photos are also a means of communication.
A more traditional use of photos by the masses is as a means of capturing and sharing memories. Family outings, a child’s first steps or graduation, places we’ve been, and people we met. The desire to record a memory remains as strong today as it was hundreds of years ago when people would commission a painting of a family member. These ‘memory’ photos (for lack of a better word) are important to us regardless of whether they were taken by a professional photographer in a studio, or taken by a family member with a smartphone.
Another group of photographers are commercial photographers – those who are commissioned to take photos for specific purpose – ranging from family portraits to product shots for a company. While it can be argued that some of their commercial work is artistic, by default it doesn’t qualify as art as it is based on a client’s objectives – not on the artist’s vision. (Interestingly, quite a few commercial photographers are actually accomplished artists whose commercial work pays the bills).
So, when you think of the hundreds of millions of people taking photos, it’s really a very tiny minority who are taking photos with the objective of creating art.
A method of communication, a tool for recording memories, a way of telling a story – the purpose a person has when they press the shutter button determines whether they are an artist, or not.