$6.5 Million Photo Raises Question: Is Photography Art?


The internet and airwaves are abuzz with news that Fine Art Landscape Photographer, Peter Lik, has sold a photo for $6.5 million.

That’s the photo. Yep, that’s it. A beautiful, yet unremarkable image of Arizona’s Antelope Canyon, a photo which has been taken thousands of time by thousands of photographers. So, was there something about this particular one that garnered a $6.5 million price tag?

Not at all.

While not a remarkable image, it is a remarkable marketing stunt. Word on the street is Lik’s investors often “buy” his photographs in an effort to gain publicity and get his work in more galleries. Considering there is no story out there (at least not that I’ve found) that details who actually bought this photograph, the investor angle is plausible.

This isn’t to discount Lik’s ability or his talents. He has some beautiful images. Like, the African Savannah sunset above. Hell, I would pay more for that one than the black and white canyon photo. I understand art is subjective, but it’s hard to justify $6.5 million for any piece of art, especially something taken with a camera.

Which leads us to a question more important (and interesting) than debating Lik’s marketing or photography skills:

Is photography an artistic medium?

Following the news of Lik’s absurdly high selling price, Jonathan Jones of the Guardian, wrote a piece blasting anyone who considers photography art, and it’s been getting a good amount of traction. He says:

This record-setting picture typifies everything that goes wrong when photographers think they are artists. It is derivative, sentimental in its studied romanticism, and consequently in very poor taste. It looks like a posh poster you might find framed in a pretentious hotel room. — Jones

He continues:

Photography is not an art. It is a technology. We have no excuse to ignore this obvious fact in the age of digital cameras, when the most beguiling high-definition images and effects are available to millions. My iPad can take panoramic views that are gorgeous to look at. Does that make me an artist? No, it just makes my tablet one hell of a device.

While, I don’t disagree with his sentiment about this particular image, it’s hard to take him seriously when it’s pretty obvious he’s attempting to stir the pot with that kind of language. But, it’s even harder to take him seriously when you consider he posted an article on January 13, 2013, with this headline: “Photography is the art of our time.”

In the opening paragraph he writes:

Photography is the serious art of our time. It also happens to be the most accessible and democratic way of making art that has ever been invented.

So, which is it? Given that his credibility is kind of shot to hell, I don’t want to spend too much time dissecting his own diametrically opposed arguments, but I do want to dive deeper into the question at hand: Is photography art? To start, we have to define art.

art / ärt/ noun — the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

On a very broad level, photography surely can fit within the scope of that definition. But, does that mean all photography is art? When looking at the first part of the definition, yes.

Think about it this way.

When someone takes a picture with their very expensive piece of technology (iPhone, iPad, or DSLR), they are using their imagination and creativity and expressing it through a tool — in this case a camera. How does that differ from a painter using a paintbrush to paint a landscape or a portrait? You could argue one is easier than another, and for the most part you would be right. But, nothing about the 1st part of the definition of art states that it has to be easy, difficult, or anywhere in between.

The differentiator here is the second part… producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

The art comes when there is emotion, meaning, and beauty behind what is being produced. It gets tricky again when you try to define anything about emotion, meaning, and beauty because it’s all so very subjective. What means absolutely nothing to me could move you in ways that I can’t fathom. So who gets to make the call? Does Lik’s photo move you? Willing to bet everyone’s answers are varied and different.

All of this inspection about photography, art, and emotion really can be summed up in one simple, cliché phrase.

Art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

One more caveat, however. There are definitely levels of artistic expression with any medium. I think photography gets a bad rep because of its nature — instantaneous and easily accessible. That said, there are people who can amass hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers, but have no idea how to use a real camera or photograph people with a specific goal in mind. To me, that is where the levels of art come in. Envisioning something in your mind and using whatever medium you choose to make vision come to life is on another level than framing up a latte using the rule of thirds.

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