Lomo In-Depth: Photography vs. Other Art Forms

by Ciel Hernandez

How is photography different from drawing, painting and other art forms?

Some days ago, Lomography discussed the aesthetic value of photography in the contemporary age and how it remains an art form within a digital society. This article will discuss how photography intrinsically differs from other art forms.

A history of purpose

It is important to know the context of this discussion by going back to where it started. The camera was primarily invented for documentary and scientific purposes before creative endeavors. Its purpose as a tool for visual art flourished within the Pictorialism movement; classic aesthetic principles were applied to the form, and from thereon its ‘artistic’ purpose has been set to stone. There is no debate — photography is now universally considered a visual art form. Scientific progress has allowed art history and classical aesthetics to evolve through the creation of the camera.

The lens versus the world: why photography is more than just a visual art form

Back to the classic standards of art: a comparison

Prior to photography, there existed the classic fine arts, which were exclusively considered as visual art forms. According to Visual Art Cork, these are Drawing, Painting, Printmaking and Sculpture. These forms had the distinction of being “art for art’s sake”, mostly void of metaphorical meaning and motivation behind them. In the most classic context of fine arts, it is art solely for beauty and aesthetics.

Photography against the Fine Arts

In 19th century, the argument most people use against Pictorialism or photography as an art form is that it relies more on science and technical skills than creative skills. Non-believers of the Pictorialist movement hold on to the classical forms, and the whole idea of “art for art’s sake”.

Visual Art Cork writes further: “Few denied that photography was an ingenious invention of the modern age but many saw it as a threat to the traditional values associated with art. In a society symbolically divided between ‘gentlemen’ (those who exercised their intellect and imagination) and ‘operators’ (manual workers who did unthinking, mechanical work), a machine that made pictures was a challenge to the existing social order.”

The camera as the multipurpose medium

Intellectual Susan Sontag’s essay collection “On Photography” explores the various players and impact within the realm of photography. The camera is capable of making a single photograph into something else. Sometimes an artwork, sometimes a document, sometimes a token or souvenir, sometimes a statement, sometimes a whole other thing. Photography is more than just “art for art’s sake”. Sontag’s most notable essay in the book, In Plato’s Cave, summarizes the different shapes a photograph can take. Some of the notable points she raised:

More real than realism:

According to Sontag (1977), photography, unlike the rest of the art forms has some accuracy. Photographs can recreate the seen reality that no painting or drawing can match. “While a painting or a prose description can never be other than a narrowly selective interpretation, a photograph can be treated as a narrowly selective transparency.” (p. 3, “In Plato’s Cave”).

A time capsule:

She wrote further that photography can also immortalize and make experiences permanent with the lens. “To collect photographs is to collect the world. Movies and television programs light up walls, flicker, and go out; but with still photographs the image is also an object, light-weight, cheap to produce, easy to carry about, accumulate, store.” (p. 1, “In Plato’s Cave”).


However, photography also has the ability to create its own reality, deviating from what is perceived. The person, no matter how keen to capture perceived reality, will be biased according to his own tastes. “A photograph is not just the result of an encounter between an event and a photographer; picture-taking is an event in itself, and one with ever more peremptory rights — to interfere with, to invade, or to ignore whatever is going on.” (p. 8, “In Plato’s Cave”).

From many other voices

It is not just Sontag who recognizes photography as an entirely different art medium. Kirstie Beaven of Tate Modern sees photography as a more expressive art form than the rest. The realness of the photographic image seems to have more feelings than of a painting, even though photographs nowadays go through digital post-processes, hence subtracting realness. Beaven claims that most people believe that the camera cannot lie.

“With a painting or a sculpture, no matter how lifelike, we still see the touch of the artist. In a photograph, we see the touch of the subject,” writes Kirstie on Tate Modern. “The photographer’s hand seems more distant than the painters, though their eye seems closer.”

Photographer Ming Thein distinguishes photography from the other art forms in terms of perception and origin. In photography, literal meaning and perception cannot be detached from the photograph. “Photography is what I think of as a secondary medium. For the most part, the output is a recreation or representation of something, where the something — the originating object, subject or scene — is clearly defined and recognisable in its original form,” says Ming Thein in his blog. “No matter how much a photograph uses technique or light or exclusion, it will still be recognised and — this is the important bit — interpreted by the audience — as being a representation of that specific object. Though this may be generalised to type — a photograph of ‘a rose’ as opposed to ‘the rose’, for instance — for the most part, photography is very specific in its depiction. Other forms of art are not, because the interpretative filter of the artist is opaque — not translucent.”

From these statements, it seems that photography’s aesthetic form is both handicapped and advanced because of this: to be able to capture reality in an unmatched accuracy among art forms.

What makes photography different from other visual art forms such as painting? Share with us your thoughts.

Originally published at www.lomography.com.

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