The line between art and photography

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Here’s a provocative question: is this image art? Why? Why not? Have a think about this carefully, for a moment. Today I’m going to crack open the lid of one of the biggest cans of worms in the whole of photography, peer inside, give you my 1.53 cents* and try not to fall inside.

*Devaluated from two cents since 2009 due to underdeclared inflation, quantitative easing, foreign debt and other economic screwups

Perhaps the biggest struggle photography has faced historically as a medium is to be taken seriously as an art form. I’d say it’s only in the last couple of decades that the results at auction have been able to hold their own against traditional art forms; even if a good chunk of us don’t understand why – myself included. (I’m probably not the only one thinking of Andreas Gursky here.) Yet we don’t have photographs insured for hundreds of millions of dollars, or exhibited behind bulletproof glass, or even the subject of exciting art heists – let alone Hollywood movies – why is this?

Culprit number one in this has to be a combination of repeatability and access. By repeatability, I mean the ability to make exact copies of an image ad infinitum; simple laws of supply and demand dictate that the more objects there are to go around, the less fighting over them ensues – and consequently, value falls. Even with an old-fashioned hand-made print – it’s possible to make more than one identical – or at least near-identical – copy of the same image from the same negative, which instantly means it can’t be as exclusive as a painting. Unless perhaps one destroys the negative or deletes the file after printing, I suppose. Though master prints still fetch some considerable coin, as do negatives, I just can’t see the same thing happening with digital files; right now, people pay for rights to use the images, but the file you download is identical to the file that’s in the image library. There is nothing stopping you – other than the law and your respect of it – from making identical duplicates.

I’ve always said the proliferation of digital photography is a good and bad thing; on one hand, talented people who wouldn’t previously have given photography a try have done so, and all of us benefit from their work, as well as a general raising of visual standards; on the other hand, access for all has devalued the individual image. I have to admit, I’m a little surprised by this; given that more people can now see just how difficult it is to achieve a given result, we’d expect that the ascribed value of an image should be closer to its intrinsic value now, right? The opposite is true: everybody can make an image, everybody can take the same photo as the pros if only they buy the same gear. And if I can take the same photo – as far as I can tell, at any rate – why bother paying for it? Blame it on the camera company marketers. In trying to push more gear to the mass markets at every-shrinking margins, they’re indirectly killing the halo effect that sold their gear in the first place. Sadly, former photographic greats like Hasselblad and Leica seem to be turning more into lifestyle brands than the makers of true tools for the artist.

In recent times, there has been nothing more democratizing than the cameraphone: not only can you take a decent(ish) quality image anywhere, any time, but you can also have it seen instantly by an extended network of people. And to make it worse, the images that are widely shared and viewed – think of them as making it into the visual culture of society – are inevitably the ones that are the shoutiest, not the best. Let’s not even go into the effect of hipstagram and the like. Take the first image in this post, for instance: in my recent flickr uploads, it’s achieved one of the highest number of views and favorites. I didn’t do anything special to promote it. Why? Obviously, people find something aesthetically pleasing about the image; does it matter that it was shot on an iPhone? Other than limiting my ability to print it at very large sizes, I can’t think of any reason why it should.

Suppose for a moment that somewhere down the line, the original file and EXIF got lost, a nice print came up at auction, and it sold for a good amount of money – because it’s a nice image. Then later on, horror of horrors, it comes to light that it was shot with a cameraphone. Would it change the perception of its value? Undoubtedly. Just because it was made with inferior equipment somehow instantly also makes the composition inferior, just like how a ‘pro’ with old or small cameras is still viewed by most clients and the public as being second-rate. Never mind the fact that it’s much more difficult to take a good image with crap equipment in the first place.

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An interpretation of reality – how I saw it in my mind, not necessarily how reality appeared to everybody else also present at the time.

At this point, we need to pause before we get carried away; we haven’t even answered the really important question here: what is art? Well, it’s a subjectively biased interpretation of something – whether that something is an event, a place, a person, or a thing, is irrelevant. It’s the bias that makes it interesting: Monet’s waterlilies are interesting because they show us his unique interpretation of the scene, according to the impressionist school – which is yet another subjective way of looking at the world. Picasso’s works are interesting because they show us his interpretation of the world. In both cases, the interpretations present us with such a unique – unprecedented – result, that we are forced to stop, look, and think. The value here is in the uniqueness of the interpretation: what the artists see is so far beyond the normal realm of comprehension for most that it becomes akin to visual magic. It’s also worth remembering that seeing is but half of the puzzle: execution is just as important.

The opposite example would be the Dutch Masters and the realists: they tried to paint the world as close to the way they saw it visually; the value then becomes less of the interpretation and more of the skill in execution. At the high level, composition in all painting should be pretty much taken as given: there’s no excuse for imbalances, cutting things off etc. if you’re fully in control of each of the elements in the scene. For art other than paintings, you’ve got much the same thing again: firstly, the need to visualise the end result, then the skill to translate it from an idea to the finished product in the medium of choice.

But what about photography? Arguably, the ability to reproduce the exact scene is no longer constrained by the skill of the photographer; seeing something other than the obvious is not quite as easy, but still much easier than having to invent an entire composition on your own. So if the camera is doing the bulk of the execution, and the photographer limited to seeing what physically exists (or can be made to physically exist) – then it’s quite easy to see how people can be dismissive of the value of a photography. Basically: you didn’t make it in the same sense of casting a bronze or painting a watercolor; it now makes sense to call the process ‘taking photographs’ rather than ‘making photographs’.

If you think I’m being dismissive of my own craft here, I’m not. Far from it. If anything, I think photographers face a very different set of challenges to other artists: the main artistic one is dealing with the physical constraints of the real world, and the commercial challenge lies in demonstrating value. How do you show what you bring to the table as the ‘subjective interpreter’? Easy: by the clarity of the interpretation. This is what I always call ‘the idea’: you need to know what you’re looking at in order for you to be able to translate that into a single image, and have your audience see the same thing. We necessarily work in a far more constrained world than that of artists of other media; at the same time, the expectations are higher because there’s the understanding that we are replicating recognisable reality.

I think there are two extremes of photographic interpretation that can legitimately be called art – the kind that uses photography as the medium only, but doesn’t play to its strengths (exact reproduction) or processes away from the real – it can be done well (think Warhol) or badly (think hipstagram). One is repeatable, the other isn’t – and the one that isn’t has no value as art, because it’s simply too easy for everybody to have the same interpretation as everybody else. There is no uniqueness factor. The other extreme is hyper-realism: yes, there’s such a thing even in photography, which is itself a realistic media. If your idea is so profound that it comes through even when no subjectivity in processing or perspective has been applied, then the chances are it’s a very, very strong one indeed**. Such an image must be powerful enough to overcome the inherent dismissal that we’re inclined to pay anything that looks too familiar to reality for us. This must be by far the most difficult to achieve; since even black and white images are really quite a heavily interpretative vision of the world (“let’s throw away the color!”) – and perhaps this difference is why we as a viewing public are so drawn to them as being ‘art’ rather than color images of the same subjects.

**My problem with the record-breaking Guersky photograph is that I can’t see his idea; compound that with weak aesthetics – again, subjective – and all that’s left is technical execution. I’m sure that’s excellent, but million dollar excellent? I’m not so sure.

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Hyperreality: one of the things I’m really enjoying about the medium format digital back is that it delivers the closest thing to a perfect reproduction of the actual scene as I’ve been able to achieve from any photograph. The challenge then becomes one purely of observation: you have to see the difference, not create it.

Then there’s the subject of control: as photographers, we have both more and less control of the contents of our final ‘product’ than other artists. I prefer to think of it as precision, rather than variety: we can make sure our greys are perfectly neutral and we have exactly as much depth of field as we want and nothing more, but if we decide that we really like the texture of elephant dung or gesso or gold leaf, there’s simply no way to incorporate that into an image other than by using its visual texture – in other words, an interpretation of it. We must use the tools at our disposal – principally, light – to create the perception of the material: surely this cannot be easier than using the material directly itself?

The trouble is, ultimately, hitting the shutter and spending some time in photoshop or the darkroom is perceived as far less effort than hacking at a block of marble; it may certainly be less physical effort (though I suppose it also depends how arduous your journey before hitting the shutter) – but is it any less mental effort? Here we’ve come full circle back to perception again: simply because it seems like less work to most people, the value of photography is lesser than other artistic media. I’d in fact argue that it is no easier or harder, simply because some artists may execute their vision more naturally with a camera, some with words, or some with paint; to each his own. Any discriminations should come on the basis of exclusivity alone: there is only one Mona Lisa. There are millions of prints, and the value of those are commensurately lower – this is fair. There are frequently hundreds or thousands of prints of famous images, which makes their value lower than if there was only one; fair enough. There is some compensation for quality: prints made by the photographer’s own hand are worth more than commercial mass reproductions that may not necessarily have undergone the same quality approval, and certainly have had less effort per print put in.

I’m going to leave you with a thought: if I was to offer a series of prints which would only ever be printed a small and fixed number of times – say only one or two copies would be made in any size or medium – and subsequently delete the original files or destroy the negatives to remove the ability to make another identical reproduction of the same quality (you can’t do a 30×30″ from a web jpeg, obviously) – how much greater would the value be than if I made 20 prints in one size, and kept the original file or negative? Would this be something of interest to my readers? MT


Enter the 2013 Maybank Photo Awards here – there’s US$35,000 worth of prizes up for grabs, it’s open to all ASEAN residents, and I’m the head judge! Entries close 31 October 2013.


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  1. I loved your post, very good.

  2. I see many artists and venues for one of a kind art, usually only for paintings. But they never allow photographers. My argument is this.
    Those same artists are creating art using different paints, they are not all just oil or acrylic or water colour. Different mediums are being used. And those same artists do make digital copies that they print into cards and framed prints, etc… of their art work (they just can not sell at such shows) So then, they are not really one of a kind when copies are made! However, photography is also one of a kind art. It does not matter if I can make copies. You, the observer, are not going to be able to replicate my photo. For obvious and various reasons. One being, you may not have access to the subject. 2. It may have been a once in a lifetime moment photographed. And lastly, you are not me. So you could not possibly create what I have, because it is not coming from the same places of inspiration, soul or knowledge.
    I am tired of snobby artists not accepting photography as an art medium. There is so much that can be and is, created from photos. I myself have mixed multiple images to make one image, I have used an image as a background for text, to make a logo, I have done texturizing and also done hours of creative editing to make a work of art. And some pieces speak for themselves and have very little editing done. So yes, yes and yes, photography is most certainly capable of being art, and just as meaningful and rare as any painting, drawing, etc.. could be. Just because we see pictures does not lessen the pieces that are works of art. And one more thing… many artist use photos as their reference. So tell me, which was the original there and which is the copy? hmm

  3. I’m taking art in my school and kind of interested in photography, yet I do not know nor trying photography before, since this is a new medium for me. Thank you for this amaizng post! You’ve opened my mind so much more. Keep on writing !

  4. The blog contains really awesome information and the pictures are also looking pretty good. I’m surprised by this; given that more people can now see just how difficult it is to achieve a given result.The opposite is true: everybody can make an image, I just can’t see the same thing happening with digital files. Looking for your future posts.

  5. Amazing blog post. I really like your blog and I appreciated your efforts. Your article is very helpful for me and many others to work out. I will definitely come back on your site for more stuff. Good Luck for the future posts.

  6. I’ve been reflecting on several recent articles and discussions, and though your blog has moved on this article seemed to be one of the better places to post a few comments.

    First, I’ve come to visit fairly regularly because I’ve experienced many of your images as artful and appealing. I appreciate the information you share and discussions engaged in as well. The qualities of your images are what first drew my attention and I continue to experience a great many of them as interesting and engaging.

    One of the features of photography that I think I might find most challenging is this: “What is essential is invisible to the eye” (Antoine de Saint Exupéry). If there is a grain of truth in Saint Exupéry’s words, how can one go about producing images that touch upon if not contribute to what is essential??

    Another of what I might count among the greatest of challenges is not dissimilar: in the course of history entire cities have developed and then eventually been abandoned and none of the community members from those ancient populations is remembered by human beings today. On such timescales how can this kind of work have or take on any significance?

    By some lines of thinking “real” art as only that which is accepted into and commands high prices in exclusive galleries. [That scheme seems to leave out men and women who produce works that go unnoticed, quite possibly because the creators do not engage in all of the competitive, business, and social/political activities necessary to market themselves and push their product.] There may be notions of excellence at work in some cases and to some extent, but on a long timescale of what value are name-dropping, notoriety and human pretentiousness?

    Alternately, people might offer some systems of reasoning to explain, justify, or advocate the kind of art that they are producing and maybe to convince other people that there is some merit to the way they are doing things. But how many of those systems of reasoning just boil down to mere human philosophies? After all, you have written that many aspects of photography are subjective. What kind of legs does a “proof” of something humanly subjective really stand on, regardless of how good the line of argument might sound?

    To distill what I’ve been saying, the second thing I might figure as quite challenging — or, “what is missing’ –: is an element of the eternal.

    • One could argue that simply by attempting to preserve and display these works for the greater public, that qualifies as an attempt at the eternal…

      Of course how to define ‘eternal’ and ‘essential’ is quite another kettle of fish in itself: beyond food, shelter and love, there’s not a lot left. Perhaps we have to appeal to the latter category since photographs cannot be either of the former.

      We’re really no closer to a definition, are we?

      • Wow, actually, it seems very wise for you to rule out food and shelter: while they’re needs they’re also visible, destructible, and transitory.

        Love (and, of course, not talking about fleeting human emotions or lusts or teenage infatuation) has none of those qualities. I’m also a business person and this subject never enters into the language of the environments that I work in, but you’ve homed in on it with efficiency.

        As far as eternal, I suppose a lot of people can get a vague, ill-defined sense of ‘something’ eternal when they look at nature.

        I’d venture to say that when we consider someone we love dearly — even in the face of full anticipation that their bodies and our own will die — we may get an even stronger sense of ‘something’ eternal about them / their being; it’s a sense which might feel dichotomous or dissonant at times because our bodies obviously fail so quickly.

        • Odd that businesses decide to leave love out of it, because without it (and people thinking they need to do something because of it) a lot of industries wouldn’t exist…

          The one truly eternal – but ephemeral – thing is an idea…

  7. randomesquephoto says:

    Ming. Thanks for another wonderful post! Very thought provoking.

    I didn’t read through all the comments.

    An interesting project.

    Taking abstract photos of various million dollar originals and seeing what those results sell for. Or not sell for. Just a project. Of art. Art from art. The way one sees it.

  8. Photo art is more about content or lack of content than the photographic skills used to produce it. At work we have several large photo art prints hanging on the wall. Some are brilliant others are dull. But apart from that most have probably been photographed with a medium format or 6×6, 5×4 film camera, it is not the photographic skill that makes them great.

  9. Very eloquently said Ming. The philosophical debate then is ‘what is art, and what is craft?’ And what is the value, real and perceived, that one would like to attach to either. To answer your last question, the day your photograph gets recognized as a ‘Ming’ (pun unintended) will make all the difference.

    • I think at the highest level, craft lacks the same degree of innovation and creativity as art; there’s probably more to it than that, but I’m not an expert.

      On your second point: recognition of your work as your work means that you’ve at least achieved a distinctive style; whether that’s art or not is another question (it may well be, but that’s again down to personal interpretation). I’m not sure I’m there yet, but it’s certainly an aim.

  10. All the photos you post on your blog are art (except maybe your commercial photography) because the purpose for taking them is that other people will look at them for no reason except that they like they way they look.

    • Actually, what I shoot for myself I create solely for my own satisfaction, not for recognition by others. Commercial is slightly different; we try to create work that we are happy with on an aesthetic level, but also that keeps the client happy. We have to pay for our creative freedom somehow…

      • I love taking photographs from start to finish, as I did when I was a wee lad of six with a Brownie… I loved the tools, I loved the craft of taking photos, and I loved the finish.. seeing what came of the film when printing. I still love it even more today at the age of 58 than I did at the age of 8. With respect to art, photography is simply a medium, in my mind. Oil on canvas, bronze or clay sculpture, motion pictures, music, etc., are all mediums for expression that contain art if not entirely destined to be considered simply so. [like a photo negative, a sculpture mold can create dozens or millions of identical works of “art”] Most of the time, in every field, whether an artist of fame, or a craftsman of trade, everyone finds something to do to earn a living when their passion/art is not able to pay the rent. That is a proverbial, timeless truth, it seems. One person’s art may become another person’s wall cover (i.e. the great tapestries of old) and a blanket in times of want. We probably make the discussion of “what is art” when we are focusing on a particular medium something obtuse and unproductive as it could cause us to look at an architect churning out tract housing plans and say “that’s a craft and NOT art” and then along comes a young Frank Lloyd Wright and suddenly the medium that was formerly NOT art is now suddenly artistic genius. The “art” is within the creator-artist, spilling over to lesser or greater extent into the creations. Sometimes, the most artistic part of a photo I create is probably the signature-watermark I added.

        In my way of thinking, art is simply any creation that has both form and content which, combined, is inextricably bound with the transcendent idea of ‘good’. Thus, in the present context of photography, a photo I might decide I do not love, might, in another’s eyes, be worth a fortune. For us, the ‘good’ is subjective.

        • Craft is about consistency and repeatability: art is about inspiration and ‘the difference’.

          As for the watermark…if I made an image like that, I’d probably consign it to the bin…

  11. The omission of post modernism and its influence on art and photography has led to a naive article from someone with a narrow perspective of art……

    • I never claimed to be an art historian or artist; merely an interested photographer. Perhaps you’d care to enlighten us from your infinite wisdom on the subject?

      • No need to be a historian nor an artist post modernism is not a sole proprietor to those fields it appears in everyday advertising as well as constructs of our lives. Interested photographers should also be aware of aspects of post modernism and its influence on photography after all it is not alien to their practice.Try google it will put you on the right track.

  12. Unsurprisingly, much of the discussion about such topic focuses on the question “what is art?”

    I think the social interpretation opens interesting venues of thought. The word “art” is typically used to describe a creation that seems slightly mythical, like it had some inherent meaning that the observer cannot quite fully comprehend. Those who are skilled in creating such pieces, recognising such properties in others’ creations, or even pretending to be able to explain and value the meanings in others’ creations, command a higher social status. Therefore it is unsurprising that people spend so much time and effort in trying to define what exactly is art. Unfortunately, if a clear principle (“recipe for art”) is found, it is no longer mythical and no longer defines art.

    As a hobbyist who is very unlikely to earn a single dime (even on gross basis) or gain any significant improvement of social status from photography, I don’t give a damn if my photos are seen as art or not. The reason I’m reading this blog is because of the exceptional advice on creating aestethically pleasing images, which is very very difficult. Ming has somehow managed to demystify a whole lot of the process, giving me much better tools to achieve what I want.

    That makes me think, perhaps the availablity of good “recipes” actually shifts the online audience’s perception of photography from “art” towards “craft”. It may also reveal to a larger extent just how difficult the process is, given that they actually pay attention instead of keeping to look for anything “artistic”. In the best case that could give truly talented and creative photographers just a little bit more breathing room. Ming, hopefully you will agree, and keep adding content in addition to looking for the exclusive four million dollar recipe 😉

    (Just to make it clear, I’m not saying that the above interpretation of the word “art” is the right one, but it was useful to convey the thoughts. Personally I wouldn’t hesitate to call someone skilled and creative in their craft an “artist”, especially (but not solely) if the end product has mainly aesthetic qualities.)

    • I agree and disagree. I do demystify some of the process, but the thinking portion is not at all simple nor is it quite so straightforward to put into practice. I could write down everything I know about photography on this site, but I doubt anybody will produce the same images as me in the same place; there is that subjectivity of interpretation and knowing what techniques to apply when – and this will vary from person to person. That subjectivity of interpretation is as much art as anything, and it cannot be turned into a recipe – four or four million dollars. 🙂

  13. This is an old topic that just won’t go away. Poverty and hunger, lack of commercial success clearly are unrelated to the object of art itself, just the survival of the artist. I think Renoir would be shocked to see my beautiful “pigment ink” print of his one of a kind painting. That I didn’t even have to paint over again. Shocked to see it’s current price at auction. Happy to think that he could reproduce one of his own paintings say 100 or even 1000 times and SELL them all for $100! He would not complain or wonder about art. Obviously, the “art” of the Mona Lisa or any great work of art DOES NOT CHANGE if you reproduce it and sell even one million copies of it. Think: Ansel Adams . . . in how many office buildings today? Has anyone taken more beautiful b&w photos of Yosemite than his? He would jump to agree with what Ming said above: Size, monitor type etc. all play a big part; at least with a print, I can have a bit more influence over that. Color and tonality matter – essentially, that’s what we change most of the time in processing our raw files, and I’m sure you’ll agree it makes a huge difference. Until that point…I’m afraid printing is still the way to go.” He supposedly made some 80 attempts to print one of his most famous negatives and never thought he succeeded. Ming is right. To be art it has to be the way the artist wants it to look/exist. Why Cartier-Bresson refused to have his images cropped. We have no idea how many great images he may have discarded because he could not and would not crop them! I think any artist would insist it be the way it’s supposed to be to him/her. Again, that’s why so many great writers cannot let Hollywood turn their art into crummy movies for whatever amount of money. Finally, a quote from a politician that I detest (most polite word I can use), so much that I refuse to mention his name. I heard it indirectly from someone else, so, who knows, maybe he never said. But it may apply to art and what it is and is not: “If you have to explain it, you’ve already lost.” I don’t like that either, but I’m having trouble refuting it so far.

    • Talking about cropping: I recently went spare at a client who licensed a whole bunch of images for an exhibition, then proceeded to crop terribly and make a complete mess of printing them. They refused to give me any control or approval over the process, never mind the fact that it made them look bad, too! It is the only exhibition I’ve had that I refuse to promote, because frankly it doesn’t show the work as it’s supposed to be shown. People are surprised when they ask me about it and that’s the reply I give…

      • Framing, cropping, and finishing should always be left up to the artist. Nothing wrong with listening to the opinion of the buyer/client, but the decision should be yours. I forgot to comment on the photo you posted to start this discussion. Yes, it meets all the requirements for art, like it or not. I like it quite a bit myself. And it raises the issue of framing and perspective as well. What we’ve said so far about art implies to me that nature itself (or God, if you’re religious) makes art. Why else would painters and photographers get up before dawn to return to a particular spot that “they” and they only saw in order to reflect that gift of nature in artwork from their own perspective and with their own materials, be it oil pigment on canvas or (I’ll say it!) equally beautiful pigment ink on cotton base paper. Why not just sit in the studio and dream of things no one else can imagine? Which is perfectly fine as well; Picasso won’t find many of his images anywhere outside his studio.

        So, one function of the artist is to help capture/create the beauty that nature has provided us, but that most of us cannot see. Take your own photo. Many/most people would walk right past that spot and moment and not notice anything. But you did. Perhaps the main benefit of making photographs is that you see the world better as a consequence and as we all know, can take/make photographs/images in our minds without a camera. I can still remember some. Now take your photo again. Less artistic minded photographers (most) would never had reduced the sky to 1/10 or 1/20 of the frame. They would have shot a very uninteresting image of the same subject matter and erased it later. Most would simply pass it by. If they knew the 2/3 rule of structure, again they would not have taken this photograph. If they had left the sky out completely, it would not have worked either. The angle has to be right. The frame has to be right. The pinch of the sky has to be there. But alas, I am just describing your photograph, in which you have managed to turn a beautiful slice of nature and time and light into a “unique” object of art that you can share with others. Doesn’t matter who or how many like it or how much they bid at auction. Still art. And I suspect the artist will keep making such things as well.

        P.S. I took a photo of a “backlit” boy chasing a football in the plaza of Sienna, Italy, once (b&w). As much as I and others liked it, my first reaction was that Cartier-Bresson had already done this. But I caught myself: He may have been in Sienna once and took similar photographs, but not this one! He might have liked to have made it, but he didn’t. He could not. It wasn’t there to take. But I did, and it’s unique It will never happen again, so no one else will ever make/capture this particular photograph but me. I had to position myself for the back lighting and wait patiently for it to occur, just before the light faded away. This is one of the advantages of photography over any other art form. Let us praise it?

        • Nature definitely makes art; it moves us and provides a degree of unpredictability that keeps things interesting. It touches us at a primordially subconscious level.

          As for that shot – it was actually from a moving boat just as I was leaving the jetty; I had the Hasselblad with me but didn’t have time to unpack it, and the platform wasn’t steady enough to use it. 1/10th felt right because of the recession/ compression in the buoys caused by the perspective; I can’t explain it any more quantitatively than that. The more I think about it, the more I think it will make it into the next print run; as much because I like the image as because I’m curious to see how it will print.

          It we didn’t think photography was worthy…I’m sure we’d find plenty of other things to do with our time. I know I certainly wouldn’t have the same level of devotion…

  14. Ron Scubadiver says:

    It’s rather to answer the question “what is art?” Any photograph might be art and might not be. What will get into a museum or a legitimate art gallery is a whole other question, but the answer is it is some kind of a new look. Staged scenes are very popular now, but so are unusual processes using home made cameras or paper.

    • Without opening a further can of worms, I think we need to distinguish between fads/ trends and stuff that lasts – we’ll only ever know if the staged scenes and the lomo crowd are here to stay in 50 years or so…

      • Ron Scubadiver says:

        I don’t know the answer. I just came home from a show at the internationally renowned Fotofest that featured about 8 Texas photographers. I thought 3 were fantastic, one was OK and three were total garbage. But nobody asked me. It seems that some things are out of favor today like street photography. If I were a woman, I could do selfies.

  15. Ming,
    First of all, excellent work, both on this essay, and on the 1st image above.
    I would say that that image definitely is art, no matter what camera you used to make it. That being said, if I was going to sell it as a fine art image, I probably wouldn’t mention it was shot w/ an iPhone, for all the reasons you mentioned.

    Second, regarding your question at the end of the essay, I would caution you on destroying an original negative or digital file used to make any print, even if you only plan to do one very limited print run. If you shot the image on film, photography buyers/collectors will expect you to retain the original negative, even if your print run is limited. If you wanted to ease their minds, I suppose you could offer to sign a binding contract or something that you would never produce any additional prints from it, but I think destroying the negative would be unwise.
    If the image was originally digital, this would make even more sense, as any print buyer would have to take your word for it anyway that you had no copies of the original image file, so again I see no benefit from destroying the original file.
    As an added benefit, mainly to the collector, if the print was ever destroyed (flood, fire, etc.), this would allow you to replace the image for them. There are other reasons for keeping the originals also, such as preserving the image for posterity, etc.

    Just my 2 cents (or 1.52 cents) worth.
    Kind Regards,

    • Thanks for your compliments.

      I think the image really needs 36″ or more in a print to breathe; we’re limited to less than half that with the iPhone. Oh well. Here’s a thought, though: does it become more or less remarkable that the image was made with such limited equipment? Does it have any bearing on the artistic value of the picture?

      The question about destroying originals was hypothetical: I wanted to see what others thought. I’m a hoarder; I have every single file I’ve ever shot (that wasn’t a mistake or subpar). 🙂

  16. Great post, Ming! I love reading articles that focus more on photography than on gear quality.

    I take some issue with the idea that the camera used can affect the value of the image. I think it greatly depends on the content. Famous Vietnam war era images are powerful regardless of the hardware used. They’re not in colour and they’re blurry. Andreas Gursky’s images are not what I would consider powerful, so I would say that he’s more of an exception. Your photoessays are great examples – After your post-processing, I often can’t tell which images which shot on medium format, FF or m4/3, and perhaps I’m just not experienced enough, but I’m not really looking for technical differences – I’m looking at the subject matter of your photoessays. Sometimes I find myself staring at the bokeh circles in the background of movie shots instead of paying attention to the plot. In a sense that’s why instagram is so popular – nobody looks at the gear used for the shot – it’s the image itself that is rated based on it’s relevance and content.

    • Thanks, and check the archives: there are hundreds 🙂

      The camera only affects the value of the image up to the point it limits reproduction size. If the maximum reproduction size is less than ideal, the camera has compromised the work; if not, then it doesn’t matter. The trouble is, most people don’t reproduce/ print at all, so a lot of bandwidth is wasted on forums debating this…

  17. Interesting, thought-provoking stuff as usual.

    To me, this whole debate comes down to a simple question: are there, and should there be, standards of “good art” and “bad art”? It’s a lose-lose situation. Say “yes” and you are accused of censorship and of being a fascist. Say “no” and you open the door to the con artists.

    Art’s biggest strength and greatest weakness has always been the impossibility of accurately defining it. I remember reading Frank Zappa’s autobiography, and he said (paraphrased) that the difference between a random act and a work of art is “the frame”. So if you actively promote something as “something you consciously created” (i.e. you put a frame around it), then it’s art. An interesting definition, and I quite like it, to a point.

    The picture at the top of this article therefore qualifies as “art”, in that you consciously created it and (this is tenuous) made it visible to someone other than yourself. (Uncertainty principle problem: if you create a piece of art and don’t show it to anyone, does it actually exist? 🙂

    If the idea that “anything can be art” is widely accepted (as it appears to be these days) then this leaves the door open for people to pull the wool over the eyes of people by intentionally deceiving them (coughGurskycough). The flipside of this is that it also leaves the door open for people to genuinely innovate. Picasso is an example of the latter.

    I’ve always thought that “art” refers to something with aesthetic value which requires a certain level of technical or theoretical knowledge to produce. Thus, to me, a finger-painting by a 5 year old is not “art”. It may bring pleasure to the parents of the 5 year old, but it’s not “art”.

    By this definition, a good photograph (intentionally composed, well exposed, etc) is art. Pointing a camera at something and hitting the shutter with no thought whatsoever is not art.

    I subscribe to Scott Kelby’s training video site, and there’s a great video on there where he goes around Paris with Jay Maisel. There’s a wonderful moment where they head to an art gallery and Jay sees a piece of art. It’s essentially a string of lightbulbs. Which are on. The explanation under the lightbulbs talks about “the passage of life”.

    Jay (to camera): “Oh, give me a f*****g break”.

    I think that sums it up quite nicely!

    • Conscious creation makes sense. But not everybody is consciously in control of enough of the elements to call their work art; yet some of the best photographs lack control on the part of the photographer; and that’s precisely what makes them unique – the photographer’s ability to capture the unexpected.

      If you create a piece of art and don’t show it to anyone, does it actually exist?
      Yes, most definitely. I think perhaps that’s the purest piece of art of all: it has to please nobody but its creator.

      I’ve always thought that “art” refers to something with aesthetic value which requires a certain level of technical or theoretical knowledge to produce. Thus, to me, a finger-painting by a 5 year old is not “art”. It may bring pleasure to the parents of the 5 year old, but it’s not “art”.
      What if an experienced painter used their fingers in the same manner to imitate the work of a 5-year-old? Would that be art, because it requires conscious execution on the part of the painter, and some skill to execute convincingly? If we didn’t say it was by an experienced painter, and everybody assumed it was by a 5-year-old – then what?

      • My points were somewhat rhetorical, but they do lead to another train of thought.

        There is that famous quote, attributed to just about everybody who’s ever lived, of “I don’t know about art, but I know what I like”.

        I find that the best art hits us on a level which is deeper than speech and cognition. We just somehow recognise it as interesting and having some kind of value. This is different from person to person, of course. Some will see Pollock and have a revelatory experience, others will see Pollock and see a conman. Neither viewpoint is invalid.

        However, the human tendency is (for better or worse) to think and analyse. Thus we end up with a problem. We see something which touches us on some rather primordial level, but we can’t be satisfied with that; we need to know why. So then we explain, conceptualise, and generally use our thinking capacities too much. This is where the art world becomes so amorphous that we risk losing all sense of what is “good” and what is “bad”, and where a urinal holds the same value as (for instance) Impression: soleil levant, or Millais’ “Ophelia”.

        There was an interesting experiment done a while ago. Invisible cameras were set up at an art gallery, in a room featuring art from way back when to the most modern art. The cameras recorded the amount of time that people spent looking at each exhibit. Among them was “Ophelia” and another was a piece by Tracey Emin: a polaroid of herself in front of (if memory serves) Ayer’s Rock. It was conclusively proven that people spent far longer looking at the Millais. We can make of that what we will (another problem with art!)

        You ask “What if an experienced painter used their fingers in the same manner to imitate the work of a 5-year-old? Would that be art, because it requires conscious execution on the part of the painter, and some skill to execute convincingly? If we didn’t say it was by an experienced painter, and everybody assumed it was by a 5-year-old – then what?”

        Good question, and one I don’t have an answer to. Again, this is art’s problem. It has no absolutes.

  18. I wrote on a similar topic some months ago. For me, the header image isn’t art. Don’t get me wrong: Ming routinely takes the best images of any reviewer I know but there is a difference between technically perfect image making with a creatively excellent eye and ‘making art’. The latter has to go far beyond the production of beautiful images. In North America, ‘Fine Art Photography’ really is a category of its own and refers precisely to gorgeous photographic images. But Fine Art Photography is not the sort of Art that qualifies for the top-end international art auction houses, galleries and museums as ‘Art’ as opposed to as ‘Photography’. Few photographers make it into that bracket. Currently, Gursky, possibly Crewdson, Cindy Sherman and maybe a small number of others possibly including Burtynsky top this small league. Historically, the Bechers, Steichen and a few more. Even Ansel Adams struggles a bit and is often regarded more as a Fine Art Photographer rather than as an artist. Don’t shoot me, I’m just the messenger.

    So what is this all about? Partly as Ming says it is to do with repeatability and scarcity. Even more, it is to do with the correct long term marketing and profile building and networking plus some luck. But largely, it is down to depth of artistic intention and to the development of conceptual threads in work. The image has to have a hinterland. It has to have precedent and precursor in the development of the artist’s work and to be part of a thematic development that owes more to a profound view of the world than an eye for a stunningly attractive image. It doesn’t have to be anti-pictorial and anti-aesthetic (Steichen’s work is always utterly beautiful) – it just has to have roots, trunk, branches, leaves, buds, flowers and seeds.

    I regularly sell work in auctions with people who far far outclass me, up to and including people such as Burtyksnky, Kander, Olaf Otto Becker and so on and the thing I have noticed is that there is a mix of purchasers. Some of them really will buy what they think is really beautiful, pictorially attractive, something that will look pretty in their home – but they won’t pay very top dollar for that from a relative unknown. Mine tops out, for example, at around $2,500 for one of a numbered edition of 25 – and that is for my very best work. Which is nothing compared to the real players. So whatever I would like to think about my own creative intentions for the work, the market is not seeing it as art, not really.

    Purchasers also will not buy obvious duds even from the best names. But a good image that forms part of a wider corpus of work and is considered ‘museum grade’ (i.e. iconic and deeply representative of that artist’s work) from one of the really big names (and such work very rarely makes it into the same auction as mine!) will go for such vast multiples of everything else in the room that it can take your breath away. In this case, it is not just about the rarity conferred by a guarantee of limited reproduction: it is about the sub-rarity of being the rarest of the rare, the best of the best, by the best. At that point the purchaser is driven by either the obsession to own artistic perfection, or the canny ability to spot those works that will perform economically over the long term.

    ‘Highly creative photography’ and ‘art that was made with a camera’ are two closely related but different things. Their Venn Diagrams barely overlap and when they do, it’s usually the result of a historical re-assesment of a body of work.

    • One correction: I’m not a reviewer; I’m a photographer who happens to write reviews. There’s an important distinction. ‘Reviewers’ do not make a living selling their images; I do. 🙂

      That aside, what makes your own work art, or not? Why are some things museum grade, or not? What’s the difference between art and the “technically perfect image with a creatively excellent eye?” I definitely don’t pretend to be there, I’m just trying to figure out why one is, and one isn’t. Or perhaps it’s one of those things: you know when you’re there.

      Things only perform economically if there’s an interested party to push the price up…especially since the work on its own is a) not a commodity b) doesn’t change over time, and c) is by definition limited. So, I suppose we’re back to super high end art being determined by those with money again – surely, that cannot be right?

      • One of my favorite photographers Sam Abel, a retired National Geographic photographer has an interesting story regarding his photographs of the Marlboro Man being appropriate by artist Richard Prince. Sam Abel is an insightful and intelligent photographer, and this shows in his response to these appropriated works being sold for millions at auction. , at the end of the day it seem to come down the intention. Sam Abel created the images to make an ad to sell cigarettes, it was a paid job well executed and that was its context. Richard Prince appropriated these images with the intention to make a wider comment about society, art and the image. It was intended and directed at the gallery/Art establishment.

        • I think that’s a very grey line in terms of copyright – I suppose there’d be grounds to use for copyright infringement. That said, it might also look like sour grapes on Abel’s part since he was probably paid well for the original work, and the new use is completely different…

    • Jorge Balarin says:

      I agree with your opinions. Greetings.

  19. Hi Ming,
    Interesting article with lots of questions.

    1. What becomes art?
    My view is that art is an ‘idea’ that takes a physical form. There has to be some meaning that is more than the literal or obvious depiction. Think of Duchamp’s fountain. It is the highest level of expression as sometimes you see what he intended to depict and fail to see the obvious. Think of Rene Magritte’s ‘This is not a pipe’. Although it is a picture of a pipe, it is not a pipe since you cannot smoke using the image. The image is art since by posing the question, he makes you think.

    2. Value of art
    This is influenced by many factors – rarity, marketing and positioning, standing of the artist, technical breakthroughs achieved, artistic milestones achieved etc. Anything that is recognized to have pushed a boundary will have a certain value for that fact. Think of Warhol, Mondrian, etc. People can attempt and even surpass these two in execution today of similar work. Such work will never fetch the same price as a genuine Warhol or Mondrian because they now own the process as well! It is like patenting a technique. If execution will equate to a high price, NASA’s images should command the highest price. Maybe if NASA created a bit of exclusivity by limiting print runs and position it appropriately, there could be a market.

    • You’ve touched on something in #2 but not quite crystalized it: there is value in originality. The reason why copies are not worth anything is because the novelty factor is gone; they are merely imitations.

  20. Excellent post Ming! Like many of your other commenters, I too share a strong affinity with the first (iPhone) image and believe it to be a most beautiful work of art.

    With regards to the question of the value of a deliberately limited print run of your images, I am not personally interested in possessing any work of art (or anything in general) for its dollar value and/or its relative rarity. However, I mean no disrespect to you or any other artist/artisan.

    If I choose to own and showcase art in the rooms I frequent (of which sometimes I do), it is solely to serve as pointers to the unchanging reality (David Bohm’s implicate order) via these viewsheds on the delusion and transience of this manifest world (David Bohm’s explicate order), such that the art may help to free me from the perceptual prison of these rooms. To obsess over any one work of art (especially on its value and rarity) at the expense of living right here, right now, in this present moment is akin to an addict neurotically returning to their maladaptive habits day after day after day. Yet, when art becomes a pointer to that which is deeper within our Self, then its akin to more of a visual mantra that reminds us to know beyond the delusion.

    I believe art is a wayfinding tool we use, in its due place and time, as we dissolve into complete liberation of mind. I also believe art is a co-creative process in the formation and evolution of our social world. Thus, art is a double-edged sword that dances as both a creative and a destructive force. When art becomes a material possession to own and cherish, it moves from art as symbol (of the nonduality of object and subject) to art as object (with relative value tenuously dependent on the whims of its subject).

    In summary, I would rather support YOU, the artist, than to latch onto any singular glimpse of your ever-changing view of reality. Sure, I could support you through the purchase of a rare, expensive copy of your work…or I could support you through visiting this website, contributing to the inevitably thought provoking dialogue which ensues, and saving my disposable income for one of your teacher/student opportunities (e.g., email school, videos, workshops, etc.).

    In a sense Ming, you are already the creator and curator of one of the finest art (photography) museums of the 21st century…it just happens to exist in cyberspace! I would rather be anywhere in the world peering through the frame of a digital screen into the depths of your images (and the breadth of your words) as they actively arise, than standing in a room, looking through frame of a static print, hung on a wall, stuck in time…

    “There are painters who transform the sun to a yellow spot, but there are others who with the help of their art and their intelligence, transform a yellow spot into the sun”
    ― Pablo Picasso

    Ming, my friend, YOU are the priceless work of art who paints with light so that we may all be illuminated! Thanks for your guidance in both image and word.


    P.S. As an artist and a resident of England from your physics days at Oxford, you should watch this recent, critically acclaimed, documentary about the famed British street artist named Banksy. It is an outrageous and mind bending meditation on the process, purpose, and value of art. It’s highly relevant to this post!

    Exit Through the Gift Shop

    • That’s an interesting idea: support the artist. I don’t think many subscribe to this, but it does make sense.

      As much as I do enjoy creating, curating and engaging in discussion, the reason the prints and workshops and videos exist is because it all somehow has to pay for itself – time I spend writing isn’t time that I can bill to a client, and unfortunately my digestive system can’t subsist on raw files! 🙂

      My biggest problem with the online gallery – for now, perhaps not so much in the future – is that the viewing experience is not controlled; there is no way I can ensure that what you see is what I see. Size, monitor type etc. all play a big part; at least with a print, I can have a bit more influence over that. Color and tonality matter – essentially, that’s what we change most of the time in processing our raw files, and I’m sure you’ll agree it makes a huge difference. Until that point…I’m afraid printing is still the way to go.

      Banksy: I’ve seen that documentary, actually. And I’m still trying to figure out how he actually makes an income. 😛

      • “That’s an interesting idea: support the artist. I don’t think many subscribe to this, but it does make sense.”

        This is, to me, the single most important statement in any discussion about creative endeavours and the consumption thereof. Whatever economic/philosophical//critical/technical/whateveral stance you choose to adopt in questions of art, and its enjoyment, the bottom line is that. If you like something, and accept that it improves your life to some degree, then support the creator of it. This has never been more important than where we are now societally and technologically. Digital creation and delivery can be great liberators, or great suffocators, of creativity and its’ enjoyment. It can be the catalyst to regression to the mean, or the path to artistic evolution. Sadly, it often feels that suffocation and regression is proving more dominant than liberation and evolution. If people do not support artists (which is actually easier to do now than ever) then the creation of new works will diminish, initially in quality, and then in quantity, and that would be tragic.

        • Ironically, propagation is what’s resulting in the suffocation. I can’t explain it, but I suspect it has something to do with saturation/ overflow/ overload and increasing difficulty in standing out.

      • Those are excellent points about the artistic benefits to both the creator and the consumer via a fully controlled workflow from image to print. I completely understand and agree with your need to generate these artistic products and services. And I already have and plan to continue supporting your site through donations and/or your various fee-based educational materials 🙂

        I guess for me, the portion that I am personally not concerned about is the need for any of my purchased and possessed art to be rare…unique and original in its content, yes…but limited in its distribution and consumption, no. A college dorm glossy poster isn’t cheap because its widely available but rather because its cheaply made (always in its physical printed form and often even in its artistic form). Your work is different at every stage of that equation and thus has value because of its quality and the care given by its creator…even if its widely available. I fully realize there are others who feel differently, and thus comes the value in your limited runs. I am just incredibly grateful that you make much of your amazing art and perspective available for the masses via this site.

        Eating raw files…now that would be a talent 😉

        • Thanks for the support!

          I think art has to be both rare and accessible: people have to know about it to appreciate it, but like any commodity, value per unit goes inversely proportional to volume. If the Mona Lisa only existed as a print, and those were unlimited, there’s no way there would be one behind bulletproof glass at the Louvre, etc. Photographic works are necessarily different to this; I think a handmade optical print might qualify in the limited category, but regular digital prints – even super high grade ones – are easily to reproduce in identical copies. And that limits the commercial value – unless the photographer happens to also limit the absolute number (but paradoxically, not the access – via web jpegs or whatever). The problem with this of course is that it’s very difficult for most people to appreciate the actual finished work because the viewing experience they get is very different to the intention fo the photographer.

          Leica M9s have a habit of eating raw files with the right (wrong?) SD card…

  21. And let me add this: If you’re an artist, you know what is art and what isn’t. Someone else may disagree with you. But, if you are a confident artist, those disagreements will not dissuade you.

    Yes, you can learn from others’ comments on your technique. And you can also learn from others’ comments about the nature of art.

    But if you’re an artist–well, remain true to the spirit that speaks within you. That is what counts.

  22. Just a few random thoughts –
    Art is like the judge said about pornography, you know it when you see it.
    Art can be defined as such by the artist but must be defined so by others to be recognized as art by society.
    In contradiction to the above, what if half the people see it as art and the other half think it’s junk?
    One of the most germane things said in the discussion is how the “power elite” of art (museums, critics, the wealthy, etc.) decide what is good art and what is not.
    I will forever think that Szarkowski owned a cache of Eggleston prints before he gave him the MOMA exhibition and declared “The Tricycle” as great Fine Art Color Photography. (Sorry to offend Eggleston fans – I just don’t see it.)
    What puzzles me is how some photography is just obviously great art – many of the WPA photographs (Lange, etc.), Weston, Eliot Porter, Brassai, Cartier-Bresson, etc., etc. Why is it so obvious?
    Others are not so obvious to me – Robert Frank, for example – but he is so revered I guess I’m just missing it.
    A real eye-opener for me was how I experienced Jackson Pollock – I had seen photographic reproductions of his paintings and thought he was another modern art “poseur” with no substance. Then I visited my brother in New York and saw one of his paintings in a museum – probably MOMA. I was literally stunned by how beautiful it was and by the incredibly chaotic control it required to produce it. And yet I know there are people of good taste and good will who just do not “get” Pollock (or much of modern art for that matter).
    A part of me believes that technical skill “should” be a part of the equation – but I know that serious artists have been fighting that idea for a long time (the peed-in bathtub, for example).
    Maybe the problem is that we are trying to define ART as a unitary thing. Maybe, like intelligences, there are many arts – beautiful but shallow decorative art (much of Art Nouveau), conceptual art, fine technically superior art, emotional art, contemplative/meditative art, rebellious art, persuasive propaganda art, religious art, spiritually elevating humanistic art, etc., etc.
    And if so, all these Arts would have different criteria as to whether they were “successful” or not – for example, conceptual art would be judged on the strength of the ideas, not on technical skill or beauty (that’s what actually is done, I think). Rebellious art would need to be iconoclastic (e.g. Dada), etc.
    Well, a guest has arrived and I have bored this forum sufficiently. Thanks for listening, those of you who made it through.
    I’ve enjoyed the conversation.
    Aloha, Stephen.
    (And yes, the original photo is art to me – it’s beautiful and it gives me a peaceful feeling when I look at it.)

    • Art is subjective: you may get some things others don’t, and vice versa. I know I don’t like the looseness and haphazardness of Winogrand, for instance; he didn’t even curate most of his work. That’s the complete opposite to how I operate as a photographer; I curate everything to death several times simply because nobody judges the work they don’t see.

      Skill only matters insofar as it helps us to execute our ideas – if you can do that, then you have enough skill. If you can’t, then you don’t. Or perhaps the idea itself isn’t solid enough.

      Success is down to the interpretation of the viewer: do you like it, or not? Nothing more, nothing less.

    • Stephen, I had much the same experience with Pollock at the MOMA, though I did admire his work before just from books, but the impression they make in real life is overwhelming. Actually, that whole floor of MOMA is just overwhelming. I tried to see it all in one afternoon, but my brain just shut down from overload. There were all the Picassos, and that Monet Lily Pond triptych that spans a whole wall? OMG.

      Anyway, I think Pollock is a great example of someone who only shows you his best work, much like what Ming and others have been trying to tell us novice photographers to do. People have compared paint splatters done by chimps to his work, but they don’t get it. His technique may have been random, but his selection of his final work (he was famous for destroying his own work) is a very deliberate process.

  23. Hi Ming,
    I’m a little late with this, bit I have to thank you for your reviews on the new Olympus OM-E M1. I had been trying to decide whether to buy the E M-5 or the E-P5, had chosen the E- M5 but was disappointed that Olympus hadn’t combined the best of both cameras. The night before I was going to order the E M-5 I received your blog on the new OM-E- M1 and realized that God had heard me through you. This is what I was looking for! What timing. B&H will get richer, but my order will be coming via your link. Thank you.
    Lee Metcalfe

  24. Thank you Ming for writing an article about photography and art, while not mentioning Richard Prince, Jeff Koons, nor Thomas Kinkaid. 😉

    • Hah! Well, I did like Koons’ work on the BMW M3 GT, but then again it might just have been the BMW M3 GT – which in itself is a work of (mechanical) art…

    • Larry’s brother and Thomas Kinkade [this guy, Gordon?] are not the same person, are they?

      • I realize that Larry’s surname is “Kincaid,” Gordon wrote “Kinkaid” and I linked to “Kinkade.”

        It’s all very confusing. Coffee!

        • Well, I was trying very hard not to mention that successful commercial painter, Thomas Kincade, or however you spell it. He would have to be used as some kind of counter example. I never liked the type of paintings he made, but commercially speaking, when most painters and other artists (think of those poor writers, lowest median income of all) are struggling to make a living, you have to admire Kincade’s success. We are not related. But I can still remember my brother complaining about potential customers saying they liked a painting, “Could you do it again with a color that matches my couch and curtains?” Enough said.

          • Back ten or so years ago, I dated a woman who was in the midst of a divorce. She told me that she was adamant about one thing: not giving up their Thomas Kinkade print.

            She had some excellent attributes, which I (being a parfait gentilhomme) will not further describe. But Thomas Kinkade?

            That was pretty much a deal-breaker. I tried not to let it affect me, but I just couldn’t imagine living my life with someone who admired Thomas Kinkade.

            • hahaha

            • I’m starting to think that perhaps the current horrible HDR tonemapping trend is at least partially his fault.

              • Hah! Thomas Kincade started odd dual light sources and HDR. 😀

                • I keep sighing inwardly at the initials ‘HDR’ (poor bugger who happens to actually be called, say Howard Dwight Roark). It should be an invisible way of fitting more input dynamic range into an intermediate capture device with less, and then on to help you allocate it out to a limited output medium. It isn’t. Instead people make it like a very over sharpened acid trip. /rant off.

            • Son of a….! Son of, you just made me snort coffee out of my nose!!!

              I bet she collected Hummels too….mmmmmm…..Hummelsssss

              • My god: You nailed it, Ian: she did have a Hummel by her bedside. (She may have had others, but I tended to make a beeline past the stuff . . .) I had forgotten about it. It was small, so it was easy to overlook. But Kinkade? The Painter of Tripe?

                And I hadn’t thought of it before, but yes: Kinkade’s works do share some of the qualities of the weird HDR stuff I see.

          • Well, at least we can now take a photograph of the painting and have at it with the HSL tool – “Certainly, sir, and because that will be the only one ever made in that shade, it will be a limited-exclusive and thus a little more expensive.” [accompany with the sound of a cash register]. Welcome to modern commercial photography!

            • Brilliant!!! Would just have to make sure every hue shift was either in different pixels, or a slightly different value…thats alot of permutations!!! CHA-CHING!

  25. Another interesting–and very old–topic, with interesting comments as usual on this site. At points, history and economics (supply and demand) tried to enter the conversation, but without much resolution. I think the question about what is art has nothing to do with the marketplace or speculators attempts to make money, so that’s a dead end. Paintings can be reproduced ad infinitum with the same cameras we are talking about. Yet, I’ve never seen a poster or book of paintings that looked even close to the actual painting I just saw on the wall minutes earlier. This is especially true of Gauguin, not even close. And remember, museums in Florance have been restoring many paintings that had become hopelessly dirty over time. That means no one living ever saw tthe original colors of the painting! Museums banned professional tripod cameras after they discovered copies of their painting being sold as high quality photographs. Why would they care if they are only just photographs. All some kind of economics: they wanted to sell their photographs of their paintings. So much for exclusivity. Moreover, I really like Renoir’s famous (most valuable too?) painting, Luncheon of the boating party, 1881, but never could find any photographic reproduction that reproduced the colors well. Okay, it’s not impressionist, but not realist either. Somewhere in between, but incredibly compelling art. And a story/scene I would simply like to jump into myself and have a glass of wine. Invented, I suppose, but he must have seen many scenes like this: no one posed for it, no photographs as reminders. An unique: no one had ever seen this exact image before. Forget economics here. The impressionists were not allowed in the exhibits of the time because they were not doing real art (classic, and repros of classic literature and biblical stories), just common scenes anyone could see for themselves. When allowed in, the press and public made fun of them. Yet they persisted because they were artists (“Dad – art is whatever artists do!” from above, and correct.). Economics, horrible. Renoir had to almost beg for loans to keep eating at times, forced to do portraits to support his other paintings. How we forget that: wedding photographers, portrait photographers, industrial photographers, the list goes on . . . many if not all of whom do ttheir own personal (art) photography on the side. How lucky were the ones who bought these impressionist paintings on the cheap, now worth millions. So, again it’s not economics.
    So, what happened next is that I stumbled on a very high resolution photo of my “boating party” painting. I downloaded it and adusted the color on photoshop, then printed one for my wall at 12×18 with my Epson printer. I now “own” the painting, and for all I know Renoir might like these restored colors better than the original one hanging in the gallery somewhere. There’s more. Nothing tto stop me today from taking my digital image and having it reproduced as a painting. Ah ha. Paintings are no longer one of a kind, and I am free to take any of my own photos and have them reproduced on canvas with oil paints. And sell it once. Saving or destroying the digital file is the same thing if I don’t let anyone else have it, forever. So, forget all of these differences. Still, what makes my photo (on paper or canvas) art?

    My brother is a painter (artist) who used to teach art. His students were obsessed with this question. So, not just photograph, any art form faces the same question. He had not answer for them except one: art is what is accepted and shown in art museums. He could have added the “that artists did” from above, but not necessary. The students would not accept such a cynical answer. The question was provoked by a current exhibit in San Antonio of the latest fashion in “realistic art.” (again, not just a photography issue). One of the exhibits was a statue of a woman in real clothes that was so realistic that anyone walking around the corner would say, “excuse me, miss.” So, my brother simply made up a sign for himself that said something like, “Man in the here and now.” (my invention. He went to the gallery, stood next to the statue of the woman and placed the sign on the floor. Of course, a crowd gathered to see what all the fuss was about. Eventually the gallery director, who he knew, but unimportant. What’s important is that the director agreed to add him to the exhibit of “realistic art.” The press covered it; national public radio interviewed him for 5 minutes about it and broadcast it nationwide. The organizer asked him to travel to another city with the rest of the exhibit. The students were impressed but not satisfied either. Realistic art went on to establish it’s place in the history of art. “Art is what artists do and get to show in galleries and collected in museums.” Well, today that applies quite well to museums and galleries all around the world. My own personal definition is that good photography “exposes the unfamiliar and redefines the familiar.” Snapshots are all the same but with different backgrounds.

    • Larry, my brain has imploded slightly after reading that. But I agree with your points: economics alone cannot define art; and never will. Art created purely for economic benefit lacks the integrity and purity of idea that makes it art (unless ‘greed’ perhaps can be encapsulated and communicated as a pure idea in itself). Communicating the difference: that, on the other hand, hits the mark.

    • Morning Larry,

      Nice post. I like the point about the Florentine restorers: it’s a familiar one to photographers, too. We often get bogged down in “but is it that? / what’s really real though?” type questions [which have convinced me that photography, perhaps any endeavor ultimately, is just part of the continuing dialog between our consciousness and its grip on the plastic concept of “reality”—never gripable because that’s something akin to a hand holding itself]


      Snapshots are all the same but with different backgrounds

      Was a nice line. But sounds a bit like structuralism and carries the whiff of lefty academia to me [nothing wrong with that: I’m a MASSIVE fan of the French writers of the 60s, all with political and philosophical outlooks of this stripe]. Think structuralist literary criticism, etc. But this said, I agree with the line. And I think this is why snapshots are a very valid art form. The easiest shorthand I can think of is music: think Jazz, or the Blues.

      There is a fixed canon of songs that every player plays. The art comes out in how they play it. I’ll take R.L Burnside’s “Stag-o-lee” over Muddy Waters. I’ll take Thelonius Monk’s “Ruby My Dear” over Chick Corea’s, etc. And often, to pick up on Eric’s mention of John Cage, I once heard Eric Clapton speaking about guitar solos say: “Blues is about the notes you don’t play.”

      Taken to the extreme, that would imply total silence!
      [standing on stage with a guitar, poised to pluck a string, is he going to do it? now? no. Now? no. Now? no. Now? no.. etc, etc 🙂 ]

  26. I am not a photographer, I take photographs as a hobby to calm down and to try to express something that I am not succesful yet to transmit. But certainly I decide when, to my taste, a photograph is just a skill (perfect sunny 15 rule, exposure, use of perspective, etcetera) or is an art (communicate something you discover with the photographer seeing the image in a way that words cannot describe)

    I say I am not a photographer because I don’t know so much to decide if that photographer is just skillful or a plenty artist. I think several of your photographs are art because I don’t think in your camera but in the message or the discovering, sometimes I have a satori with your photographs. And in the case of Andreas Gursky I also feel his photography as an art, perhaps because I am architect and I understand what’s happens, I can understand several layers of ideas seeing his photographs or urban landscapes or urban situations… If his photographs worth one million I don’t know, there are so amazing paints and jewels from thousand years ago in my country, not do by artisans in these days in Peru, but for designers with teams to built their dreams, that forms of arts sometimes are sold to low prices. But that doesn’t means that art is less art, just that the public is not educated to pay a fair price, usually the people in this level doesn’t buy the art but the name. And if the artist is dead much better lol.

    • “…communicate something you discover with the photographer seeing the image in a way that words cannot describe.”

      How about this: the artist helps you see something you wouldn’t have seen otherwise?

      • Suppose I build an object and impart to that object some beauty above-and-beyond what was necessary for function. The object’s user perceives and experiences the beauty of the form that was created. Say, a watch, for example.

        Some would say there is ambiguous blending of the roles of a craftsman and artist in such a situation. I might hope the artist part is legitimate and evident. I’m not so sure that I am helping the user see an “idea” she wouldn’t have otherwise seen but I am sure that in such a role I’m quite intentionally working to impart beauty that can be experienced.

        • Craftsmanship and artistry are definitely a continuum; there’s a point. At which function is sufficient and anything more is decorative. Whether that decoration is to taste or not is personal…

  27. I have been rereading “The Art Spirit” (1923) by the great art teacher and painter Robert Henri. The book begins with these assertions: “Art when really understood is the province of every human being. It is simply a question of doing things, anything, well. It is not an outside, extra thing.”

    I think that Henri had a vision of art as being absolutely democratic. And I agree with him. He had no patience for critics more focused on externalities than on the vision of the artist captured in the artwork.

    When I first read Henri (back in the early 1990s), his words struck me as being true. Now, they strike me as being even more true.

    So, yes, I think that all of the images here are art. And I’d love to have captured any of them–the first and the third especially.

    I don’t care for Gursky’s work–but I’ve never seen it in person, which might alter my judgment of it. As for what people pay for particular artworks: de gustibus non est disputandum. I could wish that someone like Neko Case or Lavay Smith or Zoe Muth was as rich and popular as Britney Spears.

    H. L. Mencken observed long ago, “No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.” I would add that the word “plain” here is entirely unnecessary and even inaccurate.

    Finally, I would observe that, at this time, it’s very difficult to say how things will ultimately be received. “Moby-Dick” was hardly a critical or popular success on its publication. And the works of the horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, long considered a hack by many, have been republished in recent years by Penguin, the Modern Library, and even the Library of America. I’m something of a fan of Lovecraft. Still, I have to say in regard to some of these publications: go figure. By contrast, Pulitzer Prize winners of the same era are now completely forgotten.

    I’m not much of an artist. I don’t have anything like the technical chops or composition eye of the talented Ming Thein. But I’ll just go on, trying to do my best to find and document the bits of beauty with which, it seems to me, the world is completely awash, so long as we will try to see it.

    • It is simply a question of doing things, anything, well. It is not an outside, extra thing.

      Agreed. But in order to do things well, the reason/ idea/ rationale for doing the thing must be clear in the first place: if not, how can one do it well, or do it at all?

      This brings up another point: the better you are at doing something, the fewer people are able to recognize it – you cannot understand how to drive an F1 car if you’ve never even seen a tractor, etc. So I suppose there is an ‘optimal level’ for competence…beyond which you are only satisfying yourself, at best.

      Thank you for the compliments. 🙂

    • Amazing post Son of…

      Just wanted to thank you for it

    • I am totally with you Son of Sharecroppers (if that IS your real name!! 😛 ) on Neko Case (Fox Confessor = an all time favourite album of mine) and Lavay Smith. I can recommend Bernadette Seacrest 1st 2 albums (when she was operating out of San Francisco rather than Atlanta…her original band had a kick ass double bass man and baritone sax) and Clare Fader. Also as a Neko fan maybe Jesse Sykes (album “Oh, My Girl” is my favourite of hers, and Shannon McNally’s live album “North American Ghost Music” has some corking moments on it. We need to compare record collections and share recommendations some time 🙂

      • Jesse Sykes is superb–another great musician out of the Seattle area! My heart still beats most strongly for “Reckless Burning,” which I like to listen to on cold, rainy evenings.

        I met Neko Case in November 2002 at a gig in Seattle. She is an incredibly talented artist. My favorites remain “Furnace Room Lullaby” and “Blacklisted,” but they’re all great–including the new CD.

        You can find me through my blog ( or email me at dgunter57, which is through

        I’ve checked out your Flickr work: great, great stuff. I’m just a hack hobbyist.

      • Also, thanks for the recommendations. I’ll check them out!

  28. Artists in various print media have been dealing with reproducibility for some time now and your reputation as an artist depends on your honesty in your dealings. If you say that you are producing an edition of 3 and only 3 prints, then it is your responsibility to make sure that is the case. There is no need to destroy the raw file, Jeff Wall for instance will remake a work if the original is destroyed in a fire for instance, but will rename it as edition 2 or something like that. Sure there are unscrupulous artists that try and scam people but once found out their careers are over.

    • That has happened in the watch industry too – limited editions of 10 or 20 pieces have sold out, then the company or watchmaker re-issued another batch with very slight alterations to keep things ‘technically’ different – needless to say, collectors voted with their wallets. Unfortunate for the first group of buyers, though.

  29. Art, for better or for worse, will always be defined by the whims (and the ebb and flows) of its audience.

    Take the famed composer John Cage, as an example, he’s literally recorded several minutes of silence, as one of his controversial works. Does it sound like art or music to me? No. Does it capture an idea? Perhaps… I don’t understand it. But for those musicians “in the know”, they praise John Cage very highly for his craft.

    I think that you’re completely right that the “ease of capture” in digital photography has damaged the perception of photography as an art form. On the other hand, it could be seen as a positive. In a sea of “sameness”, the bar is raised for photographers work harder to create and visualize “works of art”.

    In regards to scarcity, I personally don’t believe that scarcity should be one of the factors in terms of determining what is or isn’t art. Ansel Adams prints are still widely appreciated, and they are duplicated and resold ad infinitum… Monetary value, IMHO is a separate matter.

    • Doesn’t this mean that it boils down to a) the idea; b) the ability to communicate that idea to others; c) the ability to execute it – I suppose tying in with b). Perhaps Cage’s silence worked because music can be viewed as the absence of noise in certain frequencies; b) nobody thought of it before, and c) certainly nobody did it, or much less try to sell it.

      And I’m sure part of it is the artist having to go through the ‘conventional’ or ‘understood’ route first in order to justify to the public – at least on the face of it – why he or she is doing something unconventional…

      • I’m still digesting the article and comments to try to say something useful, but FWIW, our local symphony (the Los Angeles Philharmonic) is opening their kickoff gala concert with 4’33”. Gala concerts are usually programmed with fizzy, popular warhorses because a lot of people who don’t normally go to concerts go to these things, and the organization is trying to extract maximum dollars from their donors. Anyway, it’s a brave choice, and since it could be scored for any number of instruments, some people are wondering if the whole orchestra will just sit there for over 4 minutes.

        I think 4’33” today is kind of a stunt, but in its day, it asked a very important question, “What is music?” I think art has to say something that only it can say, and sometimes that makes good art unexplainable in any other medium, including words … sort of like that saying that a picture is worth a 1000 words.

        About 5 years after 4’33”, Paul Taylor, one of the pioneers of modern dance, did a piece in which the curtain went up, and two dancers were completely still for 4 minutes, and the curtain came down. I think the man (Taylor himself) was in a business suit, while the woman, sitting down, was wearing a typical housewife’s dress for the 1950s. Even better was the review of the piece in one paper the next morning: 9 square inches of empty space.

        And an interesting comparison between paintings, drawings, photos, and the performance arts (eg. music performance, dance). You can’t really own performance art, and you have to be present in the moment to experience it. Even recordings don’t quite capture the same spirit of performance, and some, like Glenn Gould, would argue that a recording is in and of itself a different kind of performance art than giving a live concert.

        Anyway, since you can’t really hang these kinds of arts on your wall, I wonder if there is less of an economic distortion of these arts’ value than something like a painting or photo. I’m not sure any donor has ever bragged about how much he paid for the production of an opera, which can well exceed what people have paid for Gurskys and Egglestons, though many have insisted on funding mediocre productions (“I’ll give you $x million if you do this particular show.”), but at least these things don’t hang around forever like a photo or painting.

  30. “if I was to offer a series of prints which would only ever be printed a small and fixed number of times – say only one or two copies would be made in any size or medium – and subsequently delete the original files or destroy the negatives to remove the ability to make another identical reproduction of the same quality (you can’t do a 30×30″ from a web jpeg, obviously) – how much greater would the value be than if I made 20 prints in one size, and kept the original file or negative? Would this be something of interest to my readers? MT”

    It depends if you are alive or dead, Ming 🙂

  31. David Beaton says:

    I recall a conversation I (an engineer with little artistic aptitude) had with my daughter (then a fine art student specializing in photographing objects in and through ice!). It was about 15 years ago and the old subject of ‘what is art’ arose in conversation. Her casual response to this deep question was “Dad – art is whatever artists do!” My take on this is that the end product is art if that is what you want it to be . Whether others would think it good, insightful or valuable art is an entirely different question. I found this answer strangely satisfying and never felt the need to pose the question again. Just my 2 cents.

    • That’s pretty deep, actually: unquestionably, we as the artist has to be convinced of the value of the work – otherwise, how could we ever convince anybody else?

  32. Gary Kopacek says:

    Hi Ming, thanks for another thought-provoking post.

    1. “Is this image art? Why or why not?” I believe art has to move the viewer (or reader or listener) in some way, since I believe the purpose of art is to communicate the artist’s feelings or thoughts to other people. If the image moves many people or moves people strongly, it has more artistic quality. What causes it to move them is a separate question. Art isn’t about being it’s about doing.
    2. “If I was to offer a series of prints which would only ever be printed a small and fixed number of times … how much greater would the value be than if I made 20 prints in one size, and kept the original file or negative?” This depends upon the artistic quality of the images as defined in 1. above.
    3. “Would this be something of interest to my readers?” Yes, and the degree of interest will depend upon how much they are moved by the images.

    • Sensible and pragmatic answers, thanks!

      Ultimately it still boils down to subjectivity of choice: what moves me might not be what moves you, and even if it is, both of us might decline to hang it on our walls: think of the paintings made with elephant dung. Shock value that moves us – yes – would I pay for it? No.

      • Gary Kopacek says:

        Well, yes, Ming, you have chosen a certain type of example. I would submit that even shock can be art, since we can find examples of “shock art” in art museums, and they probably did pay for it. But my point goes more to the wide range of other qualities we have inside us that we may wish to communicate to others through photography. The full spectrum of joy, pain, sympathy, anger, love, tenderness, competition of sports, fear and dismay of war, innocence of a child, lines of life in the face of an elderly person. The fabric of life is waiting to be expressed and, if done well it becomes art that others appreciate and may pay for. I suggest that photographic art, like other art, is about the doing and the emotions that define us, more than it is about the objects that surround us.

  33. Right! Can I triumphantly trot in here like a strutting Lipizzaner stallion. Because it seemed liked Dan’s great posts have chimed with a lot of stuff I’ve previously written [in about ten times the length and with a tenth of the acuity].

    Great posts Dan. Great article and replies Ming. Great work everyone. But back to getting my prance on:

    To answer your first question the answer simply comes back to you. Do you think this is art?

    I’ve held forth about faith, belief, art being religious in nature, yada yada, and all things, reality itself included, being reflexive—self-reflexive. My schtick; we all know it by now. So, yes. YES. Dan’s response is the only response there can be. I’m not sure if we’re all waiting for some James Earl Johnson voice to boom from the sky and break down “what is art?” for us. Or, if we expect some art-world version of Einstein to offer up an explanation, thus far unavailable, that will make everyone slap their knees and go “Ah yes! So that’s what it was!” They won’t, and this game will never end.

    ==> art/not art because I say it is; art/not art because we say it is.

    The dynamic evolving [not revolving] opposition and synthesis of these two. G.F. Hegel knows what I’m on about—he called it Spirit.

    My next Lipizzaner strut:

    [Great] art needs no explanation

    Art is just the faith that there’s more to a one liner. The work is the one liner**. Ever tried explaining a joke to someone who didn’t get it? How did that work for joke.. It’s like going from Prophoto RGB to sRGB, some things can’t be said. The art is its own language already—there’s no explaining, translating to do. If there is, learn to tell better jokes.

    ** this recognizes the the work alone is not the sum total and all the “art” at hand

    But my triumphant procession has to stop here…

    If we simply correlate money and artistic value, Brittany Spears is a musical prodigy, and Andreas Gursky is the most important individual to pick up a camera

    No, I think Dan set up his line to make a point which remains only rhetoric, to me. When we say “musical prodigy” the phrase intentionally conjures Dave Beefoven wigged children in little outfits — stockings and ruffs and crushed velvet half-pants, shoes with buckles on them, etc — at the piano, laying on a concerto while an authoritarian Dad sternly watches on in the background like a prison guard. But anyway, forget the Dad, recall the kid: that’s what the phrase “musical prodigy” paints. And I think Dan knows this. I’ll grant you that Brittany was a product of the Hitler Youth, sorry, the Kid’s Disney system, but “musical prodigy” has never been the image for or the word for her; and she was never marketed that way. It’s plain to withdrawn uninterested adults that Bridney was “entertainment.” All the way. Showbiz. E! News fodder. Not chess games and little Mozart.
    But, and here’s the reversal—prove to me that Brittney spears wasn’t a musical prodigy. And be hermeneutic. Do it on today’s terms, as you should, since it is today and Britt is a product of today and contemporary culture. I think — and I did think about it for a minute or two — The Spears is a prodigy of sorts. Our prodigy. The restoration men and women, the royal courts of Europe and etc., had their Mozarts… we sit on sofas and munch Cheetos and mouth breath, and we have Brittney. There’s no good or bad, it is what it is.
    [Though I can’t write it neutrally, my disdain for Brittney and the cultural enterprise she represents prevents me.]

    Same with Gursky. We all know what his work fetched. These times, of any times!, are the times where that fits likes a glove. Why isn’t Gursky the most important individual to pick up a camera? From my perspective, right here and now, he certainly may well be. Money talks.

    I’ll hold my tongue here for today, I think. I’m a bit knackered and not really up to the level everyone is commenting at. Some AAA GOLD comments here, thanks everyone. I’m enjoying the reading. I will sign off with my habitual contrarian-for-the-sake-of-it twang, a line from Madness, pop group — pop group? — pop group from the 80s, when it was still acceptable to form a musical group with ugly people you went to school with and practiced playing music a lot with. I was just too young to listen to Madness, but my oldest sister did. She was a bit of a fan. And she had a Madness tour t-shirt, white with black letters on it, they read:

    Fuck art
    Let’s Dance

    [These words should resonate with anyone with an artistic bone in their body]

    • First record I ever bought with my own money…the 12″ of Madness’ “One Step Beyond”!

      • Ha! You’re a scouser through and through, Ian. Top of the league. Hate you. But how does this square with you being NYer? Did you grow up in both cultures? When you dropped Terry Nutkins on me the other day I was so shocked—steel reeling actually. REFERENCE OF THE CENTURY.

        Good record though. To think young kids in freezing cold England were routinely exposed to organic, rich, meaningful [i.e., not created for the purposes of making money but created to make people happy/keep them occupied/express something] culture filtered through to them from the tropical beaches of Jamaica [or some other far flung place]… I don’t mind managed bands and music at all, but it has to be managing something that’s popped up all on its own devices. When corporate starts thinking they can even do the creative [in the raw sense of the word] step themselves too, the whole thing is a dead-end for me.

        I can’t actually remember the first record I bought with my own money. I do remember the first ever record I got though: Michael Jackson, Bad. A present from my Grandma for Christmas [I’m sure she just handed over some money to a record store clerk and asked for whatever the young kids listen to nowadays, etc]. I remember it because I was *so* disappointed and ungrateful for the present. When my Mum handed it over, I was like “ah? But I don’t like Michael Jackson!” It made sense in my juvenile head. It’s an albatross around the neck for the rest my adult days though. It’s always the small sins and transgressions that haunt us, don’t you think?

        The irony continues as — setting aside the disgusting stuff we learn about Michael and people’s children — I grew to very much appreciate the music and art of MJ. It lead me down the path to bona-fide Detroit soul music [motown] and classic R&B generally. From there Jazz, funk, and more. I can’t really listen to music anymore [long story, but a classic case of too much of a good thing being bad for you] but still have a very soft spot for the mix tapes of Marc Mac, for instance. A contemporary music producer who also loves the sound [the rugged sound that no modern person can ever do again] and collates the rarer oldies along the greats in a free podcast. I heartily recommend anyone to try a couple from the iTunes store. They are free so your motivation is the only barrier.
        [Unfortunately the earlier Marc Mac podcasts are no longer available, perhaps some kind soul has preserved them somewhere on the web for us—I have mine downloaded from when they were current, and while the newer episodes of his mixes and “soul arranger” series — collections of songs by the same arranger — are great, the older ones were better. Shame.]

    • Jorge Balarin says:

      Tom, could you not explain your ideas with less words and in a less “rococo” way ? : )
      I agree with you in a very important point; a work of art has “something” that doesn’t need explanation. The “scientific method” has not room when we talk about art. Science and reasoning will never answer some questions. Intuition could be a valid way of knowledge so useful as reasoning; however, we can not explain it rationally. The previous idea behind a good photo could be also a “previous feeling”, something so fast that at the “click” moment we coudn’t rationalize.

      A work of art transmits not necessarily a defined idea, but makes you feel something and makes you think about it. One thing is art, and another thing is “decorative or graphic art”. Of course, an artist must have technical skills to artistically express his thoughts and feelings. As history has proven many times, economic success at life moment not necessarily implies “long lasting and serious artistic value”. Greetings.

      • No need for inverted commas on Rococo, Jorge—it’s a real word and you’re really right, my internet voice was completely over the top there. For a start, I didn’t need “triumphantly” in that first line.

        But as my friend and teacher Flaubert said: exuberance is better than taste

        So the long posts are here to stay, I’m afraid. I don’t believe in “less is more.” Less is less, literally. So now you know my thoughts, I can return to yours and how good they are. And how I’d like more of them please!

        Thanks Jorge. Cheers 🙂

        • Jorge Balarin says:

          Thank you very much Tom for your sympathy. Lately really I’m needing to hear some kind words. Your ideas are very interesting and you are funny too. Greetings, Jorge.

    • Hi Tom,

      It’s art because we let people call it art. 😉

      • Hi Gordon!

        Ohhhh nohh it iizzzn’t!
        (–>Ohhh yes it izzz!


      • “It’s art because we let people call it art”: I think that we can shorten this observation to “It’s art because people call it art.”

        Or: “It’s art because some number of people call it art.” It is not the case that everyone has to call something “art” for it to be “art.”

        This is true not just of art but of many things. “Art” is just a term that gets draped over a wide variety of things (photographs, paintings, novels, films, etc.) and actions (dance in particular).

        I try to have a very democratic view of art. Does someone consider something art? Very well: it’s art. I may not like it (case in point, Thomas Kinkade), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t art.

        I’d also like to step away from intentionality in regard to art. Did Vivian Maier consider her street photography to be “art”? I have no idea. But I think that it is art of a very high order. I don’t need to know what Maier thought about her art to make that judgment.

        I don’t know what the cave painters of Auvignon thought about their works. Were they art to them? Were they magic? Did they have a term equivalent to “art”? I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter. I’m certain that the cave paintings are art–again, of a very high order.

        Of course, in my view, if a creator of a work considers that work to be art, then I believe that it is art. It may well be that most people would not agree. I can imagine an idiosyncratic individual creating a work that he or she alone considers to be art–one that every other person in the world would consider to be “not art.” In my view, that work would be art, even though it has an appreciative audience of one.

        And thus, in regard to the first photo above, I don’t know whether MT intended it to be art or not. The answer to that question would be interesting, but it is not essential for me. I look at it and see it as art; ergo, it is art.

        This approach may strike others as being hopelessly vague, a definition that is undefined: “Art is a thing that one or more persons use the word ‘art’ to describe.” But it strikes me that any other definition becomes hopelessly mired down in argument. There will always be some work (thing or performance) that will be the subject of debate–for example, Richard Prince’s rephotographs. (Or maybe the original Marlboro man photos weren’t art . . .)

        So I believe that, rather than debate what is or isn’t art, that we do two things:

        1. Debate instead why we like or dislike any particular piece of artwork; and

        2. Go out and try to fill the world with yet more art.

        P.S.: I don’t have the patience to go through Willard Van Orman Quine’s work on the indeterminacy of translation and his observation (which I am paraphrasing) that language is a net thrown over the world, and the world is always poking out awkwardly here and there. But that is my point: “art” is a term, and all terms are more or less inadequate to do the work that we expect them to do.

        • Yes SoS, I think, ultimately, that is as tidy and pragmatic a definition as can be had. It does rely on pragmatism, and open-mindedness, on the behalf of anyone buying into it as a definition – you can’t accept it as a definition but then try and justify individual exclusions.

          Its a pretty loose definition…alot of things will qualify on the grounds that the creator of the work, or someone perceiving the work, will call it art, therefore it IS art. So what?? Just because it has the label “art” attached to it, doesn’t really matter one jot to anyone else, unless they choose to buy into it (and it is ALWAYS a choice), and accept the label, and in doing so be enriched in some way (because feeling the need to label something art must mean that the labeller finds something of value in it, even if that value is potentially negative – eg to instigate discussion of controversial subjects, or contemplation of tabboos). To anyone else, its just a thing…of no import to their lives, there will be nothing for them to see there, they can move along. The only reason for someone who chooses NOT to label that thing as “art” to be negatively impacted by its existence is if those who choose to label it as art carry their opinion of it’s status with an air of self righteousness, and wield it like a sledgehammer, trying and impose their view on others in a confrontational manner. In that sense, it is like having a faith, or a sexuality, or a political belief. It only really needs to matter to those who express them, and those who agree with it/wish to share in it.

          That works for me as a way of dealing with the whole shabbang 🙂

        • I’d also like to step away from intentionality in regard to art. Did Vivian Maier consider her street photography to be “art”? I have no idea. But I think that it is art of a very high order. I don’t need to know what Maier thought about her art to make that judgment.
          I don’t think she thought it was art; but the way she did it certainly made it so: she did something because she wanted to, not for anybody else, until she was happy with the outcome. She made compromises for it. And in the end, I suspect part of the reason it’s recognized as such has as much to do with the scarcity factor and glimpse into a now inaccessible world to us. Anything that’s current and repeatable will not have the same perception. Will my travel/ street photos have the same impact in 50 years? Unknown, but unlikely due to the rapid explosion in the number of images. All I can do is try to stay visible.

          1. Debate instead why we like or dislike any particular piece of artwork; and

          2. Go out and try to fill the world with yet more art.

          Agreed! But in order to do #2: we need to have an answer to #1, both from our audience and within ourselves – and it’s the latter part that makes us (well, me, at least) pause and ask: ‘but is it art?’

          • Hi, MT,

            You say that “in order to do #2: we need to have an answer to #1, both from our audience and within ourselves.” Perhaps: but the answer may take shape only in the moment of making art. And the answer can be entirely inchoate. I think that the answer may be no more than “This is what I want to do.”

            With that said, I think that an artist can become a better artist by trying to identify his or her aesthetic principles. But sometimes you discover those principles only by doing. And sometimes you discover those principles by doing things that you aren’t really comfortable doing. Or sometimes one can discovery something by using a different tool.

            In short, I think that much of what we do is process.

            And I am reminded, too, that scientists studying consciousness tell us that we actually form intentions before they become conscious to us. Let’s say that I decide to lift my hand. By the time that decision is formed, the nerve fibers that will cause my hand to rise are already enervated. That layer of mind that I think of as me, as the “I,” the ego, is riding on other brain activity that is occurring before our “conscious” mind is operating.

            We know that our brains lie to us about what our eyes see: our eyes have narrow fields of sharp focus; we build an image because our eyes dart around very, very quickly (saccadic movement), and our brain stitches these sharp images together into a wide, deeply focused image. We know that our brains lie to us about the movements that we believe that we consciously direct. I suspect that, when we are engaging in the process of making art or even thinking about art, we are finding things out. Nothing is a priori.

            I’m really enjoying this discussion, by the way. It is being carried on at a very high level–and it is giving me much food for thought. Thank you!

            • Absolutely. It’s all process – part of creation is conscious realization, and that can’t happen unless you do it. Or even if it happens, it’s all theoretical until executed; inevitably reality deviates from the plan. Even in something like say, lighting – we plan the setup but still have to tweak it as we go along.

              And this is probably the only photography forum where we land up talking about psychology – the quality of participation is really quite outstanding.

            • On an unrelated note – I have to give you props for the Murakami reference in the name of your site. Kudos.

        • Son of…

          Doubt you’ll see this, but for posperity: W.O Quine is a reader immolating nightmare, isn’t he. I bought his “Word & Object” because I have a very soft spot for Quine holism and by extension his other ideas. I couldn’t get past fifty pages.

          Only ever happened to me twice with books:

          I) The Sense of an Ending, Frank Kermode

          II) Phenomenology of Spirit, G.F Hegel


          • I haven’t tried the Kermode or Hegel, so I can’t comment on them. “Word and Object” is very dense. I started with Alex Orenstein’s book on Quine and then read some of the shorter works (“Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” etc.) before tackling “Word and Object.” I remember reading aloud the first paragraph to my wife (now former wife). Well, I didn’t get through the full paragraph. She started yelling, “Stop! Stop!” before I finished it.

            When I read the book, I generally had the sensation that words were just passing before my eyes. I would reread paragraphs over and over, and they would begin to make some sense–sometimes.

            I took it down again and began looking into it. It is much easier reading now–not, I think, because I’m smarter, but simply because I had already read it.

            I’ve certainly been stumped by other works, though. Try Derrida.

            • Yes, or Foucault—he was tough going for me, I had a go on his History of Madness

              I think you’d probably enjoy Kermode [I’m sure you’d be better equipped to understand it, too]. I find the literary criticism writings of James Woods very gentle and interesting and easy to get along with. His How Fiction Works is one of my favorite books. Though I admit to a guilty pleasure in the lit. crit. of Mart—Martin Amis. I couldn’t get the taste for his fiction writings, but the reviews [once a regular appearance in the Literary section of the Sunday Times] are fun reads.

              But why were you into Word & Object, if you don’t ming me asking, Son…? Pretty deep stuff!

    • Success of work defined by commercial value? Very much in line with today’s times; and art is supposedly a reflection of that in some way. So yes, who’s to say Britney and Gursky aren’t both geniuses – they are certainly exceptional, and we’re talking about them right now.

      The more I read the comments and formulate replies, I think I’m coming to a distilled conclusion of my own: art is freedom of creative choice.

      Deciding to fuck it and dance would be creative choice too, and also art. So you can’t escape other than by being oblivious. 🙂

      • Freedom of creative choice? But that sounds like something you have rather than something you do, no?
        Art is this plus the ability [skill / tools / what have you] to realize the choice?

        The Let’s Dance line is good, a snazzy rewrite of the simpler, but equally as true, actions speak louder than words

        • In theory, yes, but most people aren’t aware of it nor do they exercise it: why do you think everybody forces themselves to sit in traffic jams a 8am and 6pm, for instance?

  34. We can debate photography as art, but there is no debating that you, sir, are an artist AND a genius, a rare blend of intellect and raw and refined talent and relentless drive. 🙂

    • Thank you – I’ll agree with the relentless drive bit, but the rest, hardly. I’m not poor or successful enough to be an artist recognized by society, and there are others far smarter and more talented than I 🙂

  35. My favourite discussion on “What is Art” comes from the TOP, back in 2010. Mike Johnston posted this article:

    This kicked off a massive discussion on “what is art” … which raged for a week until Mike posted this article, which is his idea of an answer to the question. I think it’s a great answer:

    [The “Sven” he mentions in the post is a another Sven, not me.]

    • I read that and felt somewhat disappointed by it, actually. Not to take away from Mike; he’s a great writer and equally compelling thinker. But I got the impression his conclusion was both too complex and too simple: art is whatever we deem it to be; something with message, suitable execution and a little bit different to what we normally see. At the same time – each of these things – message, execution, difference – is highly subjective and infinitely complex in its own right…

  36. I think, all camera-captured images – whether artistically contrived, seen, or based on the gritty reality before us, are, and will always be, categorised by the ‘art world’ as mere copies (snapshots) of limited monetary value – unless, ‘they’ say otherwise. By otherwise, I’m talking about photographs such as ‘The Pond/Moonlight, by Edward Steichen (1904) which recently sold for $2.9 million.

    Who, qualified Edward Steichen’s print of what is (subjectively speaking) a dreary, un-sharp, water-reflection of silhouetted trees as being worth three, brand new luxury Lear jets? Clearly, when it comes to financial matters, only ‘they’, can label a photograph as a ‘collectable masterpiece’ – worthy of serious financial investment.

    Other photographers whose work fails to attract the discerning eye of ‘serious collectors’ are all to often reminded with articles detailing the difference between the real thing, and a copy (photograph). We read snippets like; “What, in any case, qualifies as a ‘copy’? Consider a vintage Ansel Adams print, made at around the time the picture was taken, signed by the Master. If half a dozen exist (making it a ‘limited edition’), that’s still six copies: can you think of another, better word than ‘copy’?”

    Which brings me full circle with a nagging question remaining. Are, 99.9% of images captured by talented photographers valueless? To those in the art world, possibly. But to the business community, independent art galleries, editorial magazines, and so on, I think that great photographs, are invaluable – telling stories in ways that words alone can never quite convey.

    More importantly, are great photographers artists? Can the process of photography truly be considered a genuine art medium? Is, a 20 year old, crappy, faded, stained polaroid of a pink-painted brick really worth $50k? I guess the answer will always be, yes, – if ‘they’ say it is.

    Ultimately, do any of the above points matter? Does the pursuit of photography always have to revolve around accountancy terms such as ‘return on investment’ or; can we, as photographers, extract enough reward from sharing our vision, ability and talent with others to feel spiritually sated by our efforts? Tuff questions perhaps, considering the capitalist times we live in.


    • I think Steichen’s piece is not a fair comparison to say, Rhein II by Gursky already mentioned. Steichen’s was created in 1904, when the challenges facing photographers to capture scenes that would today seem simple, much more difficult (dynamic range, light sensitivity, resolution, required shutter times, etc). Because of its age, and the fragility of the original medium, it has scarcity value (as Ming has touched on earlier). Also, Steichen has a place in the history of photography for his body of work as a whole, which has stood the test of time (his Gloria Swanson image is instantly recognisable to many, even if they don’t know who took it, who the subject is etc). The likes of Gursky may go on to equal this stature,or may not…only time will tell. I also think that particular Steichen image is of a style that would have, in its day, fitted in to the broader artistic sensibility, with the impressionist, pre-raphaelite and art noveau movements all enjoying popularity, or starting to develop around this time, which would have given it wider appeal at the time possibly (and even today pieces of those styles are highly appreciated)? If I had $2.9m I would buy it…but not the Gursky…but thats just me!

      I definitely agree with your point though, just being pedantic (and defending on of my photographic heroes!)…ultimately “they” decide (the folks with the money), and no it doesn’t really matter to the average member of the public, or even to most artists operating at a much less “rock-star” level, which is the vast majority.

      What is important is that the middle ground is sufficiently appreciate and remunerated such that the folks with the talent can produce what the rest of us want – an image that makes our lives a little better. I hate to think of a world without this, even though, at then end of the day, art is a luxury and a privilege, not a necessity or a right. And I have to trust to the vast majority of my fellow man thinking likewise…as tough as it may get as a pro photographer in the years ahead, as it has been since the digital and social media revolutions, eventually there will be a re-evaluation and quality will win over quantity once more. Please, let it be so!

    • I think a Lear Jet is a bit more than $900,000. But I get the point. The people who decide are the ones with a) money and b) influence: they also have self interest. Nobody is going to buy at $2.9m then say it was rubbish!

      Plenty of photographic crap has value; just look at what passes in the commercial and wedding sectors these days. ‘Value’ for those having to make a living from it is anything they can sell for money. ‘Value’ to the independent creator – the hobbyist or the pro on holiday – is precisely as you define it: something that gives you satisfaction.

  37. Ming, I agree that reproducibility, or the lack of it in “original art,” is a key factor in why a painting or sculpture is going to be more valuable in most peoples’ eyes than a photographic work. I think there are other things at work here though. One is the general perception that photography is nothing special because everyone has access to it. The fact that nowadays everybody is “taking pictures” makes the medium “non-special.” It may not matter to most people that very few, regardless of how costly their equipment may be, do anything of real value or substance with the medium – it still seems much “easier.” Most people acknowledge you need tremendous talent to pick up a paint brush and oils and put something on a canvas that will even look like anything. However, cameras, well … everybody has one. It’s only those people who really delve into photography who are able to realize what a difficult art it is. Why is it so difficult? Perhaps because once you’ve mastered the technique of brush, oils, and canvas, you have the freedom to create whatever you want – a fantasy ride of your own making if you so desire. Not the case with photography – the constraints are much more rigid. You are limited by what is in front of you when you pick up your camera. If you have the skills, on canvas you can make your own light, however it pleases you. Still, most people can’t get out of that “just taking pictures” mentality. I heard an incredible lecture the other day on photographic portraiture. The photographer said when he approaches people to ask for permission he doesn’t say, “can I take your picture,” but rather “can I make your portrait.” Wow – what a different frame of mind. Also, he noted that he once had a chance to sit down with one of the acknowledged modern masters of photography (didn’t name him) and asked him how many photos he had taken in his life that he really considered could represent his contribution to photographic art. The answer was four. Well, if someone kept their eye to the viewfinder for a lifetime and only produced four works they considered worthwhile, how does that compare to say most master painters or sculptors, who certainly produce more than four masterpieces in a lifetime? Which should be more valuable?

    • “once you’ve mastered the technique of brush, oils, and canvas, you have the freedom to create whatever you want – a fantasy ride of your own making if you so desire. Not the case with photography – the constraints are much more rigid. You are limited by what is in front of you when you pick up your camera. If you have the skills, on canvas you can make your own light, however it pleases you. Still, most people can’t get out of that “just taking pictures” mentality”

      This is an important distinction between the artistic medium of paint and photograhy, Jeffrey, and is the reason I absolutely believe photography to be as credible an artistic medium as oil paint, or sculpture. Both come at image making from an opposite direction…the painter adds what he wants to add to the canvas to achieve their desired goal, given the skills they can create whatever their imagination allows them to. A photographer is given a “fully painted canvas” but has decide what to take out and how to present what is left within the parameters the original elements and their tools and skills allow them

      • Exactly, although I believe sometimes it is far harder to draw something of artistic value from “the fully painted canvas” than the one that begins empty!

    • Arguably, easy access should also mean easier appreciation: you still need a lot of talent to make a good photograph, consistently. And you’re right: you need even more to be able to originate and communicate an idea with it; you have a different set of restrictions to painting, say.

      If anything, quantity makes it even more difficult to find something you’d consider worthy of keeping for all time – I don’t even think I’ve got four images that’d fall into that category. It almost implies that you’re done evolving; I still like to believe the next image is going to be better than the one before it.

  38. I value what others think, but what is art is my own personal perception and preference; it is not based on others opinions.

  39. The starting image is art. (So are the others). The intention to create art makes it art. Commercial value and success is not tied to it. I even struggle with the concept that easy replication is fully (negatively) correlated. Some artist once exhibited a dirty bathtub in which he had urinated. Some people called it art, some saw value. It was part of a major exhibition. Many could have replicated it… Styles of sculptures and paintings are replicated by other artists (they still are, unless just copying). The originator may have become rich, or died poor – the replicators might die poor or get wealthy selling a certain style well (think expats in Vietnamese art galleries, as a cliche).
    How to monetize? Marketing. Get a truly grand (“gursky large?!”) print of the image into a corporate lobby and of course do not replicate it (sell to ‘the masses’ in smaller size, limited runs still as premium original). Replicate with other image and get an exhibition going. Take it from there… 😉
    At least you got the eye and the talent, unlike ( … ), or me.

    • Jorge Balarin says:

      I disagree with you Stephan, the intention to create art could fail completely; so the “intention” it’s not enough. Otherwise I would be a great artist : )

    • Thank you. As for the bathtub: is the bathtub itself the art, or the message the art? Even if somebody else could have peed in their bathtub, their inability to exhibit it and create discussion might result in different (i.e. no) impact.

      Talent and the eye do not correlate with commercial success. Marketing, on the other hand…

      • I agree talent and eye don’t correlate with commercial success, which is where marketing (the ability to connect and successfully communicate ideas outside the studio and create the opportunity and following) comes in. But without talent / eye it’s likely futile.

        I will have to dig out the detail for the bathtub, but it was an ordinary one, left / exhibited dirty.

  40. Perhaps a bigger question is “What Is Art”? I see thousends of images every week, and consider many to be art, but many more to be mere snapshots. Then I see a “Proper” piece of “Art” like Tracey Emmins Unmade Bed and sit there scratching my head, it’s not art to me, rather a piss take of the people that pay large amounts of money for such works. Art, like beauty is in the eye of the beholder,

  41. Nice article Ming, very interesting thoughts. As someone who doesn’t photograph professionally, I certainly consider photography an art form. Why? Because personally I try to create photos I like the look of. Nothing more, nothing less. I also like to look at photos by others that are aesthetically pleasing (at least to me).
    Of course, as you say, because anyone can take a photo, it’s very difficult to persuade the masses that it is an art form. The question is, do those who do not see photography as art, appreciate other types of art? Often they don’t, I’d say.

    • Because personally I try to create photos I like the look of. Nothing more, nothing less.
      I think that in itself is purity of intention, at the very least.

      …because anyone can take a photo…
      And here is the disconnect: just because you can take one doesn’t mean it says anything: people can speak, but it doesn’t necessarily imply that the words also have consequence.

      • Both very instructive comments

        I wonder what would happen if you passed cohorts of different people (based on socio-economic/cultural backgrounds for example) though a gallery of pieces hung equally sympathetically. The pieces should be of different mediums (eg photographs, oil paintings) and not iconic – preferably pieces new to the public eye, with equal representation between images created by established artists and hobbyists and perhaps even previsouly inexperienced. Ask them to document their responses as they go around, and have them go around several times to re-assess, before committing final thoughts to paper. I wonder whether there would be any consensus on assessments of quality, between popularity of medium vs content, etc

        Perhaps something like this has been done already…Thomas Liles…where are you?!

        • Oh and yes…it is art…it was created for no other reason than it inspired you to do so, and your intent was to convey this inspiration to others. It has no purpose other than this – though if it did this wouldn’t stop it being art, its just that art that is accepted as working in-and-of-itself, and not as part of some larger context, would appear to me to have realised its goal very successfully. For example, an image/item can become popularly hailed as art by virtue of public exposure to its intended commercial/fucntional guise. To be this successful though, it would likely still have to satisfy many of the criteria for “quality” (as far as such a thing exists) as a stand-alone, purely creative endeavour.

          • To be this successful though, it would likely still have to satisfy many of the criteria for “quality” (as far as such a thing exists) as a stand-alone, purely creative endeavour.
            Defining ‘quality’ in itself is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish: just because something is sharp and well-exposed does not make it interesting.

        • I’m not sure, Ian.

          I can say for sure that the mere fact something hangs in a gallery, and I know it hangs in a gallery, affects it [perception] greatly. The Japanese have a culinary saying: the first bite is with the eyes. Take that a little more poetically, and you see the insight it provides on the human condition.
          We have a useful way of measuring one dimension of human sentiment—economics. And it’s an economic fact that well known authors sell more than not well known ones; or not well known authors stocked on the shelves of brick and mortar book shops, with books published by Penguin or Random House or some other known publisher, sell more [much much more] than other not well known authors who self-published e-books by uploading to esoteric websites.

          Just on my gut feeling — and assuming the people in the cohorts were barred from all Qs about artists’ identity — I think if we did this test people would be dying to know about process:

          1) what camera did they take that with?
          2) where’s that?
          3) how’d they do that?

          [why I decided all EXIF info *must* be hidden from my Flickr stream. Just take this emergency exit away from viewers]

          And when asked to record their thoughts and pass judgement, they’d all go for something like a five-star system—and proceed to give the bulk of the work 3 stars.

          People LOVE decisive, black and white action. The bold statement. The catastrophic failure. The roaring success. This is the best pointer at the other thing about people: when it’s our turn to act, we will reach for indecisiveness and equivocality at every opportunity. “Hmm” is easier for us than looking straight in the eye and going “yes” or “no.”
          [the “every” in equivocality at every turn was a little meta-joke for you. Did I just explain my joke? Was explaining that I explained… etc., etc.]

          The reason those anonymous e-books or artists no-one’s heard of and never get exhibited might break, might make it, is early adopters, taste makers and so on. And belief/faith/creating our own religion. As Ming and Dan were talking about, these are usually people we’d like to regard as having more money than sense… though I’m always hesitant to fall into that trap –> isn’t it, by our own admission, that they have a lot of money and a lot of sense?
          I sense that they are early adopters, they’re supporters, patrons — punters — but not the first wave. The true first wave are people of more meager means and supreme taste [who the richies pay attention to]. People who might truly love the culture and are in it, around it, take part. It makes sense that they’d be close to the artists and be there in the very very beginning, and be able to access to work at little to no cost. They are gifted, savvy viewers.

          Can I take this opportunity to say I bought an MT print from print run number 1**
          /brushing fingernails on shirt

          ** [I’ll call the very first, slightly differently administered run, run #0]

          And can I go and watch football now 🙂
          I’m all arted out!

          • Hi Tom, you bring up an interesting point in this, that reminds me of a couple experiments a few years ago. One was in New York City, where a museum decided to hang some famous images in a small café near the museum. These were quite valuable, so a security guard was nearby in plain clothes. Tags were placed below the images as they would have been when local artists/photographers displayed there. Anyway, the images got very little notice, and no sales inquiries. Basically, few expect to see famous artists displayed in a café, and most people expect museums to display artwork.

            The second incident involved music. A famous violin player decided to go into a subway on the east coast of the United States, drop down his case, and play like a street musician. All this was video taped secretly. While it appeared that a few people seemed to know this was an incredibly talented musician, few people stopped to listen, and many simply ignored him.

            Location, like with restaurants, is a very important consideration for art. So that aspect does play into perceptions. A bigger issue is that there are many talented individuals producing works of art, yet most will never get a chance to show their work in a location where it will gain a higher level of respect. Just like any endeavor, connections and networking will determine success, much more than raw talent.

            • Very interesting Gordon…

              Reminds me of a time I went to the Tate Modern in London, Rodin’s “The Kiss” was in the cloak room!!!!!! Degas’ “La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans” was just stuck in a corner on a stairwell!!!!! Maybe this was some sort of test…well I didn’t fall for it, I just camped out in the cloakroom admiring Rodin’s work, made quite a nice piece of pocket money taking peoples’ coats too!

              This response to musicians can also be in the “Takeaway Shows” – top notch musicians strolling around (mainly) Paris being videoed playing live. Most people just avoid eye contact, rush past, or look like the musician is doing something illegal/immoral!!! For example: This may not even be the best example, I just know that I often watch these and think “what is WRONG with you people!!!”

              If I was walking along in Paris, and Josh T Pearson walked past strumming and singing, I would damn well follow him like some stalker-nutjob!!

            • Jorge Balarin says:

              You are right. Talent is not not everything that counts. You need also to be in the right place at the right moment. The case of Phillipp Rösler (Vice Chancellor of Germany) is a good example. Rösler was born in Vietnam from unknown parents. He was adopted by a german family when he was nine month old. This way he received love and a proper education that allowed him to develop his natural talents. What would have been of Rösler if had not been adopted by the right people ? The world is a very unfair place.

              • I think talent can be overcome by hard work, but luck stands alone. I know I had no talent when I first picked up a camera. I don’t claim to be great now, but there’s at least enough demand for my work that I can earn a living. But I can count the number of critical lucky breaks that happened along the way, without which I’d still be frustrated in an office. Yes, it’s a hard, unfair world. But we do what we can.

          • This reminds me of the reactions I often get in workshops: I ask a simple question when viewing images: ultimately, do you like it or not?

            Society appears to have conditioned people differently: in the west, I get a lot of debate and opinion. In other places like Singapore, a sea of blank faces…surely people must have an opinion?

            Not having an opinion is the death of art: you cannot consciously include or exclude anything if you don’t have a personal position on its merits.

        • I think it’d be a very interesting experiment. But logistically a pain to execute, and you’d have to find people willing (and able) to express what they really thought. And that in itself might mean you’re not really sampling laypeople…

      • That’s very true. The proliferation of social media has indeed made photography something of “insta-gratification”, meaning a photo is just one more thing to consume either through a phone, computer or whatever. No time is taken to really look and appreciate a photo in the same way as a painting is, as you have other stuff you want to see and do on your “device”.

        This then obviously comes back to printing of photos as well, and I think anything that’s not printed is going to find it hard to be seen as art. I know you’ve written about the importance of printing, and I totally agree.

        • Just because you consume it on a phone doesn’t make it any worse of an image; I take pains to ensure that the images look just as good on smaller devices – within limits – as larger ones…

          • Digital has allowed photographs to have a new purpose … because it is so easy to take + distribute a photo, they can be just part of a conversation (in the same way a word or phrase is) … and therefore disposable. Not every photo is intended to be “art”, nor every photographer a budding artist.

  42. Beautiful!

  43. Photography today is a bit like Ikebana, Japanese flower arranging. It is supposed to be natural, a composition representing nature – heaven, man, earth. But, branches are twisted and contorted into shapes that please the arranger, petals are removed to change the appearance of flowers, and plant material is often turned on its head!

  44. Hello and thanks again for the good work!

    In the sixties and seventies a group of French sociologists leaded by Pierre Bourdieu drove in-depth studies about the art market. Reading a part of this drove me to conclude: the notion of art is deeply intricated whith one’s culture, and the art market has as much to do with snobism as with financial and other trends (rarity, you point it) as sometimes… with artistic emotion.

    As I use to say, our most influential photographic tool is our culture… of which we are unable to get rid of. Although mostly ignored in the manuals.

    I also use to say that I’m a painter during the time I put color on some support, and I’m a photographer when photographing. Not when marketing some work.

    What makes me staying here are your photographs and the emotion some of them create me. If this won’t be, I suppose that I wouldn’t have read more than a single or two of your articles. 🙂

    • I’m stuck trying to decide if art is a reflection of all of the elements of contemporary society – snobbery, financial dictates, rarity etc – or just simply the conveyance of an idea. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, in the end. But I do know that thinking about it certainly contributes in some small way to our own progress as artists – and this is why I write articles like this. 🙂

    • Serge, thank you for your comment and for going for it in English. I bumped into a photographer from Switzerland, guy called Simon, on the street in Tokyo yesterday: we walked by each other and said hello because we saw we each had film cameras—him a Leica R5; me the SQ Bronica. We got talking and had a nice chat. Smiled, shook hands and said our goodbyes: but I felt guilty after walking away because I never once complimented him for speaking my language so well and making the effort for me. I do think English speakers take this for granted, as I do, a little [though we appreciate how easy we have it]. So I wanted to thank you for that comment, Serge. But also for making the effort for us. Likewise all the other non-native English speakers.

      Just on that: MT is a special case I think. Technically English is his second language; but just read his articles and consider his time overseas… this muddies the waters a bit. Wouldn’t you say, Ming?
      I can relate to all this a little—my first language is firmly English, though I speak Japanese quite well and much much more than English [I speak almost exclusively Japanese everyday; I only really write in English now, and suckers for punishment who read my writings will notice the slips and slightly off bits in it—I just don’t speak the living language anymore and my voice suffers for it]… and I have spent a long time in Japan now: all of my [truly] adult life, and in a few more years, half of my actual life will have been spent here. I’m an Englishman ’til the day I die and tied to the idea of England. Would fight and die in war for England if she required me to. But I have little culturally in common with my countrymen and cannot relate easily to them. Truth be told, I want nothing more than to be back there, but when I’m back there I feel so completely foreign and like a fish out of water… Yet I’m absolutely a foreigner in Japan, too: not from here, will never fit in. A strange, detached feeling. A film called CHILDREN OF MEN ended with a shot of a boat at sea, in the fog. It was a good metaphor for the denouement [for you Serge!] of the story… and for people like me, perhaps Ming too—the sea not being any country or culture, but still part of the World. Anyway, what a digression!

      our most influential photographic tool is our culture… of which we are unable to get rid of.

      This is why I wanted to write something to you, Serge. I like this thought. But listen, Ming said the other day, the value [not only monetary] of artists and their art goes up once they’re dead. And a quick look at real world results shows this is more or less the case…
      We’ve also heard below the line here how many of us, me included, insist that art is a product of its times.

      So how do these two things connect?

      Is our value of long-gone DaVinci, for instance, just total blind faith and rote response, with little attention to his work? Or, as is often said about Shakespeare, is the component of great art [that makes it great] the humanity [the artist’s, and his comments on ours] in it, which we believe to be timeless?

      God, I’ve written this in really hard to read terms haven’t I!!!!
      Hope Google Translate can assist 😮

      • English has to be my first language because it’s the one I think in; I certainly can’t speak any others with any degree of competency. To be honest, I don’t really feel at home anywhere; I’ve lived in too many places and seen too many different ways of doing things to be comfortable with one absolute, as one must be if you consider a particular country home. I’m more of a malcontent than a citizen of the world.

        I think the final question you’re closing with is trying to ask whether the viewer is really paying any attention to the content or simply making a judgement under the influence of popular culture…

        • Yes, and I think there’s an important consideration to groups over individuals too: the works a culture, generation, demographic value…

          This is more than just as a socio-economic curiosity; I’m particularly interested in the findings of “cloud think” studies, which have found that large groups of plain people, make much better, i.e., more often correct, decisions than individuals of extremely high IQ.

          As an anecdote: the USAF found the same thing in the Pacific theatre [WWII]. They had tons of planes and pilots, pilots with moderate to little training [a low “ace to regular pilot” ratio]; the Imperial Japanese airforce had a great plane, but relatively few in absolute number, and a very high ace to regular pilot ratio, but with much less pilots overall. The Japanese thought was that the aces in good planes would obliterate the inferior American pilots and planes…
          The Americans won hands down.

          • That’s because those determining the ‘correctness’ are the masses!

            And the Japanese might have been right if all other things were equal and the ratio was a little more skewed in their favor…

  45. Ming, thanks a lot for a very good read. Articles like these make our site stand out. I like reviews, but also reflections on the photographic practice. You do this very well. My own definition of art is very simple, very personal and (to me) quite effective: It’s art when I feel it in my guts.

    • I prefer articles like this to reviews, but since the art is rather dependent on its medium and the technology of its tools, you can’t really avoid it. But I think you can certainly see by the volume of comments that most people prefer to think about the much simpler stuff that’s easily quantified – megapixels, noise, dynamic range and so on. Never mind the fact that those things in themselves do not make art…

  46. Re. destroying the RAW files. I suspect (as usual) that it’s not quite that simple. Because you are trying to eliminate reproducibility, it would make a significant difference what the subject was.

    If it was one of your abstract views of buildings, then (despite the importance of the light) then it would be relatively easy for you to do another one pretty like it. If it was a studio one of your wife, ditto. Though if it was a landscape with an astonishing cloud formation, or a street view with a chance interaction, or a child doing something charming, then those would be almost impossible to reproduce.

    Unfortunately, this goes somewhat against the principle of having an idea – the more the photograph is a specific idea, the more likely it is to be reproducible. (Obviously this isn’t always true, but I feel it’s more true than its opposite.)

    • It all depends whether you are in control of the idea or not: if not, then reproducibility goes out the window: you are nothing more than a more astute observer than the usual.

      • Which I suppose was my point – there seems little point in destroying the RAW files if they could be recreated by the artist anyway.

        • Yes and no. I don’t think we can ever make an exact recreation of anything if we are not fully in control of all the elements, and that includes things like positioning of objects. I just wrote a piece on this for publication in a month or so, actually…

          • We can look at the idea of reproduction as a degrading aspect or we could look at it as a strength. Art is designed to communicate is it not? With this is mind I think of the strengths of the Japanese photographic movement with publications like Provoke which has extended further into the culture of photo-books and a very healthy photographic/art culture in Japan (besides every camera being made today having some Japanese component). I think one of the strengths of photo-book is that an accessible essentially first hand example exists, explicitly demonstrating the artists intention. Now think of all the great paintings, how many have you personally seen in the flesh in its intended context? more than likely you have simply seen a photographic reproduction. Photography often works well as a series of images revealing a sequence or narratives that communicates the artists intentions or simply a glimpse into their personal observations. Reproduction is a powerful thing. Mona Lisa anyone :P?

            • Agreed: it depends what fits better with the idea. Art is certainly meant to be seen. Photographic work has strength when it has recognition, and for that, it requires propagation. But it doesn’t necessarily mean it has value, commercial or otherwise – look at all the crap on hipstagram and facebook.

              I’ve seen a lot of the great paintings, and found that it was better not to see the photo or reproduction first, because that inevitably didn’t accurately convey reality: and that biased my opinion before it had a chance to see for itself.

              • Haha: could’t agree with you more regarding hipstagram, facebook, that being said though at the end of the day I would probably fight hand and tooth for those hipsters rights to share photo’s of their vegan danish or fixed gear bicycle. Although I do share your pain,it is better for people to have the power to be “creative” isn’t it?

                A learn’t response or opinion offers little value, and your possibly cheating yourself of the satisfaction of discovering something all by yourself. Great art needs no explanation.

  47. “you can’t do a 30×30″ from a web jpeg, obviously”

    I don’t know about the film days, but these days it seems that the bigger you can print anything, the more art it is. I guess that is why many photographers only share scaled down versions of their images. It certainly make the full size images more “exclusive”, but art isn’t always about big size prints (or bit depth for that matter).

    It is a very common practise so I’m not pointing a finger at you. 🙂

    • Not quite; that was an example, not a specific statement of belief. Personally, I print to the size the image requires: there’s no way I’d do a 30×30″ headshot, but at the same time it doesn’t mean I won’t use medium format because I like the way it renders for that particular image – even if I have no intention of printing it large. Some subjects are ‘scale less’ – and work at any size; others have better impact larger or smaller – think a landscape, for instance. It needs to have room to breathe.

      • I didn’t take your statement too literally. Just as a starting off point for my observation. I agree that the appreciation of certain works are more dependent on print size.

  48. I always think the issue of whether photography is art comes down to semantics as much as anything. Until you have a clear view fo what “art” is it becomes impossible to catagorise anything as within or without those bounds. And increasingly the definition of art itself is becoming a bit of a battle ground (and has been since Fountain in 1917 (now here’s a question – is Steiglitz’s photograph of the urinal that Duchamp says is art art too? What about the replicas Duchamp had made in the 1960s?).

    If you define it (as I would – though this can be argued) as something figurative, designed to convey an idea, which is preconceived by the artist and then executed, yes photography can be art. The problem is that it can also not be art, and where the line is drawn can be unclear (I would pick Martin parr as a particular genius at playing with this line – look at his books Mexico and Mach Pichu).

    By contrast, it is unusual for say a painting or a sculpture to be as casual and unartistic as many photographs are.

    That’s also, in my view, the key to the genius of the Fountain. It becomes art by the definition above when somebody uses it to protray the idea that it can be art.

    • That ambiguity for photography is the cause of a lot of headache: people argue one way and the other, and often those making the arguments lack the education and context to be convincing; yet they might have the money or influence to make it appear to be the case.

  49. Hi Ming,

    Yes a big can of worms indeed 😀

    To answer your first question the answer simply comes back to you. Do you think this is art? I would argue that it is simply the context and the intention of the image which deems it art. If this was for a commercial selling buoys to the seafaring community I would say no, this is not art. However I clearly understand that this image was created simply because you where there at the time and felt it a worthy to document, I correlated the use of the iPhone to the photographer to that of the sketchbook for the artist. It is simply a means to build a study for further development. However like the sketch the iPhone/ instant snap can be a resolved work in its own right.

    As practicing artist for over ten years, exploring the 2nd image through traditional/ digital print,paint and drawing I have over the last year began using the camera as my preferred tool of communication. Why I did this? is simply I believe that good art is reflective of the times and I believe that digital media photography/video better represents the times we live in compared to techniques that have been used since we could touch our thumb and index finger. A simple question to art vs photography debate is what was the motivation to create photography in the first place? I don’t think it was a coincidence that the chemists and physicists that shaped the early years of photography dabbled in a bit of painting. Painting wasn’t always about personal expression, in fact quiet the opposite. It was a very practical application designed to communicate often practical ideas. The artist during Renaissance where commissioned under very strict briefs to best communicate the ideals of the church and the powers of the time, do we deny “The Creation of Adam” by Michelangelo the title of “Art” I do! . Powerful piece of propaganda yes ! absolutely brilliant. Great example of personal expression? Maybe, but probably not.

    To broadly cover your statement regarding the value (monetary) of Art. We will always hold more value in the one off original, its simply economics.We didn’t always draw these lines between art and money to the same extent however. Although heavily ingrained in today’s society, this is a sad truth of post war capitalism. . Unfortunately today it is the oil tycoon or the property developers, Wall St. bankers etc.. that control the art market. Museums and government institutions cannot compete with the individual wealth of these people. It is they who can out buy the cultural institutions and therefore somewhat dictate culture to an extent. Hypothetically speaking ; Say I’m some Billionaire Wall St type and I just got my hands on a rare Monet from last nights Christie’s auction. I also invest in up and comers and have a stack of Andreas Gursky prints in my garage. I really like Gursky, I heavily invested in him on sound advise, however I don’t think he’s getting the attention he deserves. I just got a call from the Tate, saying that the Monet I just purchased would fill a very important hole in their collection, and wonder if I would be willing to give it to them on loan? I say “hi Tate director I was in your gallery browsing the contemporary section the other day, wow it was great! but something was missing… say have you heard of this artist Andrea’s Gursky?” you get the idea. If we simply correlate money and artistic value, Brittany Spears is a musical prodigy, and Andreas Gursky is the most important individual to pick up a camera.

    BTw I was fortunate to see Gursky’s exhibition here in Melbourne at the National Gallery of Victoria, it was pretty amazing!

    • A very, very interesting response – thanks Dan.

      I take away from this a few things:
      1. If you’ve made a living as an artist for 10 years, you both know what you’re doing, but at the same time, perhaps your point of view is influenced by commercial necessities: I still haven’t quite figured out how this resolves yet. Regardless, it’s nevertheless a question you’ve asked and had to deal with before: your point of view is thus a valuable one.
      2. Art is an idea: the medium, the method, are nothing more than a vehicle.
      3. Perspective and purpose matter: for both the Michaelangelo and the billionaire; yet it’s those with money to spare – education and intent aside – who are the ones who pay for the experimentation, advances and failures. So, in a way, even if there is an ulterior motive there: perhaps that is part of the process/ message?

      • As a practicing artist you don’t always live from your art, especially if your the unbending type like me LOL Working a “regular” job to fund an Art habit is better than making art to fund a money habit. I think it all comes back to compromise. I am completely uncompromising when it comes to my art, I picked up knowledge of the art market hanging paintings at Chirsitie’s a compromise yes, but it was a paid education and I still make what it is that I want to make. I refuse to give my art the responsibility of earning my living. I know a lot of artists that do and it often compromises their work. The patron is King if you bow to their demands. It is Art after all that separates us from Monkeys.

        • Working a “regular” job to fund an Art habit is better than making art to fund a money habit.

          Very true: if you’re working for money, you’re not working for the idea anymore. And that compromises the purity of the result.

          • On one side of the brain, I’m very disappointed and “irritated” might even be the word regarding prospects for earning a solid professional income working in photography. I personally see it as professional work but the value in society seems to be so diluted that it seems about equally practical to hold weekend bake-sales as the means of financially supporting my family: “brownies anyone?”. I recently met someone who suggested that I could photograph events e.g. weddings for $300 US each and would soon have word-of-mouth reputation. That $12,000 US in annual gross revenue is I’m sure below the poverty line and is ignorant of the notion of expenses paid out before a penny reaches my wallet; in a fantasy world without business expenses that amount still wouldn’t even buy a US family medical plan so I guess never-mind then to eating and wearing clothing. I might actually feel disgusted rather than merely irritated.

            On the other side of the brain, there is a path of thoughts that seems rather unrelated:

            I’m much reminded of accounts of persons who cared to produce finer works and decided to vigorously pursue financial viability and productivity within their industry which would enable them to invest some resources (including their own time and effort) to the finer works. Perhaps the ‘self-sponsoring’ of this kind could be interpreted as a sad story of those who did not begin with the necessary personal relationships or name recognition to secure funding from the wealthy of their time; perhaps these people surmised that the only chance they had to produce finer art in their own lifetimes would be to attempt self-funding the work by producing more common (but financially productive and thus impure) works.

            Maybe there is a less gloomy view available? If I am a whole person, and I have passion and some talent in a particular facet of life, then perhaps I can appreciate, enjoy, and operate in several dimensions including industry, resourcefulness, productivity, and art. The notion tends to shift my focus away from thinking of art as pure and those other things as impure.

            Oh yeah, the first side of my brain is still feeling disgusted. I cannot in good conscience ask my family members to stop eating.

            • I can’t blame you. So my solution was to work for long enough to pay for some time to pursue art, assuming that it would not pay off. It has done, not in a big way, but okay compared to what I was previously making at director level in an MNC. I wouldn’t expect anybody else to suffer for my art, that would be unfair.

              But the reality is a commercial one: most artists cannot sell themselves and have difficulty establishing a value benchmark. Compound that with the (mostly) ignorant making the buying decisions, and you have a downward spiral. The US manpower stats aren’t quite as bad as $12k per year for photographers, but it’s not much better – $23k average, I believe. And this completely ignores the fact that the tools of the trade are very expensive and do have a limited commercial lifespan. I hope that number is profit rather than gross income, but I’m not sure. I know for a fact that photographers in Malaysia are mostly sitting right at the poverty line.

              This is one of the reasons behind the Up to you. Hate for people to go out of their way for us though site: education of value. People have asked me why I give so much away; my response is that if your clients don’t know how much work it is, then they won’t value it. And even if I write everything I know – assuming anybody would read and remember it all to begin with – that doesn’t translate into instant practice.

              Do you think your average convenience store clerk earning the same as your average photographer thinks consciously about the artistic merit of their work? Or how to do it better and more uniquely? I can tell you no, for a fact. If anything, in commoditized functions any sort of creativity is actively discouraged – I should know, I was a director at McDonalds.

              • Here are the basic statistics of 2012 census data for Photographers as a profession: > use tabs to compare wages and employment rates/job outlook with other professions

                $14 an hour mean…slightly less than average, average job prospects…doesn’t sound promising! Looking at the top end of the wage data, I can see I am definitely working in the wrong health-care system!!

                • There is undoubtedly some skew in this data, but it doesn’t make it any less depressing. There are far fewer photographers making six figures (even in my horribly depreciated local currency) than there are middle managers – easily by two orders of magnitude or more.

                  Nobody decides to be a photographer to get rich. Most of the career photographers I know here are only still doing it because they lack the skills to do anything else – and they themselves admit as much.

                  It’s a sobering thought. Enough to make me question my own sanity at times…

                • I earned substantially more absolute income (not inflation-adjusted) in my first, entry-level job out of college . .. which was also before I had a family to provide for.

                  Photography must be Art because it induces starvation (wink).

                  But more seriously I don’t even think in terms of getting rich in the field of photography but instead consider whether my family is provided an “ordinary” standard of living commensurate to a hard-working professional or instead experiencing degrees of poverty, suffering, and deprivation thanks to my efforts. [I hope the basic notion can carry through successfully without digressing into details about what an ‘ordinary’ standard of living looks like.]

                  I do not have the stunning brilliance that Ming does but I do still have some marketable skills and education here and there. If I perform with ordinary levels of competence as, say, a chemical engineer it’s reasonably likely to provide a comfortable existence to my family. It might say that it’s not necessary to achieve “rock star” status or recognition to provide for a family; and my subjective experience is that inputs (e.g. work effort and education) seem to bear some resemblance to outputs (finances for living) with imperfect but decent regularity.

                  • I earned substantially more absolute income (not inflation-adjusted) in my first, entry-level job out of college . .. which was also before I had a family to provide for.
                    So did I, and I was in audit – a field where pay hasn’t moved in decades!

                    Photography must be Art because it induces starvation (wink).
                    Hmm – the successful artists aren’t exactly on the breadline, though. And neither are the successful photographers.

                    If you perform at an ‘average’ level for a photographer, your family is going to be hungry. I think we have no choice but to do our damnedest to be brilliant, or it simply won’t be sustainable. That said, I work far harder now than I did in any of my corporate jobs – including M&A, consulting and private equity, which aren’t exactly known to be easy. It’s something like 120-130 hours per week vs 90-100; there has literally not been a single day since I started on my own that I have not done any work. Just maintaining the site and keeping up with correspondence takes about four hours a day. In a good month, I probably come about equal to what I made back then. I don’t go hungry, nor does my family, but that kind of exceptional month is very rare.

    • What a thoughtful reply. Thank you!

  50. Steven Holtzman says:

    Hi Ming,

    Your watch went out yesterday..Hope all is well and hello from Switzerland ..Steven

  51. “ No one is an artist unless he carries his picture in his head before painting it, and is sure of his method and composition. ”
    – Claude Monet

    Sounds like a good photographer to me!

  52. I think you should make 2 or 3 prints at a larger size and then delete the RAW file. Never even post the JPEG on the web but possible a photo of the finished print with a portion of it blocked by another object (perhaps by you the artist).

    And the first picture is art along with all of the other ones.

    You could place a person with a Nikon D800e and unlimited choice of lenses in the most exotic locations around the world and they could come back with less than a talented photographer in his home town of Kuala Lumpur armed with only a blue Point and Shoot.

    • That’s an interesting idea. Perhaps I’ll try it for the next print run.

      The funny thing is that I do have a D800E and huge variety of lenses, but giving consideration to print sizes – I’ll come back with the same images regardless of whether I used that or the little blue thingy.

  53. It is art – to me at least. The floats create a pleasing curve. The composition is thoughtful. It has a nice aesthetic. It says to the viewer “hey
    look how I’m seeing the world, you may appreciate this perspective also.” One is basically trying to communicate an idea. Could be a photo or a painting. Doesn’t matter.

  54. Reblogged this on Cynthia Yildirim's News Weblog.

  55. Speaking about iPhone art, have you seen the print run from The Online Photographer? I’m not so sure how much I like it (I know myself sufficiently as to not overrate my artistic skills), but it’s quite interesting…

    Disclaimer: I have no relation with that page other than being a faithful follower…

    • I read Mike’s page regularly, and yes, I’ve seen it. It’s an interesting idea, but more credit should have been given to the images themselves rather than the method of production. Do we ask a chef what pans he used after a great meal? Does it even matter?

      • I probably shouldn’t say this, but in the case of Capongiro Junior, I’m not convinced there is much to say about his work apart from the method of production. He himself seems to rate the fact that it is “digital” above all else. Why else would the Smithsonian collect his stuff? Not sure why ToP is gushing all over him, seems quite out of keeping with th usual ethos… Actually, more on topic, it’s a good example of something being Art because its creator says its (fine) Art. Which it seems to play to certain degree of guillability in the US market .

        • Not having seen the rest of his work, it’s impossible for me to say whether it has any merit at all; subjectivity and all that aside. Maybe it’s nothing more complex than a certain curator likes his photographs?


  1. […] asked question of ‘but is it art?’ is one that’s impossible to answer. I’ve tried, I know I’ve been found to fall short, and won’t event attempt to define it. But today […]

  2. […] things separating this kind of photographer from the artist (you may also want to have a look at this article on the line between art and ordinary photography) are intention and audience; I suppose […]

  3. […] want to end with a short thought on art – we touched on it first here, and again in this article. Nick’s work is unquestionably art. Why? Because it conveys a […]

  4. […] so long ago, we had a healthy debate on the line between photography and art (if you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend spending some time on both the main […]

  5. […] between the two extremes. Why does it matter? Simply, intention. In a post a few months ago about photogrpahy, art and subjectivity we resolved a few […]

  6. […] the excellent Mr. Thein posted an entry titled “The Line Between Art and Photography.” When I copied the link, the post had 179 comments–several posted by this old […]

  7. […] Photography News: The line between art and photography Here’s a provocative question: is this image art? Why? Why not? Have a think about this carefully, for a moment. Today I’m going to crack open the lid of one of the biggest cans of worms in the whole of photography, peer inside, give you my 1.53 cents* and try not to fall inside. Perhaps the biggest struggle photography has faced historically as a medium is to be taken seriously as an art form. I’d say it’s only in the last couple of decades that the results at auction have been able to hold their own against traditional art forms; even if a good chunk of us don’t understand why – myself included. (I’m probably not the only one thinking of Andreas Gursky here.) Yet we don’t have photographs insured for hundreds of millions of dollars, or exhibited behind bulletproof glass, or even the subject of exciting art heists – let alone Hollywood movies – why is this? *Devaluated from two cents since 2009 due to underdeclared inflation, quantitative easing, foreign debt and other economic screwups. Read full story => Ming-Thein […]

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