Few art forms get conflated with their tools as much as photography does. No one claims to be a painter simply because they own paint brushes, or to be a writer simply because they own a word processor. However, the popular perception of photography seems to be, to paraphrase a remark I once heard, that if you own a camera you’re a photographer, whereas if you own, for example, a violin, well you just own a violin.
There is an art to photography, but it’s not in the operation of a camera. Learning how to work a camera – and all of the other tools of photography such as computer software or wet darkroom processes – is relatively straightforward. With a relatively minimal amount of time and effort, just about anyone can become competent at these skills.
Rather, the art of photography lies in recognizing and capturing visually compelling images in a chaotic and unruly world. Truly, it’s not easy to consistently make good photographs out of the visual clutter that constitutes the everyday world.
This, then, creates the paradox of photography as an art form.
On the one hand, it’s probably among the easiest of the arts in that there is a modest technical barrier to conquer. Where it may take years to master, say, a musical instrument before one can make art with it, the skills required to master the use of a camera are so minimal as to be virtually no barrier at all.
But on the other hand, this makes photography one of the most difficult of art forms at which to excel. Because the technical component is so minimal, the artistic value lies almost entirely in the vision of the artist. One who photographs cannot hide behind technical achievement, such as the attaining of technical competence on a musical instrument that’s difficult to play. Rather, the quality of a photograph stands or falls based almost entirely simply on how well the photographer visualized and expressed the image. If you enjoy a photographer’s work, essentially what you are enjoying is a fairly pure expression of how that photographer uniquely sees the world, and what could be more quintessentially called “art” than that?