BA Phot

Is it Art?

Back - Intro - Opinions - and see LPE

Bright - Duchamp - Coplans - Cotton - Lichfield and Snowdon - Salkeld - Scruton -


[26Sep21] Continued in LPE.


[10Jan21 during I&P] Delacroix and Salkeld A done deal through venal galleries but Coleman offers a fascinating insight and quote extensively

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[18Apr20] This page might run and run.

This is prompted by a confluence of reading Salkeld's Reading Photographs which addresses that very subject and the C&N course material which happened to be dealing with Jeff Wall and a directorial approach to photography. I started it on the C&N page and will develop it here.

[23Apr20] One of the problems with trying to achieve a balance of views on this matter is that all the writers who have pronounced on the issue in recent decades have a vested interest in photographs being accepted as art, particularly in a commercial setting, either because they make it and sell it or write about it and thus promote it or are involved in exhibiting it or in some other way.

[18Apr20] There is an undeniable intrinsic and tangible difference between photographs and other tangible visual media (painting, sculpture etc.).
The various mechanical, electronic and / or chemical methods of creating photographs means that most people, given the right circumstances, are capable of producing a passable copy of many of what are regarded as the great photographs . Five photographers took a picture of Tank Man in Tienanmen Square (Witty, 2009) and they are more-or-less interchangeable.
By contrast, very few people could produce a reasonable facsimile of Michelangelo's David, the Mona Lisa or Constable's Hay Wain .
Copying an idea and / or event that gave rise to an original photograph is far distant from 'being there and doing that' for the first time, but the essential point is that while the physical creation process (not the conceptual spark) is 'easy' in photography, it is often considerably less easy (indeed, is is of a different order of difficulty) in painting and sculpture.
This is one of the reasons why photography was not taken to be an art or an art form on a par with painting and sculpture for the first 100 years and more of its existence.

Some of the reasons are:

1. (as above) anyone can do it.
2. paintings are one-offs, photographs are almost infinitely reproducible.
3. photographs are reproductions of their subject not born in the imagination of the artist (this is Scruton's point).

Against this:

A. If they are shown in museums and sold in galleries alongside paintings then they are de-facto art, This is Salkeld's conclusion, reinforced by Cotton.

Looking at each of those reasons:


Which photographs are the 'great' ones is not important here — the assertion holds true whatever that list consists of.
After some practice they might produce a workmanlike approximation to a rectilinear Mondrian (I know I have), a Pollock drip painting, Emin's My Bed or even some of van Gough's work but that is beside this particular point.


[18Apr20] This feeds into the 'is photography art' debate / argument which will be explored more fully elsewhere, but can start here. Salkeld (p.148) starts to confront the question but ultimately ducks the issue. He begins by quoting Roger Scruton who argues that a photograph cannot be art because, unlike a painting, the subject 'causes' the photograph and there is no intermediary imagination involved.
Photographs such as Walls, figs. A1 and A2, scenes created by the photographer, undermine Scruton's assertion.

Or perhaps with sufficient elaboration in creating the subject, it becomes simply a photograph of a visual performance, which takes us back to square one and Scruton's imperative kicks back in.

Continued here.

I jotted a few other notes last night:

1. If theatre and/or cinema are art then performative and directorial photography is art.
2. In Juliet Hacking's Photography and the Art Market she poses the question, if classic photographs art, shouldn't the original negatives be the items on sale ? The stance of the book throughout is to promote and support the gallery photography at market and so, not surprisingly, she answers in the negative (ho ho), but it is a good question, even if a shade philistinic. It is also more-or-less irrelevant in the digital age. [note - check iPhone for some snaps of the book taken at the V&A - the price an Amazon is still £27]
3. If prints of etchings etc. are art then this undermines the argument that it is reproducibility is what prevents phot-as-art. This might be more relevant than point 1 as it concerns a static, visual, printed medium and so maps more direct to photography.

Salkeld cites Scruton in in Modern Painters v2n1 and Arguing about art (Routledge) and there is also a Jstor reference from Critical Enquiry below. I will maintain a separate local reference list for this topic in anticipation of it being moved to a separate page of its own at some point.

Photography and Representation Roger Scruton
Critical Inquiry Vol. 7, No. 3 (Spring, 1981), pp. 577-603 (27 pages) Published by: The University of Chicago Press

Figs. n

Reading Photographs: An Introduction
to the Theory and Meaning of Images

Richard Salkeld


Scruton and Salkeld

When considering the matter, Salkeld (2018) begins with Scruton's assertion (1981) that photography cannot be art because the subject is causal - Salkeld summarises the argument as, art requires 'that it should express something about the world (not simply show it), and that it should be an object in its own right'. Regarding manipulations in post processing, Scruton regards this as just 'fiddling with the truth'.

As regards Salkeld's own conclusion on the issue, citing Duchamp's revolutionary urinal Fountain of 1917, Warhol's 1964 Brillo Box and Emin's 1999 My Bed, Salkeld states that 'anything can be a work of art' (p.152) and that includes a photograph of a photograph by Richard Prince, Cowboy, 1989. They are art because 'the institutions and discourses that constitute the art world have validated them' (p.152) and Salkeld goes on to suggest that there is broad agreement on which photographs form part of that definition. While he admits that this definition puts us at the mercy (and whim) of an 'elitist clique', there is no objective, rational definition of art and so we just have to accept what is - (my words) if curators choose to hang it, galleries to sell it and collectors to by it, then it is, de facto, art.
His explanation, interesting though it is, ends in what amounts to a restatement of the question he started with - it is art because those to whom we have acceded authority over such matter have decided it is.

Marcel Duchamp

Campany (2002) quotes a 1922 letter from Duchamp to Stieglitz which opens with a positive message for photography that it quickly dashes

You know exactly how I feel about photography. I would like to see it make people despise painting until something else will make photography unbearable. letter from Duchamp to Stieglitz, 1922

Charlotte Cotton

opens her book (2014) with the words,

Nearly two centuries after the technology was first invented in the 1830s, photography has come of age as a contemporary art form. In the 21 st century the art world has fully embraced the photograph as a legitimate medium, equal in status to painting and sculpture, and photographers frequently display their work in art galleries and illustrated fine-art monographs. Cotton p.7

Tellingly, she goes on the note,

The majority of contemporary art photographers working today have undertaken undergraduate and graduate art-school education and, like other fine artists, are crafting work primarily for an audience of art viewers, supported by an international web of commercial and non-profit galleries, museums, publishing houses, festivals, fairs and biennials Cotton p.8

Susan Bright

Seems less sure of photography's standing outside the immediate circle of the art establishment when she writes,

Photography is constantly changing and hard to define. Its discursive and somewhat promiscuous nature has tended to confuse many people as to its status and value as an art form … the fact that photography lacks any kind of unity and seems to have no intrinsic character makes the insistent cry of 'but is it art?' a constant refrain throughout its relatively short but complex history. Bright, p.7

Lichfield and Snowdon

Lichfield, writing in 1981, in a chapter called Artisan or Artist (p. 135) quotes Lord Snowdon as saying

‘After all, we’re in mechanics, not fine art. It often seems to me that taking photographs is half moving furniture and half make-up’.

Lichfield is less self-deprecating and discusses various aspects of the craft eloquently before concluding, ‘is photography an art? … yes, sometimes’ (p.150).


Coplans, while writing about Weegee, in an essay, Weegee the Famous first published in Art in America, Sep-Oct 1977 and reprinted in Provocations, a collection of Coplans’ essays in 1996.

No other art form rivals photography’s capability to be meaningless, to topple into a void. As a hedge against vacuity, ambitious photographers cloak themselves in a knowledge of art. Coplans essay, Weegee the Famous, in Provocations (1966) pp.205-212



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Bright, S. (2011) Art Photography Now. London: Thames & Hudson.

Campany, D. (2003) Art and photography. London: Phaidon Press.

Coplans, J. (1996) Provocations. London: London Projects.

Cotton, C. (2014) The photograph as contemporary art. London: Thames & Hudson.

Lichfield, P. (1981) Lichfield on photography. London: Collins.

Salkeld, R. (2018) Reading photographs: an introduction to the theory and meaning of images. London: Bloomsbury.

Scruton, R. (1981) Photography and Representation. Critical Inquiry Vol. 7, No. 3 (Spring, 1981), pp. 577-603.

Witty, P. (2009) Behind the Scenes: Tank Man of Tiananmen [online]. Available from [Accessed 21 April 2020].

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Page created 18-Apr-2020 | Page updated 24-Jan-2022