If painters and sculptors are ‘artists’, then why are photographers often simply referred to as ‘photographers’? In many forms, it’s a question that has been endlessly explored by historians, curators, fine artists – and photographers themselves. For photographers, this question is not just folly. An understanding of where their work sits can be foundational to their practice as creators. Because their tool of choice is relatively new and readily available (after all, don’t we all now carry a camera?) it brings with it notions of a lack of skill. Or the idea that the work produced with it cannot be conceptual. Indeed, there are even some who believe photography cannot be placed in the spectrum of art because it is too technical. Others feel the opposite – that it is simply not technical enough.
Cecilie Harris finds herself in a fairly unique and interesting position, as someone who is a photographer, commissions photography, works in close quarters with many professional photographers and has a passion for the aesthetic. She is Editor-in-Chief of Boys by Girls Magazine, “where the beauty of the contemporary young man is explored through the female lens.” It’s clear from just a quick browse through the magazine and accompanying Instagram that it is beautiful. Filled with stunning images that range from classic fashion editorials to abstract portraits that examine the psyche through words and images. It is often difficult to see where the commercial ends and art begins. “It wasn’t meant to be a commercial work,” she explains. “It was simply there as a platform to showcase beautiful photography. So, you could argue that within that it was to showcase art. And storytelling. Because the overall vision for Boys by Girls is to document the contemporary young male, truthfully and beautifully and with emotional impact.”
Of course, not all photographers consider themselves to be artists – the legendary photojournalist Sir Don McCullin famously insisted “I am not an artist” despite having a huge retrospective of his work exhibited at the very art-filled Tate Britain in 2019. “I’ve been struggling against that word all my life,” he said. “I’m a photographer and I stand by it.” So, what is the dividing line? Is there one? At what point can a photographer call themselves an artist?
Creative choice? Setting the intention
Is it simply a case of deciding what you want to do? And that work naturally places you in the role of an artist? “You could argue that, as with an artist who paints, you’re composing with light, creating a situation to create an image,” says Cecilie. “It’s very intentional. You’re not just capturing the scene; you’re changing it to be the expression that you’re looking for.” If you’re actively saying, ‘I want to express something from within me or that I have experienced within the world,’ then perhaps you are venturing into the very definition of art?
Self-definition? I create, therefore I am
Does giving yourself a label make it so? In Don McCullin’s case, he is firm in his belief that he is merely documenting – capturing what presents itself to him – and, for him, that is fundamental to his practice as a photojournalist. Is it enough, however, to simply state ‘I am an artist’? Cecilie gives the example of ‘wildlife photographer’ Chris Fallows, who is, to her, “definitely fine art”. The work is purposeful and speaks to his passion as a conservationist, documenting what already exists, but it somehow finds its way into an artistic context. “It becomes a whole concept,” Cecilie explains. “He shapes the final look and plays with pictures.”
The eye of the beholder? Emotional impact and interpretation
Surely impact alone cannot be the key definer of art? Otherwise, wouldn’t successful advertising qualify? Of course, Andy Warhol had plenty to say on that subject, but impact as a sole criterion for whether the work of a photographer qualifies as art feels a little lazy. Boys by Girls is a great example of the power of interpretation, as there is obviously a commercial aspect to any on-sale publication, but equally the photography inside can be touching, thoughtful, gentle, dramatic and more. This is entirely deliberate on Cecilie’s part. “I will guide 10% of the vision, the other 90% is left up to the photographer, so they have space to be an artist within that,” she says. “Ultimately, they [the resulting images] can be appreciated for their beauty and emotional power. To me, that is definitely art. But not all of our photography I would consider art.”
Who pays and why? The commercial aspect
Does the source of your income dictate how you identify your work? We are all familiar with idea of the ‘starving artist’, impoverished but gifted, waiting for a time when their creations will resonate, and their star might shine. It’s a trope for a reason and however extraordinary your work might be, you still have to eat. Even Rembrandt took the kind of private commissions that might be considered a ‘compromise’ to his own art. In photography, as painting, it can take a lifetime to be recognised for your uniquely creative vision, but does a ‘day job’ of commercial photography preclude you from pursuing it? Some might say it lacks ‘authenticity’, but that, like art, is also entirely subjective. If a client, newspaper, magazine or brand wants to take advantage of your skills as a photographer, then perhaps the answer is simply in percentages – what do you do most?
A lifetime of suffering? The endless angst of the artist
Should it hurt to be an artist? History is absolutely packed with examples of the agony of the tortured artist. It even has some basis in science, where neurologist Kári Stefánsson found that ‘creative people’ were 17% more likely to carry the variants for mental illness. But this is by no means a measure by which to judge your place in the debate. However, it can be said that an artist is in the interminable pursuit of something… and that in itself puts one in a sense of never having achieved or completed what is necessary to feel closure and the joy of reaching a conclusion. But is that the same as pain? Or is it just the pursuit of excellence?
For Cecilie, the artform of photography is as legitimate as any other and she is seeing a growing number of people with cameras in their hands describe themselves as artists. “I feel that through time it’s changing, going more in the direction of art. Maybe it’s because that discussion is growing and developing?” The accessibility of the camera has certainly played a part in opening up photography as art, allowing everyone the opportunity to express themselves without impediment. It is accepted as a visual art and taught widely at colleges, schools and universities, both as a fine art medium and commercial skill. “Previously, when people had that urge to express, they would pick up a paintbrush,” she says. “Today, you might start with your phone, then go to a compact camera… you travel up to a DSLR and your camera carries you safely, taking you on a natural journey. And so, the camera becomes very accessible, even more so than the paintbrush.” In this, perhaps, Cecilie has nailed the real question: surely the means to create art should be available to everyone?
Keen-eyed readers might have spotted Cecilie's interviews with Canon Ambassadors, such as Nanna Navntoft, Pie Aerts and Maud Chalard on Canon VIEW. A writer and photographer who wears many hats, she is also the Manager of Creative Services for Canon EMEA.