top of page

What Is Photography?

In less than a hundred years, photography has become a part of almost every element of our lives. Almost everyone has a camera in their cell phone, and photos are taken all day, every day. We are constantly seeing photographic images on our electronic devices, in print media, and advertising.

Since photography has become so widespread and diverse, it’s hard to narrow down precisely what photography is and whether it is still a form of art. This article will explore how photography rose to prominence and is now widely used in both everyday life and the fine art world.

The Definition of Photography

A simple definition of photography is that it is the process of capturing light with a device known as a camera and creating an image. That camera could come in various forms by a modern interpretation, including cell phone cameras, digital cameras, and traditional analog cameras.

What Is the Purpose of Photography?

Photography can serve many purposes and have many facets. Photography can tell a story, it can capture a moment in time, it can document, and it can be art. There are many technical uses for photography as well as social and creative ones. How we use and interact with photography is highly personal and will differ from one person to the next.

Is Photography an Art?

Photography can be an art form, but not all photographs are created to be artworks or as forms of artistic expression. It took time for photography to be truly recognized as a valid art form. However, in the present day, many art museums and art galleries now exhibit photographic artworks.

Photographers like Ansel Adams, Herve Lewis, Dorothea Lang, SN, Man Ray, Jonas Leriche, Irving Penn, and many others are renowned and recognized artists.

However, with the prevalence of photos available now, the debate about whether photography is really art has been re-ignited.

Is Photography a Visual Art?

As a relatively new medium, photography is not one of the traditional seven forms of art but it is included in the broader definition of the visual arts. Within the visual arts, photography can be categorized as either fine art or commercial art. Many artists, such as Annie Lebovitz, work in both the fine and commercial art worlds.

What Is Photography Art?

Photography art is photographs that have been created to be seen as artworks. They have been developed specially for creative expression, not for a commercial brief. They are rare and collectible and can be exhibited like other forms of artwork.

Photography art differs from other forms of photography that serve educational, documentative or commercial purposes, such as selling products or documenting evidence or process.

Examples of non-artistic photography could include adverts, passport photos, photographic evidence, news photography, etc. Personal photography, such as selfies, everyday portraits, and family photos, are also not considered photography art. However, portraiture can still feature in fine art photography. Some galleries even specialize in this type of fine art photography, such as London’s National Portrait Gallery.

There are other cases where the line between commercial and fine art photography becomes blurred. For example, fashion photography is created with a commercial purpose and brief, even if the artist has free reign creatively. Many examples of fashion photography artworks may have first been used in a commercial setting such as a fashion magazine but have now become collectibles.

Artists who have created commercial photography, such as Herb Ritts, Helmut Newton, and Richard Avedon, regularly appear in auction lists selling at fine art prices.

Photography Art Definition

The definition of photography art, also known as ‘fine-art photography,’ is photographic artworks that are created in line with the artist’s vision. The artwork uses photography as the artist’s chosen medium for creative expression. Fine-art photography aims to express a creative idea, message, or emotion unique to the artist.

The Elements of Art in Photography

Photography uses the same essential elements and principles as other visual art forms like painting and sculpture. The common elements of art seen in photography include:

  • Line

  • Shape

  • Form

  • Texture

  • Balance

  • Asymmetric balance

  • Color

  • Size

  • Depth

  • Light

  • Positive space

  • Negative space

Photography Art Movements

Photography played a significant role in the modern and contemporary art movements that took place after the invention of the photograph.

Photographs and photographers were important contributors to art movements such as Futurism, Pop Art, Feminist Art, and other schools of art. However, some artistic movements and enduring photography styles focus heavily on photography as a primary medium. These include:

  • Constructivism

  • Bauhaus

  • Snapshot Aesthetic

  • The Pictures Generation

  • Straight Photography

  • Street Photography

  • Photorealism

  • Pictorialism

  • Photojournalism

  • Fashion Photography

  • Documentary Photography

  • Dusseldorf School

  • Surrealism

  • Dadaism

  • Abstract Photography

  • Postmodernism

How Photography Started

Photography was created in 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, who took the first photography – a picture of his garden from his window. Nicéphore Niépce was an inventor, not an artist, and he created the scientific process needed to take photographs. At this early stage, his intentions were not to make art.

Once the technology to create photographs was understood, other inventors and artists experimented and achieved other photographic breakthroughs. In 1837 Louis Daguerre, a french painter, made the Daguerreotype process which produced clearer and sharper photographs.

Both Daguerre and Nicéphore Niépce were using metal plates in their photography processes. That all changed when scientist Fox Talbot developed an all-new way to create photos called the Calotype Process, which used light-sensitive photographic paper. Photographs created using this process were called calotypes.

Film roles would not be created until 1888, when George Eastman and Henry A. Strong debuted Eastman Kodak. Film role revolutionized photography and made it much more accessible for everyday people or artists to learn and pursue.

Art photography or more artistic photography became more prominent after the invention of the film roll. The art photography movement began in England and the United States from the late 19th century and continued into the early 20th century. The pioneers of art photography promoted various aesthetic approaches.

The first artistic photographers included John Edwin Mayall, Julia Margaret Cameron, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Oscar Gustave Rejlander, Holland Day, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, etc. Stieglitz was a notable early fine art photographer who first introduced photography into museum collections.

Many more developments in photography occurred over the century that followed, and the 1950s created the first developments of digital photography.

How Photography Changed Art

As photography became more widespread, it became an art form in its own right, but it also changed the role of other art forms, particularly drawing and painting.

A photograph could capture a more accurate depiction of a person, scene, or moment. Photography quickly replaced many commercial art forms which had previously been dominated by drawing or illustration.

Photography widely replaced drawings in newspaper pictures, advertising, textbook pictures, portraits, and more.

In many ways, photography democratized art and made it more accessible, portable, and cheaper. Fine artworks like painted portraits had previously only been available to the upper classes and wealthy art collectors, but a photographic image was far more affordable and easier to produce.

After the invention of photography, portraits ceased to be limited to the privileged and well-off. This led to early opposition against photography. Critics in the upper-class sections of society opposed the inclusion of photography as an art form because they felt it was cheapening art and making it too accessible.

As photography took over the realm of realism in art, it allowed painters and sculptors to explore increasing levels of abstraction. Artists moved away from factuality and fixed subjects and began to explore ideas, dreams, the subconscious, and their intuition.

There was no longer a real need for artists to labor intensively to draw or paint artworks that realistically depicted and recorded people, places, or things. Instead, a photographer could document these scenes and objects quickly and with ease.

For much of the early 20th century, painters moved completely away from realism. This move was undoubtedly started as a reaction to the growth of photography and the changing role of other art forms.

Influential painters were no longer primarily concerned with creating an illusion of reality. This trend lasted almost a hundred years after the invention of photography, starting from the Impressionist movement in the late 1800s up to the Pop Art movement in the 1950s and 60s.

Pop Art artists began to incorporate photography with other mediums such as painting and mixed media and were followed by the hyperrealism movement of the 1970s, where many painters returned to realism.

Is Digital Photography Art?

Just as not all photography is art, not all digital photography is art. Many early photographic artists developed signature styles through their techniques of developing analogy photos.

Those methods and techniques are removed from digital photography, but digital artists have learned and developed new skills in their place. Digital artists and photographers can create fine art that is original and unique.

We define art as something primarily appreciated for its visual aesthetic value or the emotional impact it has on an observer. A digital selfie or photograph from a family party is not art in this sense, but digital photography can create fine art. How a digital photographer chooses to capture a mood or scene shows their artistic vision.

Even with digital photography techniques and post-production treatments, a digital artist uses all art elements, such as line, form, light, depth, etc. Famous digital photographers include Annie Leibovitz, Andreas Gursky, Shirin Neshat, Jonas Leriche, David La Chapelle, and many other talented artists.

Enjoying Photographic Art

Many collectors enjoy displaying and buying photographic art. You can purchase original or one-of-a-kind photography or find limited editions where small quantities of artwork are created. Photography is also prevalent in the growing industry of crypto art collecting and investing.



bottom of page