Is Photo Journalism Art?

Holly Beswick getting close to the finishing line of the 2010 Brentwood Half Marathon

Holly Beswick finishing the 2010 Brentwood half marathon

Yesterday I wrote about art and asserted that for a photograph to be “art”, it has to be the result of a deliberate process to create art. But that’s not to say that photographs which don’t fulfil that criteria aren’t as “worthy or as “good”. Photography is a craft first, and an artform secondly.

So what is craft? It’s about creating something functional, utilitarian, fit for purpose. In photography, it’s the ability to take a picture that is well composed, well exposed and with a clear purpose or story. These are important skills, even with modern auto-everything cameras.

The picture above of Holly Beswick getting close to the finishing line in the 2010 Brentwood Half Marathon is technically good and it tells an easy to read story about the determination and exhaustion of a long distance runner. I think it’s a good picture, but it’s certainly not art. I didn’t pick and chose the spectators (if I had, I would have omitted the marching band member in his bright red uniform), nor did I tell Holly how to move her hands to convey the message of hard work. All I did was point the camera in the right direction, pick a shutter time I knew would blur the background and press the button.

For every artist making fine art prints to hang on the wall, there are thousands or hard working photo journalists taking the images for our newspapers, magazines and television programmes. For them the goal is to show

  • Timeliness — the images have meaning in the context of a recently published record of events.
  • Objectivity — the situation implied by the images is a fair and accurate representation of the events they depict in both content and tone.
  • A narrative — the images often combine with other news elements to make facts relatable to the viewer or reader on a cultural level.

The objectivity constraint conflicts with the artist’s objective of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions. The artist doesn’t need to be objective, but he does need to affect the senses or emotions somehow.

But is there really a conflict? It’s impossible to take a photograph without chosing what to include in the frame (and thus also what to exclude), so even while aiming for objectivity, the photo journalist still makes plenty of deliberate choices which affects the message that image conveys.

Are artists always good craftsmen? Well, they should be. It should be a pre-requisite to understand and master the technical skills involved in the artist’s craft, be it a mastery of exposure and composition for a photographer or the detailed understanding of musical notes and notation for a composer.

Are craftsmen always artists? No. Many highly skilled and very professional photo journalists create great works every day, delivering timely and objective pictures that are measured on their newsworthiness rather than their ability to affect the viewer’s emotions.

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