The Great Divide In Photography

great divide
Credit: Adobe Stock

There is a Great Divide in the world of photography. It’s a divide that commonly separates photographers in to two camps with a smaller third camp of those that try to live in both worlds. This divide frustrates both photographers and viewers and is the source of a lot of debate and argument. This divide gets to the very heart of the question, what is photography? The divide is between whether photography is documentation or art.

Is photography the technical documentation of the world around us? This is, after all, the basis for from which photography started. Photography started out as, and still is to a large extent, a technical exercise. Precise actions and processes are key. Math is involved. Most people are more familiar with photography as documentation than as art. Think back to your family snapshots and society’s current obsession with documenting the minutiae of our daily lives ad nauseam.

At some point, the purpose of photography expanded to be a form of artistic expression. So, the question now becomes is photography documentation or art? Are we documenters or artists? Can it be both? Can photography be considered art?

The Root Problem

Personally, I believe that both sides of the Great Divide have value. Both sides are valid forms of photographic effort. And yet, it seems, we refuse to recognize the divide. We pretend it doesn’t exist. We want to view, appreciate, critique, and value both sides based upon a common set of rules without recognizing the two sides as different.

This insistence, I believe, results in frustration between documenters and artists and a general reluctance of the world to embrace the concept that photography can be art. After all, if the community of photographers cannot agree on whether photography is art why should the world be bothered with the issue.

My style of photography is firmly in the photography as art side even though it may be aspirational. But it is what I like; it’s my passion. As I’ve said before, I want you to have an emotional response when you see my images.  Good or bad, I want you to feel something. If you look at the About page, I write “I hope that you like my photos; I am okay with it if you dislike them; I just hope I never bore you.” I truly mean that.

The Tyranny Of Rules

Because we don’t fully recognize that there are two types of photography (documentary and artistic) that means both are bound by the same set of rules. Most of the rules were created when there was basically only documentary photography. As a result, we still try to view artistic photography through the lens of documentary rules. This doesn’t make sense, especially since there are not really any rules in art. We try to constrain something not meant to be constrained. Beyond being nonsensical it is extremely frustrating.

I’ve noticed one characteristic difference between “documenters” and “artists”. It is what and how they talk about their creation. “Documenters” seem to talk more about how they made their creation; what equipment they used, etc. Basically, it is about “how” they created the image. On the other hand, “Artists” tend to talk more about how the creation makes them feel, what emotion they were trying to convey. For artists it more about “what” they created rather than how.

great divide penalty card
Credit: Adobe Stock

I’m sure the documenters may disagree with my assessment that it’s all about the process for them rather than the outcome. However, I have noticed that every time I’ve seen a nature photo competition or critique it is all about the rules. If you followed the rules, it is a good photo. If you didn’t follow the rules, it is a bad photo. It’s simple as that. How the photo actually looked or made you feel is irrelevant. There is a certain comfort in boundaries. I can stick with what I know and don’t have to get out of my comfort zone. Rules make it easier for me as they take over some of the decision-making for me. Flying solo can be a scary proposition.

It’s Complicated

So, what if we did all agree that there are two types of photography? If so, would photography as art need its own rules? What would they be? The thing is, if it is really art, there are no rules. That can be a hard thing for people to accept. Strangely enough, when you think of the great photographers we all admire, most of them weren’t big rules followers. They all had their own vision and pursued it without concern for what others felt was right. We value their photos based upon their merit as art rather than documentation. Emotion was more important than cold hard documentation. Documentary photography and artistic photography are two different things. Let’s treat them as such!

What We Can Do About This

I prefer to think of the Great Divide not as a problem but as an opportunity. If we recognize the differences and accept them, it creates greater opportunity for photographers of all kinds. By recognition, I mean actively engage with both groups as valid forms of photography. Accordingly, this engagement should take the form matching the inherent nature of the type. This means such things as having all critiques, contests, exhibitions, etc. broken into documentary or artistic “divisions”. As a result, we can view, enjoy, and evaluate them as such. This means, for example, a bird photo could be entered as a documentary photo to be considered in light of the documentary rules or as an art photo to be considered by the no-rules of art.

The two types of photography can co-exist. We just need to make the effort to make it happen.

Leave A Comment And Share

What are you feeling about the two types of photography? Do you believe photography can be art? I would love to hear your comments and feedback.  So, please leave a comment in the comment box below.

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