Considering Photographs as Works of Art

Considering Photographs as Works of Art
Emily Heinz

It is evident that certain kinds of works of art have as of late improperly been called "photographs," and that the methods of tackling the issue of defining what photographs are—most especially in the case of art—are lacking a vital method of investigation. 

Although there has certainly been a breadth of inquiry in photography theory into the nature both of the photographic object and of the photographic record, one method has yet to be implemented, a line of inquiry untapped: that is, the idea that the essential nature of photographs as works of art turns out to be neither the photographic object nor the record as isolated things in themselves, but that the art-photograph proper is a another thing, which may be called the photographic arrangement

It is the endeavor of this work to contribute a certain kind of method of investigation where it is lacking: to attempt an exploration into this third thing, and by so doing, better consider photographs as works of art. This text will be presented in two parts.


part I


In 2014, the International Center for Photography, a museum and school for photography in New York City, produced an exhibition called What is a Photograph?.

As contemporary exhibitions are often employed to do, What is a Photograph? attempted a rhetorical definition, one that would ostensibly posit some idea of what photographs are - or could be - in and for art.

But what the exhibition actually achieved was the only kind of thing exhibitions are capable of achieving, insofar as they are a form of cultural practice: that is, the articulation of a dominant tendency of contemporary culture. In this case, that dominant tendency was the perpetuation of a binal treatment of photographs; a treatment that has led to a kind of false crisis among art-photographers.

The formalized practice of Art today[1] feeds the situation in which photographs are treated as having one of two essential natures, from which the whole of their meaning stems: either photographs are essentially objects, or they are essentially records. [2]

The essentially-object treatment is one that follows modalities of science and technology[3],  wherein the photographic object is fetishized — it is the aspect of the photograph that “matters most.” The essentially-record treatment most commonly comes on the scene in cases of journalism, law, advertising, or other situations where the photograph’s relationship to actuality is the aspect that “matters most,” insofar as it serves as evidence to support issues external to the existence of the photograph itself. [4]

The press release for the What is a Photograph? exhibition states:


“Artists around the globe have been experimenting with and redrawing the boundaries of traditional photography for decades. Although digital photography seems to have made analog obsolete, artists continue to make works that are photographic objects, using both old technologies and new, crisscrossing boundaries and blending techniques.”

Carol Squiers, ICP, What is a Photograph?


In the kind of postmodern schema of art-as-technological that is reflected here, “transformation” (articulated here as “redrawing the boundaries of…”) is understood to mean changes that are specifically produced or discovered in the pursuit of or towards an absolute goal of finding better ways to solve a problem. The success of a piece of technology therefore could be said to be measured in terms of how much simpler or faster or efficiently that piece of technology arrives at the solution to a problem. Those pieces that produce the highest volume and most useful changes are often described as being “innovative.”

In art, however, there is no such “problem” in any universal sense that can be solved by making art “better” in the same way, as there is no single thing - no single art - that all works “try to be,” achieve, or “solve.” In other words, no work of art is a work of art any better or any more so than any other work of art that is as totally self-achieved — even when personal taste produces preferences for either in the viewer. When works of art succeed or fail, they do so not in terms of anything external to them, but in their own terms, which are internal to themselves.

It cannot be said, for example, that a Robert Capa photograph is better at being a photograph than a Philip Lorca di Corcia photograph; to say so would make no sense, as it is not the case that both are attempting to resolve something in common, but that they are each attempting to resolve themselves as far as possible [5]. It might be meaningful to assert, however, that when a photograph fails as a work of art, it is due to some aspect of itself that is unresolved, or does not fit, or self-interrupts. We are sometimes unshakably bothered, after taking some time to look at the photograph, by some detail or some larger aesthetic argument that feels as though it doesn’t belong to the image or has no place in it. That bothering is the experience of the intuitive understanding of an unresolved issue in the work of art. Thus far, we have no way to better understand this phenomenon; it will be revisited later on.

Returning to the photographic object: photographs themselves cannot really be “better objects,” — once again, there is no criteria that could serve as a measurement for this kind of bettering. The object, which could be said to host the photographic image, may be better or worse for some situation or another, as in the case of slides versus digital images for instances where one is more suited for a situation than the other. But this kind of convenience does not externally affect the qualities of the photograph itself as much as it affects the technology of photography; the issues surrounding it are not photographic issues.

Therefore it can also be said that external “innovation” moves around the art-photograph. It may be so that better cameras allow us to produce different kinds of photographic forms; the advent of 35mm film breaks away from the older process of the daguerreotype, in one exaggerated example. The invention of 35mm film, though, does not mean that the 35mm image is inherently better, or that it solves the internal problems of the art-photograph any more than the daguerreotype does. The daguerreotype image has its own set of problems that are specific to it; as does the 35mm photograph. Put simply, advancements in technology do not equate advancements in art. They may allow us to create new iterations of the same kinds of things, but not, it is noted, in any linear way; they simply allow for more styles — in other words, these advancements affect qualities, not essences.

The appropriateness of the photographic object for the image, however, is an internal problem; one that can only be solved by internal means. That is to say that photographs that are most resolved (meant to be) as daguerreotypes will not successfully be themselves if or when they are shown digitally, and so on — in the case of such substitutions, the thing proper doesn't exist for the viewer. This issue is something often forgotten by many photography theorists, who make an argument out of photography's “reproducibility” without questioning what it is that is being reproduced. [6]

But it must be stated again that there is a difference between the appropriateness of the object, which has no linear progress to speak of, and technology, which wishes to move forward, leave behind, and “make obsolete” (as Squiers puts it) older processes, through some form of advancement and progression.

This attitude, when misapplied to art-photographs (or art in general) confuses self-realization and innovation, thus inciting abandonment, where the work of art is said to have "solved" a universal problem (which the Art World then credits the artist for), when what is actually happening is a movement towards making the work self-irrelevant.

What is a Photograph? made the argument that what can be counted as new kinds of photographs are works like Letha Wilson’s sculpture, in which photographic objects, themselves complete, are then further relegated to sculptural elements; Owen Kydd’s high-resolution videos, which are photographic images transformed into video[*]; and Travess Smalley’s scanned and digitally manipulated collages, which were never photographs proper in the first place.

The “redrawing of boundaries” as mentioned by Squiers then really means abandoning what is properly photographic for the sake of something different, confusing the move as a kind of advancement. The differentness applies the moment the elements that come together to make a singular thing are not all individually properly photographic. The illusion of innovation then comes when the thing that is not a photograph proper is named as such; a confusion that is only really a trick of language. In reality, nothing here has changed for photography itself; only the language around it is affected.

These works seem to portend, on some level, that they fail to make the claim of photography; the seem to communicate that they are not photographs; they thus produce in the viewer a sense of disillusionment.


“One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jérôme, taken in 1852. And I realized then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: ‘I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.’”

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida


When does the photograph first come into being such that it can rightly be called “photograph”? When, if ever, does it cease to be a photograph?

In the case of Letha Wilson, whose sculpture in the ICP exhibition was created by folding and sandwiching a photographic object in between pours of concrete, what can be said for the photograph in this case? Has the photograph ceased to be photographic?



Regarding the notion of transformations, what can we say has changed when the photographic object (the print) is physically interrupted? Do we now say the print -- the photographic object -- is no longer a photograph?

It is clearly ridiculous to conclude this, as its essential nature has not changed; and, after all, we do not apply this logic to anything else. If a window is broken, this no longer makes it suddenly not a window.. If the window is then taken down and broken apart, we would not likely call the pieces “window” -- there would be a point at which our understanding of the thing would fundamentally change, a change of essence; although this says nothing about the hole in the wall that still exists, which we may or may not continue to call “window.”

In the case of the Wilson sculpture, the photograph is not, in theory, irrevocably changed, or even destroyed - after all, it could ostensibly be retrieved, unfolded, and laid flat. This would have no effect on whether or not the print is or was a photograph - its status as “photograph” remains unchanged regardless of what happens to its physicality. This remains true even in the act of destroying it; for while it could be said that a completely destroyed photograph is no longer a photograph, this is not because its nature as a photograph has been changed by some act, but because its potential to exist has been changed. Though the art-photograph has been lost, so has everything else; thus it must be concluded that the only way for the art-photograph to be changed is for it to not exist at all [7].

So then, what does happen to the photograph, in this case? Which is really to ask, what is meant by “relegation”?

There is certainly a difference between the experience of a photograph as it is pinned straight to the wall, and one whose object is creased and onto which concrete is poured. The difference is located in the kind of thing that is produced in the process that befalls the object. It could be said, then, of Wilson’s work, that the photograph is now an element of “sculpture,” because the work has taken on a quality not native to photographs: three-dimensionality.

This taking on is not merely passive; the work is fundamentally changed as a work;  the third dimension is now in play so that the thing may be understood as a whole work. But what must also be understood is on what level this change occurs. Returning to the state of the object, three-dimensionality is in fact not a foreign element to the photographic object; the print is, after all, a thing which exists in three dimensions as well. But we cannot say that the experience of the sculpture and the experience of the photograph are the same kind of experience -- when we are engaged with the photograph as a work of art, we are not consumed by the three-dimensionality of its object; and if we are, then it must be something other than a photograph, properly so-called.

Similarly, if a print is turned upside down so that its image is no longer visible, this does not make it any less of a photographic object. But it does, in that instance, make it less of a photograph - for if the photograph is unattainable to the viewer, the photograph itself does not exist in any way that counts.



Of the photograph itself — that thing that can be called the photograph proper — there are two parts, which are mutually self-informed, but understood differently by virtue of the different moments in which they exist for the viewer.

The photographic object, as has so far briefly been examined, is a necessary aspect of the photograph; for without a host, the photographic image is inaccessible to the viewer. But as has also been touched upon, the photographic object is not itself the photograph proper. A blank piece of paper, in other words, could not rightly be called a photograph. There must be image.

Returning to the Wilson sculpture, then, what else has occurred to transform the photograph from photograph proper to element of sculpture?

With the addition of the poured concrete, the photograph is changed from what it would otherwise be in one other fundamental way: the image has been disrupted by the concrete. The access to the photographic image has changed; it is now different for the viewer than if the image were flatly pressed onto a wall, or presented on a screen, or available to us in some other way in which the native two-dimensionality of the image is preserved.

With no access to the image, we cannot rightly call the work a photograph proper; without the integrity of the image, we cannot know where to begin or end in order to consider it as such. We must begin (and end) elsewhere — in the realm of something non-photographic — to understand the work at all; a fact that itself betrays the non-photographic nature of the work. The capacity the photograph has as a photographic image is interrupted — thereby, it is corrupted. The proper question in this case to ask the Wilson sculpture would not be “What is a photograph?” but rather, “How can photographic objects become sculptural elements?” to which the Wilson sculpture would provide an adequate example.

Turning then to the photograph that has preserved its native two-dimensionality, there is now an uninterrupted image; therefore, some other kind of thing is accessible. Having already handled the photographic object, we must now consider the photographic image.

The image would seem to be something immediately graspable and immediately understandable. In truth, the photographic image is complicated. It is the nature of the record that causes this initial misunderstanding.

It has been posited many times before (rightly so, for it is crucial to understand) that photographic images have particular relationship to actuality, the likes of which other kinds of things do not. It is this peculiar relationship to actuality that puts photographs farthest apart from other kinds of works. By “actuality,” what is meant is any thing that is not the photographic image, or, perhaps more specifically, any thing that the photograph could make its subject matter.

When Barthes says that when he looks at the photograph, he is “looking at eyes that looked at the emperor,” he is treating the photographic record as though it were the same thing as actuality. In other words, he is treating photographs as though they had no distance from actuality; as though Jérôme Bonaparte could lift himself off the paper, out of the image, and into life.

This mistake is one that is caused by a combination of recognition, which dialogues with the photographic record by understanding its subject-content, and the application of other external systems, such as history, biography, sociology, and so on, which serve as kind of criteria for recognition. But even the very faith that our information “about” the subject matter is correct is a kind of subject-content structure that is forcibly brought upon the image, by which we mean the thing or things the photograph “is of”. Barthes does not know Jérôme Bonaparte. He has only ever been told that this picture here is “of him,” and this prompts Barthes to go forward, to romanticize the notion of “eyes that looked at the emperor,” and so on. He makes his claims about photography based on this mistaken notion. What happens to this experience, which is so heavily predicated on faith in the record, when the photograph ends up in fact being a photograph of an inconsequential farmer, dressed up to look like a conqueror? Does this magic of the "eyes that looked at the emperor" make the photograph disintegrate altogether?

Going further, it would not make a difference in this way if Barthes did in fact know Jérôme personally; in fact, this would only serve to amplify the differences between the man and the picture “of” him. Beyond finding the minute discrepancies between the person and the image (which we often do when we see photographs of ourselves in which our images "do not look like us,” or of others), the outright and most simple truth speaks loudest: photographs simply are not the things they make their subject matter, nor are they even the kinds of things that they make into subject matter. The faith given to photography’s capacity for “truth,” or for direct representation, is a faith that in some phases is appropriate, and in others is not: for the cases in which photography is a record, as were mentioned previously, the effect of the world on the photograph carries great deal of significance for particular purposes. For the photograph as a work of art, however, the relation to actuality is significant, but in a vastly different way.

Recognition provokes the investment of faith into not merely the actuality, but the reality of the image, and supports the notion that what is seen in the photograph is a direct representation of how the thing exists in the world.

But it is known, and felt, too, that cameras are not neutral, that photographs are not their subjects, and that photographs are a kind of thing that make some kind of internal break from actuality and from reality as we understand it. It is the nature of this break that will lead us into understanding photographs as works of art in a way that acknowledges factors of the photograph that previously gone unconsidered.

[1] The socioeconomic Art World and the absolute practice and making of art are not the same thing or even the same kind of thing, self-evidently; they are generated by different arguments.

[2] It is only ever one of the two, in the sense of essence.

[3] This model following is due in part to ongoing attempts to justify the existence of the art market, the bloodless heart of the Art World itself, to a culture which treats art and science as permanently distinct, and staunchly favors the latter for its perceived usefulness to the greater whole of social advancement; it is also due in part to falsely attributed "innovations," discussed elsewhere in this text.

[4] As an illustration of this point, no one brings a security camera photograph to a court case and intends to perform a formal analysis of it.

[5] We might say, therefore, that a Robert Capa photograph is better self-realized than the Lorca di Corcia, but this is not the same as saying one more adequately solves a universal problem that exists outside of each. Additionally, neither photograph is "more photograph" than the other; another reason this claim is unintelligible.

[6] There is a kind of reproducibility that should be discussed when talking about the photographic image, but this will be explored later.

[7] Something which is true for all things insofar as they are things in the world.

[*] For a better example of Owen Kydd's work, see the video here.

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