“Phantom” (above) is the most expensive photograph ever sold. Bought by an anonymous middle eastern person/s for approx £4.1m.
This has stirred up a hornet’s nest of opinion including the age old question, “Is photography art?”. This provoked art critic, Jonathan Jones to write this piece declaring that “Photography is not an art. It is a technology” and going on to explain why the above image proves his accusation. It might surprise you to hear that I have mixed views about that statement. I believe that whilst photography is most definitely a technology, it can also be art. But not always.
Peter Lik’s image is undoubtedly beautiful and has taken great skill, knowledge and craft to create. But is it true art? I’m not so sure. I have always maintained that art, in whatever form it takes, is a way of seeing. An expression of a thought, an opinion, a philosophy. Peter Lik, as good as he is at what he does, seems to be a manufactured artist. Someone who’s sole purpose seems to consist of producing hugely priced photographs that sell to wealthy collectors. This is impressive in itself and actually is important to photography as I will discuss later on.
One reason why detractors of photography claim that it is not art is because it is “too literal”. There is not enough influence from the photographer as opposed to painting where the human element will give you a different interpretation every time. As photographers we know that this is not true, however if you go onto Google or Flickr and look at landscape photographs you will see hundreds if not thousands of very similar images. And there, I believe, lies the problem with Mr Lik’s image. It’s a landscape. It’s a very beautiful looking landscape, put together with great skill and craft. But I would argue that most of the artistry has been done by nature. It’s a one way street, we are looking at an image depicting a beautiful vista. Yes there is great skill etc. in creating this image but I don’t feel I’m getting anything apart from the aesthetic. For some people, the fact that a photograph is beautiful, is enough to justify its worthiness as art. I would say that in order for something to qualify it needs to connect on an emotional, cerebral, spiritual level and for the artist to tell you something about the subject in a way that gives you a chance to experience what they are feeling or expressing. With landscapes it is not usually possible to do this because no matter how wonderful the image, it is just a facsimile of the real thing.
Please don’t think that I do not value landscape photography, it’s just that anything that relies solely on the aesthetic can only have so much depth.
I believe that this is true of any genre within photography – portraiture, abstract, reportage etc. When you look at any photograph does it inform you? move you? challenge you? tell you what the photographer’s thinking? If you want some inspiration check out the work of Cindy Sherman, Nan Golding, David Hockney, Nick Knight, Bill Brandt, Martin Parr to name a few.
So is photography art? Yes it can be, just as much as painting can be or sculpture can be. The “most expensive photograph in the world” tag is a red herring. My initial response was if Phantom is worth £4.1m, then how much are Ansel Adams’ originals worth? I can say without fear of contradiction that pieces by Ansel Adams are far more important than those by Peter Lik. However someone has deemed that Mr Lik’s photo is worth that record breaking sum. This must be put into perspective though – Van Gogh’s Vase of Sunflowers was sold in 1987 for £24.75m which equates to about £52m in today’s money; The Card Players by Paul Cezanne was sold in 2011 for £165m; taking inflation into account the Mona Lisa‘s 1962 sale price equates to a little under £500m in today’s money. Phantom? I’ll take 3.
So putting aside whether we think Peter Lik is an artist or not, photography is not monetarily valued as much as painting. Certainly not at the higher end anyway.
Why? Photography is still a relatively young medium and therefore the history involved in painting gives it an advantage. The fact that with every photograph you can print identical, indistinguishable, limitless copies brings up it’s own complications. Each photograph is replicable, therefore which one, if any, is the original? And finally the technology – we are using machines and not ourselves to create images. The fact that photography can be so literal infers to the importance of the machine. I know and you know that it takes more than a good camera to take a good photograph but it adds another barrier in that quest to earn the tag ‘art’.
The art world is a fickle place, I started this article with a quote from Jonathan Jones declaring that photography is not art. I discovered that this is not his only view – this is something he wrote about a year ago. This contradiction is disappointing coming from someone who writes for The Guardian (which usually is a champion of photography) and makes him a hypocrite rendering his other article a nonsense.
The good news is that photography is being discussed as art. Whatever we think of Phantom and its creator, it has made people think about what photography is. I hope it has made you think a little more deeply about what photography means to you.
Keep taking Photos