‘The camera, like the brush, is just a tool of art’

T.S. NAGARAJAN writes from Bangalore: Spencer Tunick is a New York photographer who prefers to be seen as an artist, not a photographer. He convinced 18,000 Mexicans to take their clothes off for him. The volunteers posed for Tunick at the Zacalo square in Mexico City on a Sunday morning, last year.

“I just create shapes and forms with human bodies. It’s an abstraction, it’s a performance, it’s an installation.” he says.

He has photographed over 75 similar installations in which hundreds of people posed in the nude in artistic formations at various locations all over the world. He calls his work “flesh architecture”. Though his images are both technically sound and even striking, most critics have ignored him.

Here’s a photographer who is prepared to go to any extent, even convincing a mass of people to strip in public, for his picture, just to acquire the label ‘artist’.  It is this unholy dalliance with art that has made the world treat photography as its poor relation.

Spencer Tunick and those of his ilk don’t realise that the camera-brush relationship is a myth.

Ever since the day it was born, photography got entangled with art. Daguerre discovered photography as a substitute to drawing, a kind of a short-cut to art. It became instantly popular because the technique made it possible for everyone to create art and with much less effort.

He never imagined that photography would be seen as a competitor to art and even treated as a stepchild of the art world.

Over the years, many have attempted to reduce the difference between the painter and the photographer to almost nothing. They say camera is an instrument that the photographer uses to create his images while the painter uses the fur of the sable as his brush to paint.

This is indeed an over simplification.

There can’t be two objects so unlike each other.

Neither the camera nor the brush creates art. Both are just tools. The camera, unlike the brush, is a complex pile of metal, glass and electronics. Hundreds of people may use the same camera but few would produce worthwhile pictures. Even today, I’m almost certain that there are fewer good photographers than painters. The reason is simple. The instrument does not do the entire thing.

Is photography art?

The controversy aroused by this foolish question has been going on for several decades. The first time an attempt was made to question the status of photography was in 1862 when a French photographer sought a legal definition by taking another photographer to court for using his photographs.

The French court ruled that only art could be copyrighted, and since photography was not art, it was not subject to copyright laws. But this decision was happily overturned on appeal and photographers were permitted to copyright their work.

Discussions are endless only concerning the camera, a machine in the hands of the photographer—not the marvellous things the machine is made to do by the photographer. Whenever this question about photography is discussed among photographers, painters and art critics, three distinct views come up for discussion.

The first view is that the camera is a lifeless object with no inspiration of its own. The second is that Photography is not art because it is produced by a machine using a chemical process.  The third argument is that photography is at best an aid to art because it is similar to lithography and etching.

As far as the actual image is concerned, photography is an instantaneous process.

Edward Steichen put it well when he said:

“The photographer is served by a technique differing completely from that practiced by the painter, who begins with a blank surface and then by more or less complicated procedures, always under complete control, is able to achieve a growth and a realization of his concept. The photographer begins with a completed image; and compared with the painter the controls available to him are hardly worth the mention.”

Those who compare photographs with paintings ignore this basic difference. But it is possible that there can be art which is not photography and photography which is also art.

In recent years, the prestige of photography has suffered because of modern technology which has given a new tool, a kind of a super camera, in the hands of photographers (and even to those who are not serious practitioners) called ‘digital manipulation’ using latest softwares on a computer. This has certainly damaged the integrity of photography and moved it further away from art.

Though this development has influenced the art world too, but the influence is more in the area where art works are used for promoting easy and effective communication as in advertising. The work of artists in its purest form still remains largely untouched by technology.

It is not clear what direction photography will take after the invasion of digital technology into its world. There is an opinion that digitisation has made photography more of an art than ever. But what is certain is that it has democratized photography by giving everyone numerous ways to express vision. But some, especially the old practitioners, feel that in the process photography has “lost  its soul”.

It seems to me that it is time photographers distanced themselves from this unending debate of whether photography is art and thought themselves as privileged practitioners of an extraordinary process which  rides on high technology. All the arguments in its favour or against are futile; nothing more than piled up verbiage leading everyone to an useless dead-end.

Photographers should not foolishly get caught up in this fatuous debate about art and photography. This is a piece of intellectual debris. The photographer’s goal should be to look at life by an honest use of the camera and produce inspiring images that record or reflect its various aspects with thought, understanding and sympathy, and enjoy the process of creativity.

Photography is not art like say painting or poetry. It is an enterprise of another order. It does not belong to the realm of art. The photographer need make no apologies for his profession. The camera is only a versatile instrument which “teaches people how to see”.

Photograph: courtesy Laughing Squid


  1. Debby

    Don’t drag me into the debris. Debris are of no use. See, it’s so simple, there is no need for a debate. Art is anything that a creator creates. What does a photographer create? Nothing. A photographer only captures. It’s a bad way to achieve fame if you say you’re a “creative photographer”. It’s a short-cut to the spoils of creativity without working hard. Lazy people prefer photography so that they can escape the pain of creativity while bringing something to life — and these lens people really don’t bring anything to life — they just show us the things that are already living, though in a nice way. That “nice way” is what we should savour and respect. But giving them the creative tag is like giving a bus driver a flying licence since they both do the same thing — ferry passengers.

  2. Debby you have made a very intelligent effort in starting the futile argument again. However I would just like to mention that a PHOTOGRAPHER actually MAKES photographs while a SNAPPER CAPTURES images. The general mind could not see the difference between a photographer and a snapper, thats the biggest problem for photography worldwide.

  3. Dee

    I agree with Santanu…

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