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A recent morning browsing photography websites led to a 2004 photograph by John Crosley called “Road Kill,” which raises the old, thorny question, “is photography art?” Although the question may never be answered, because it’s too multilayered and fraught with subjective sensibilities, the responses to Crosley’s picture reveal much about the fascinating place where the visionary and documentary aspects of photography intersect. This duality makes photography a unique and dynamic art form, with limitless possibilities and opportunities for seeing the world in new ways.
Crosley’s photograph is not for the faint of heart. In this sad and horrifying image, a cat struck by a car lies in the center of the road. The cat is front and center, with the road curving away beyond its bloody body. (It’s on Photo.net; brace yourself if you choose to look). The image spurred an outpouring of comments, both on the content of the picture (no one should photograph things like that) and on its aesthetic value, with one viewer giving it a low rating for aesthetics because it made him/her feel sad. Above all, it seemed, the conversation seemed to turn on one question: is it art? And, should it even be in the world at all?
Leaving aside the trite (but often true) observation that art really is in the eye of the beholder, this photograph and the ensuing discussion raised another interesting question about the nature of photography and where it lies on the spectrum of artistic callings.
The question about the legitimacy of photography as an art has been asked since the 19th century, and it’s still being debated today, in part precisely because of those aspects of photography which make it a unique creative process: its immediate connection with life as seen through the lens, and its reliance on technology. In “Reflections on Photography and Art: Art and Science,” an essay published on The Luminous Landscape, Alain Briot explores the dual nature of photography as art and science, and suggests that it is the science aspect that must merge with the vision of the photographer to produce an image that is received as art. The camera, then, is viewed as a mechanical aid, a tool, but somehow it isn't seen quite the same way as a brush laden with paint.
Crosley’s piece, though, calls us to consider a different aspect of photography as a creative medium – one which focuses on the relationship of creator to subject, and raises once again Henri Cartier-Bresson’s idea of the “decisive moment,” which sets photography apart from many if not all other art forms. It is the holistic nature of the photograph, and its twin aspects of reportage and interpretation, that makes photography unique, difficult to categorize, and such an effective tool for reflecting on the world.
In discussing his photograph, Crosley has pointed out that it was an image seized in a moment: in passing this street, he observed the cat and made a photograph of it. No planning, no staging, no manipulation other than angle and camera settings.
Let’s suppose a different scenario, though. Suppose that we see a painting of this selfsame image. Someone has used oil on canvas to show us the cat, the road, the blood. How does the image arrive before our eyes? Has the painter seen this scene or a similar one? Has she heard or read of it? Or is it a product of the imagination? The painter may have relied on memory, a sketch, or an actual reference photo, to paint the scene. The cat and the road may be rendered in an abstract or a realistic style. Perhaps it’s an exercise in photorealism, so that it looks exactly like a photograph taken of the scene. Nevertheless, the finished work will be completed over a period of time, distant from the original moment of seeing (if in fact there was one), and the outcome may be a representation or an interpretation of the scene, routed through the artist’s brain. Or maybe a little of both.
In contrast, though, regardless of Crosley’s aesthetic choices, his camera captured the image holistically, with all the pieces present at the same time. Crosley’s photograph reflects the immediacy of the moment in which the photographer and subject come together through the camera lens. And though we view a painting of the same scene all at once, it wasn’t created that way; both painter and image progress through time in the making of the piece, and both evolve and change as a result. Is one of these superior to the other, or merely different ways of engaging with an “other” to create something unique?
Mike Johnston’s blog, The Online Photographer, tackled this issue with a series of posts involving print-making versus other ways of showing photographs. Again, an outpouring of comments revealed how many people feel qualified to determine whether a certain kind of photographer, or process, or product is or is not “art.” Johnston points out that the issue is one of vision and choice, and can embrace a far wider range of possibilities than more narrow and (may we say) elitist views can permit.
It seems that practitioners of a particular kind of art form become protective of it, defensive, wanting to exclude outsiders and upstarts and challengers. Ellen J. Langer tackles this phenomenon in her book, On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity, which, while not specifically addressing photography, does address art as the manifestation of the human impulse toward creative work, and how mindfulness cuts through many of the limitations placed on making art.
With chapters titled "The Tyranny of Evaluation,” and “The Mindlessness of Social Comparison,” Langer challenges the rule of the expert in determining whose creative work is legitimate, appropriate and worth being seen. “In the perspective of every person is a lens through which we may better understand ourselves,” writes Langer. And in the ongoing dialogue about whether photography, or photographs themselves, can be art, or whether some things shouldn’t be photographed at all, perhaps we learn what it means to become one with the camera and the subject, in that decisive moment which creates something new in the world – and that is art.
Ellen Langer, On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity (New York: Ballantine Books, 2005), 258.
Interesting thoughts inspired by my photo 'The Road Kill (dead cat on road), but now a very bad link (and bad I think for some time).
Here is a good link.
Photo is copyrighted, and so long as linked, no problem in displaying it here.
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About the Author
C J McKinney
C J McKinney is an award winning writer and photographer whose photographs, stories and nonfiction work has appeared in numerous publication
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