Posted by: kerryl29 | February 6, 2013

All Art Forms Are Created Equal, But Some Are More Equal than Others

[While in the process of preparing the piece below, I read a timely entry on Jerry’s Quiet Solo Pursuits blog that helped crystallize my thinking on the subject.  My thanks to Jerry for the inspiration.]

Over the years, I’ve entered prints of my photographs in a number of mixed media art exhibits/competitions.  By mixed media, I mean that multiple forms of visual art are accepted—paintings and drawings; sometimes collages, sculpture and digital art, as well as photographs.  The percentage of entries that are photos typically ranges between a quarter and a half of the total.  In all of these mixed media shows over the years, I have never seen a photograph win best in show—not mine and not anyone else’s either.  In fact, unless it’s the kind of show that gives out honorable mentions, photographs typically don’t win awards at all.

What’s going on?

It’s defies credulity to believe that all the photographs in such exhibits are simply inherently inferior (whatever that means) all of the time.  No, there’s something else afoot.

Cataract Covered Bridge, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

Cataract Covered Bridge, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

After I entered a few of these exhibitions a number of years ago and began to observe the trend I detailed above, it began to occur to me that maybe—just maybe—in the minds of the people who judge these contests, photography is not on the same aesthetic plane as the other eligible forms of art.

And then, four or five years ago, I had my suspicions confirmed.  After the awards were revealed, I had a friendly discussion with a judge for a mixed media exhibit—a show where my entry received a third place ribbon and another photographer received second place (an almost unprecedented level of success, in my experience, for photographs at a mixed media show).  This woman—a professor of art at a Chicago area university—told me, flat out, that for her to select photographs over, say, paintings or sketches, the photos had to be a clear cut better.  A theoretical tie, in other words, would go to the painting, 100 times out of 100, and if the photograph was slightly better than the painting…the painting would still be selected.

Now, this was probably intended to be a compliment; in other words, my photograph (and the photo of the gentleman who won second place, for that matter) was so good that she couldn’t pass it up.  But hidden in that statement was the dirty little truth that I had long suspected:  photography, in the eyes of most people (including art professionals), is the poor stepchild of the art world.

Sulphur Springs, Soutch Chagrin Reservation, Cleveland Metroparks, Ohio

Sulphur Springs, South Chagrin Reservation, Cleveland Metroparks, Ohio

That episode took place years ago and everything I’ve experienced since has reaffirmed it.  In fact, I’ve mostly stopped participating in mixed media exhibits because I have no intention of banging my head against a brick wall.  To be fair, I have won some awards in mixed media shows, but, as a photographer competing with painters and sculptors (etc.), I’m clearly not operating on a level playing field.

My point here isn’t to whine about being treated unfairly; I know the score and I can choose to participate in spite of what I’ve learned or I can opt out.  That’s how things are–empirically.  I’m more interested in the normative end of the issue: is this how things should be?

I’m not talking about mixed media shows in particular; I’m referring more generally toward the attitude about photography relative to other forms of visual art.  Is it reasonable to conclude that photography is inherently inferior to painting, drawing and sculpting?

Hidden Hollow, McConnells Mill State Park, Pennsylvania

Hidden Hollow, McConnells Mill State Park, Pennsylvania

I understand, intellectually, the argument in favor of this thesis.  The superficial argument—and while this may seem like a bit of a straw man, I don’t believe it is—is that the more exalted art forms require unquestioned innate talent to produce a “good” piece of work.  Photography, on the other hand, is more about the camera (or at least as much about the camera) than the person behind it.

The counterargument can be made, of course, that in all cases, a tool is being used—a camera in the case of a photographer, obviously, but the painter uses a brush, a sketch requires a pen (or pencil, or some form of drawing implement), and so forth.

Those promulgating the photography-is-inferior argument will say that the other art forms require not just skill with a tool, but natural talent and creativity to boot.  The artist must conceive of the inspirational vision and then reproduce it using the medium of choice.  But those who support the photography-is-equal claim will point out that those who paint, draw and sculpt often use models (or even—gasp—photographs!) as inspiration for their art.  How is that different, they ask, than a photographer using his/her creativity compositionally, for instance, or to capture and render light?

Olympic High Country and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Olympic National Park, Washington

Olympic High Country and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Olympic National Park, Washington

I’m obviously biased, but it may surprise some of you to know that I was truly ambivalent about this question for quite some time.  However, I have gradually come around to the opinion that photography is the equal of these other visual art forms and really ought to be truly recognized as such.

I’m curious to hear the thoughts of others.  Please feel free to weigh in below.



  1. First, thanks for the shout out. Second, awesome photos! Third, I’d love to see the judges attempt to duplicate the work of an extremely talented photographer such as yourself, they couldn’t come close!

    You’re right, very few people consider photography to be a “real” art form, but in many ways, it is more difficult to produce an exceptional photograph than it is a painting or sculpture. The artists in other media have forever to get it right, the photographer has but an instant.

    • Thanks very much. What was kind of interesting about the judge in that story I told…she was a photographer herself (among other artistic disciplines). Just goes to show that even a lot of photographers don’t believe that photography is on a level plane with other forms of visual art.

  2. This is a hot topic amongst many. Both forms of art require the ability “to see” and so much of the journey is “learning to see” as well as learning to use the techniques. I personally spent more hours on learning the tools of painting plus the procedure takes longer.however, after being involved in photography a relatively short time I have spent an awful long time learning cameras, editing, etc. I do see some photos as artistic, in some cases, masterpieces. Look at all the masters who worked in both mediums (more than most think).Whether a painting or a photograph, if you don’t have the elements of design correct, it just isn’t going to work. I see both mediums as art, but some only consider it art if they have done some fantastic tricks in an editing program. i entered a multi-media show and one photo was a photo of a digitally-altered drawing that I had done and it was printed on watercolour paper. It went in the photo category because it was not the original artwork. It was the original print and the curators would have considered it artwork “if it had been a different type of print, say a lithograph”. Other forms of art that does not always get its due is the art of “drawing.” or “crafts”. On the other end of the spectrum, as least to my way of thinking, is “black velvet paintings.”

    • I completely agree with the emphasis on seeing. If you can’t “see,” even the best technique will fall flat.

  3. As an artist and photographer, I can’t disagree with you.
    A show with different forms of art is always difficult. A sculpture, a painting, and a photograph can be so different. And you cannot second guess a judge. I have seen many shows where the winning painting has little redeeming value. But I was in a show a couple years ago where one of the winners was a photographer with a great photo. The key to a winner should be (but not always is) related to impact – what the work says or how it stands out from the rest.
    My “art” photographs can be divided into categories – Those I use for reference for paintings (don’t gasp too loud), those that stand alone that cannot be improved upon with a brush, and those I can use for photo editing.
    I have judged photo contests and am usually disappointed that more of the photographers fail to use the “artist eye” for composition as you do. Yes, photography does take talent. It can be more difficult than painting in that a painter can move the telephone pole out of an otherwise nice picture or insert a branch needed for composition easier than a photographer can hang over a cliff to get the right composition.
    Enough of my ramblings.
    Keep up the good work. Don’t get discouraged with judges. Even painters have issues with them.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      No worries about my getting discouraged–I long ago concluded that what wins at these shows (and photo-only exhibits too, for that matter), is purely a matter of personal taste. Maybe it’s the research methodologist in me, but I’d love to run an experiment and have a randomly drawn set of judges independently evaluate the same shows and compare the results. My hypothesis is that there would be essentially no consensus among the choices. 🙂

      And, FWIW, I completely agree with you on the difficulty of evaluating different art forms as a collective; they’re so different, it seems like a nearly pointless exercise to me. I think it’s difficult (bordering on impossible) to even evaluate different genres within a given art form. Partly as a function of all of this, I don’t get bent out of shape when I don’t win and I don’t get excited when I do.

  4. And from one that has stellar images that are truly unique and show the world as it is. Not a fictitious thing that is imagined in one’s mind. Add the additional capabilities of post processing where true talent and creativity are essential in creating a photographic work of art.
    I have seen images that if someone hadn’t told me, I would have thought had been sketched or painted.

    • Thanks for weighing in. Yeah, there are some photographic images that have a truly painterly look to them…and sometimes that has nothing to do with post-processing.

  5. Judges are inherently biased and it can be very discouraging. I’ve seen contests where the winner was well deserved (IMHO) and other’s that made me just scratch my head in wonder. It’s often the most shocking, freakish entry that gets the top honor, regardless of skill. I’ll never understand this.

    • I gave up trying to make sense of this a long time ago and simply attributed the results to personal preference–even if it’s reasoned personal preference. For some shows, judges comments are made public, to explain why certain images were selected. A substantial percentage of the time, I’ll read the comments and say (in effect): oh, okay…I understand what you’re saying…I just don’t agree. 🙂

      C’est la vie.

  6. Kerry, you’ve cut to the heart of the matter. I’ve witnessed and experienced the same attitude, but it has been a very long while since I’ve entered a show. To me, your photos are clearly works of art, regardless of category. Painting with light, yes.

    • Thanks very much, Lynn.

  7. Personally, I prefer great artistic photos like yours to most most other artwork (with exceptions). It’s hard to eliminate a bias like you describe, but there you have it. I think a joke that I’ve heard sums up this situation rather nicely:
    You know, there is a tale that does the round of photographers. It goes like this : a photographer went to a dinner party and during the meal the hostess said: ” you take some great photos. What camera do you use?”. The photographer answered politely. Then, as she was leaving, she said to her hostess: “that was a lovely meal. What oven do you use?”

    • Thanks.

      Yeah, I’ve heard many versions of that joke. It’s a version of the “wow, great shot, you must have a great camera” line that Jerry laid out in his post.

      I chalk up most of this to ignorance. You know the saying: If someone buys a flute, they own a flute; if someone buys a camera, they’re a photographer. 🙂

      • Not to mention smart phones…. everyone is a photographer these days! Then again, there are those that don’t really see a difference in artistic images and snapshots.

        • Good point.

  8. Photography in the Art World.

    My limited experience coupled with conversations with other photographers, has led me to similar conclusions. Photography is the stepchild in the art world. But, why is this?

    For the most part, my view of photography deals with realism – can I compose this scene so the viewer feels like he can walk into the scene, or that she is looking through a window at the scene outside her confines. I cannot move any of the subjects around and place them where I desire. I must create the three-dimensional appearance without moving any of the objects. The painters struggled with this concept for years, but once they were able to create a three dimensional canvas, artists like Cezanne complained that it was not pure to use perspective since the canvas or the paper was two dimensional. Emphasis shifted to color and shape and creating flat images. When photographers use shape and color to express their other than realistic visions, critics chastise them for “photoshopping’ the image. An artist can paint the sun green and the grass yellow as his expression of his emotion, but if a photographer does that, he is again “photoshopping”. So, the argument that art is not appreciated unless it is avante guarde prevents most photographers being considered artists.

    To be honest, flat paintings and flat photographs usually fail to evoke much emotion in me, whereas realism, whether in landscape, or portrait, is exciting. A rendering of a still life painting that makes one emote over the realism captured is exciting. A painter’s fracturing of an identifiable object into barely identifiable pieces does not excite me, unless incredulity is a worthwhile emotion. However, an artist I know emotes when she sees well-administered color, line; form, etc, even if the image itself does not raise significant emotion. A can of paint thrown at a canvas does not excite me, but also does not allow me to even consider it as art. Can I do that with a can of paint and be considered an artist?

    I am not denigrating that which allows one to create art. I firmly believe that to improve my photography, I MUST learn and apply the rules governing art. Basically, the elements of art will have to be incorporated into my vision in order for my photography to be better than it is. Even if the “artists” do not see photography as art, I do- I think.

    Of course all this begs the question – “What is art?” I have to admit I do not know, and I am not sure I will know it when I see it. Hopefully for landscape photographers it is one’s ability to create a real-world image on a two-dimensional piece of paper. Maybe I am a “reverse-snob”. I will stick to photograph-only contests and will be more than pleased if my fellow photographic artists think my work worthy of praise. If a photographer does not know the rules of art, and an artist does not know the rules of photography, can either rightfully judge the work of the other?

    I would like to hear from non-photographic artists whether they believe a Picasso can be compared on the same scale to an Ansel Adams.

    • Thanks for taking the time to weigh in, Sandy…some interesting observations, thoughts and questions.

      I wonder if you might expound a bit on what you classified as “the rules of art” because I’ve always regarded one of the hallmarks of art as the practical absence of rules…

      • I misspoke Kerry. I meant to say the elements of art; color, line, shape, form, texture and space.

        • Sandy–got it, thanks for clarifying.

  9. Thanks Kerry… been there done that so many times I still have the lumps from banging my head on the wall of so called true art. Very well stated… I will be sharing this with my photo group as this come up many times.

    • Thanks very much, Mike.

  10. In general, I totally agree with you. I have only ever entered two mixed media shows and I was actually lucky enough to receive a merit award with my photograph. It was one of a total of only five photographs that were accepted in a 110 piece show. I guess I should feel very lucky!

    • Well, a few years ago I entered a mixed media show that had 200-odd total entries, with about 15 photos that cleared the jury, including mine…and I got an honorable mention ribbon…and I felt extremely lucky. 🙂

  11. When I used to enter photographic competitions most entries were manipulated in graphic packages so bore no resemblance to the original image which was taken.

    In that respect photography is becoming similar to any other art form.

  12. Were these photo-only competitions or mixed-media?

    • Photo only competitions

      • That’s interesting; I’m not sure I’ve ever entered a photo-only competition that didn’t forbid any manipulation that “couldn’t easily be accomplished in a darkroom.”

  13. Your thoughts are so true! As the son of an art gallery owner I’ve heard it straight from gallery directors mouths. The feeling is that take 2 seconds to click a shutter and get a great photograph while a painter takes so long to create a masterpiece from nothing. Right!

    I was at a recent members show of an art guild I belong to and struck up a conversation with a sculptor and a ceramic artist. They both made the exact same statement you just did about judges. They griped about being considered creators of trinkets instead of art. We are not alone as second class citizens of the art world.

    • Thanks very much for weighing in.

      Strangely, I find it simultaneously both reaffirming and depressing that so many other people have confirmed my experience on this subject. 🙂

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