Tony Long at Wired Says Digital Photography is Not Art

Blue Door Blue WindowBlue Door Blue Window Hosted on Zooomr

“A certain type of confusion about the relationship between scientific discoveries and art, leads to a frequently asked question: Is photography an art? The answer is: No. It is a technical, not a creative, skill. Art requires a selective re-creation. A camera cannot perform the basic task of painting: a visual conceptualization, i.e., the creation of a concrete in terms of abstract essentials. The selection of camera angles, lighting or lenses is merely a selection of the means to reproduce various aspects of the given, i.e., of an existing concrete.”
– Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto, 1971.

So Tony Long is out with an editorial over at Wired attempting to take on the question “is digital photography art?” And like Ayn Rand before him, who in 1971 declared that photography as an entire medium was not art, Long suggests that it is not:

“Digital makes sense for the photojournalist, where mobility and simplicity are key, and it’s useful for taking those casual snapshots of besotted friends down at the neighborhood local.

But for “making photographs”? For making art? No.

It’s like “painting” a picture using your computer. It’s kind of fun to do and what you have when you’re done may be superficially terrific, but unless you’ve actually applied brush to canvas you’re no artist. You are merely a technician with a good eye.”

Borrowing words from the mouth of Picasso (who once apparently said “computers are useless”), Long waxes nostalgically about the good old days full of enlargers, when the darkroom stop bath seared your cuticles, lint got on your negatives and…

…and you liked it! (said in the best SNL grumpy old man voice).

And so begins yet another manifesto of sorts against the digital revolution.

But like Ayn Rand before him, Long too largely gets it wrong. To try and argue that production and process takes priority over the creative act of art by definition is a short-sighted myopic view typical of individuals who have invested vast amounts of time, money and emotional energy into dying formats.

Like the Vaudeville performers before him, who chided us on the dangers of the phonograph, Long would seek to limit art photography to a hobby and sport of the established photographic vanguard. Of those with darkrooms built under their home staircases. Those who spent all that money on enlargers and bulk film loaders and Nikon film cameras with all of those oh so purty lenses that made them oh so purty pictures.

“Kodachrome, they give us those nice bright colors.”

It’s almost laughable. Digital photography is every bit an acceptable genre of art as any other and it’s insulting to hear Long try to spin it otherwise. Take one look at the types of images coming from people like Cole Rise, Merkley, _Rebekka, and a whole host of other newcomers to the photographic art party and it is hard to argue that Tony Long is the real artist and these folks are merely talented computer operators.

No, art is not about the tools used to create art, art is a visual representation of what one can create in one’s mind. It is an aesthetic representation of something borne out of a sprit that resides deep in all of us to express ourselves to the world each in our own way. Each with our own tools of choice. It is as much Marcel Duchamp’s urinal as it is Andy Warhol’s legion of factory workers pumping out his silk-screens as it is Richard Misrach’s beautiful portraits of the desert or Joe Reifer’s equally compelling night photography — yes, digital photography.

One thing that digital photography is beginning to do though, and will continue to do, is to provide a certain kind of democratization to the photographic art market. Too long the gatekeepers at the most prestigious art galleries in New York and the curators of museums around the world have held their tight grip on what constitutes worthy art photographs. Only a handful of photographers, marketed correctly with these valuable gatekeeper endorsements, have previously had access to the art dollars of the world. Ironically (given that this editorial appeared in Wired), it is the Long Tail of the photographic market that will begin to increasingly encroach on these gatekeeper’s hold over what constitutes a photograph worthy of your time, money and attention.

By removing the expense of film and printing from the photographic process you open up the world of fine art photography to so many more people. Couple this with the rise of the internet, self publishing and promotional outlets like photoblogs, Flickr and Zooomr (did I mention I’m the Chief Evangelist for Zooomr?), and you will find that more and more people will find their art to consume directly. Increasingly this consumption of art will take place on plasma screens and not on the expensive printed paper that Long seems to prefer — but it will be art that is just as deep, rich and emotionally compelling.

Ayn Rand was wrong when she said that photographs cannot be art and Tony Long is wrong when he tries to deny digital photography it’s equally rightful position in the world of fine art.

I am currently on a quest to build a library of over 100,000 finished processed digital images — most of these shots are images of urban life of San Francisco and it’s surrounding areas. My quest is in some ways similar to that of New York’s Little Angel Angelo Rizzuto who between 1952 and 1966 documented New York City with over 60,000 photos. I suppose though that as Rizzuto used real film whereas my pursuit is being done digitally that we know who the real artist is. Or at least I suspect Tony Long might have an opinion on the matter.

Thanks for the heads up on the editorial, Phil!

For more debate on this topic, cross posted at Flickr Central, Utata and Deleteme Uncensored.

Be Sociable, Share!
Loading Facebook Comments ...

16 Comments

  1. Phil says:

    Glad I could point out the article. I got myself in such a state that I couldn’t see stright for a moment. I equated what he was ‘ranting’ about to the difference between the virtual world and the physical world: its all what you value.

  2. wirehead says:

    I feel like, on some level, artists and art-hangers-on spend a lot of time arguing about what is “art” and what is not.

    Sometimes I think I should tell everybody “Anything I create is art. Anything you create is not.” Because that’s really what any sort of “____ isn’t art” article is really about.

  3. Spencer says:

    That is ridiculous. To define art as selective re-creation is ridiculous. Where does that place dancing, singing, and literary works?

    Photography is art–the camera is the tool with which the artist can capture a moment. A picture is one thing–a photograph is another. I feel that when you leave the images up to the camera, you capture pictures. When you have a say in how long the sensor is active, what sits in front of the lens, which camera you decide to use and how you process–then you capture a photograph. Something must be said for those who can actually do the latter. They are photographers. They look for the shot. You are an artist who capture moments and places in time.

    Again, ridiculous.

  4. Daniel says:

    If Tony Long could have been such a great photographer it’s kinda strange he didn’t pursue that.. instead he became a mediocre writer.

    Also don’t use what Picasso says about art.. he turned his name into a production factory and wasn’t making art as much as he was manufactured products by the end.

  5. Richard says:

    I’m speechless…

    I will not argue that the digital photography is in some ways easier to post process (after taking years to learn how to accuratly manipulate color, contrast, quality etc.. on a computer).

    But digital offers a world of flexibilty that could never be accomplished in a dark room.

    But even if it is easier, what does that have to do with it? Who is this guy to define art?

    If it’s that black and white then I want the 200-300 hours of my life back that I sat through art history.

    And, if it were that easy then I could wake up everday, drive down the road to a farm and shoot a photo that looks identical to Kathleen Connally’s photography. But you know what, despite having a perfectly capable camera and set of lenses…
    Despite having an art degree which required long evenings in the photolob… I can’t. I just don’t have the same vision as Kathleen. And I probably never will.

    Great photography could be taken with a basic polaroid if taken by the right photographer.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Tony Long can suck my long one

  7. Painting on the computer is not art?
    How so? Using a tablet to paint on a computer uses the same skillset as when I use brush & pigment on canvas or paper…. without the mess. It’s irritating when someone looks at something I’ve painted with my Wacom & Painter to go “Wow, that looks hand done” – it is hand done, there’s no magic ‘paint this figure’ button in the software.

    Processing with Photoshop or whatever is just the new darkroom, without the chemicals.

    Put him on the list of people to ignore.

  8. Painting on the computer is not art?
    How so? Using a tablet to paint on a computer uses the same skillset as when I use brush & pigment on canvas or paper…. without the mess. It’s irritating when someone looks at something I’ve painted with my Wacom & Painter to go “Wow, that looks hand done” – it is hand done, there’s no magic ‘paint this figure’ button in the software.

    Processing with Photoshop or whatever is just the new darkroom, without the chemicals.

    Put him on the list of people to ignore.

  9. Painting on the computer is not art?
    How so? Using a tablet to paint on a computer uses the same skillset as when I use brush & pigment on canvas or paper…. without the mess. It’s irritating when someone looks at something I’ve painted with my Wacom & Painter to go “Wow, that looks hand done” – it is hand done, there’s no magic ‘paint this figure’ button in the software.

    Processing with Photoshop or whatever is just the new darkroom, without the chemicals.

    Put him on the list of people to ignore.

  10. footnoteblog says:

    Writing for a giant, international conglomerate is not a skill.

  11. K. says:

    I think Tony Long’s trolling. Seriously. What better way to drive up visits to Wired than to post something inflammatory? Don’t take the bait…

  12. Roger Krueger says:

    Art happens in your head, art is about ideas.

    The interaction of those ideas with the real world is craftsmanship.

    It’s unfortunate Tony Long gets paid to write on this topic without being able to make this fundamental distinction.

    Digital has certainly rendered quaint some previously respected elements of craftmanship, but it has in turn added elements of its own.

    Art entirely without craftsmanship already exists and is revered–Jeff Koons mostly hires people to execute his ideas.

    Conversely, craftsmanship without art has been denigrated–Thomas Kincade may sell a lot to the unsophisticated, but museum directors would rather chew off an arm than hang anything of his.

  13. Neither Digital nor silver halide photography is art. Nor is water color or a chisel and a piece of stone. As Alan Kay said, “the music is not in the piano.” In the hands of an artist any medium can produce art. To draw boundaries around the valid and invalid media is just crazy talk and I’m embarrassed I’ve even taken the time to say this.

    There is, in the Picasso Museum in Paris a scultpure that consists simply of a bicycle seat and a set of handlebars. They are arranged so that the seat, pointing downward suggests the head of a bull and the handlebars, pointing upward suggest the horns. It’s a visual joke. And good jokes are art.

    The jury is still out on whether blogs are art.

  14. Ange says:

    Ayn Rand.
    Pffft.

  15. You may have found the perfect image for canvas printing

  16. milka says:

    If one were to take the 3 people you mention
    as newcomers to the world of digital art then
    we are indeed in deep trouble. They do however
    reflect the Picasso observation that photography
    is the art form of the second rate .