Or, to put it a another way, what does photography do best in comparison with other visual art forms?
When you pick up a camera for the first time in a serious way there's often a temptation to rush out and shoot landscape. After all, landscape is there. It doesn't move, and you can go back again and again until you have the kind of light and weather conditions you'd prefer.
Maybe you happened to see some stuff by Ansel Adams in a recent magazine. You liked one of his pictures of Half Dome, and you're about to go on vacation, so you head for Yosemite, and, sure enough, there's Half Dome. You grab your camera and shoot. Now you have a picture of Half Dome. There it is. Your picture looks just like Half Dome. The picture is personally satisfying. It may not come up to the level of Ansel's pictures with the moon in the background, but it's Half Dome and it's not a bad picture as far as you're concerned.
A month later your wife drags you to a museum, and there on the wall is Albert Bierstadt's painting, "Among the Sierra Nevadas." Wow! What an incredible scene. Gotta shoot one like that in the mountains. So you take a few more days off and head for the Sierras. You can't find the kind of scene Bierstadt painted, but you do find a place where there are mountains behind a lake. No deer, unfortunately. You set up the camera and try a couple lenses. First you stick a 35mm on your Nikon D810. Oops, the lake in the foreground is okay, but the mountains in the background are just bumps. You switch to a 200mm, move back some, and now the mountains rear up in a more satisfying way, but the lake in the foreground is a puddle.
I lived in the mountains for fifty years. I know mountains, and I can tell you that there's no place in the mountains like the one Bierstadt painted. The linear perspective in his painting is deliberately distorted. The mountains are way too high behind that lake from the standpoint of true linear perspective. But on the other hand his painting gives you the sensation of the mountains in a way no photograph ever will. The trouble with the camera is that it's honest. It handles linear perspective the way it really is, and there's no way to fool it. You can shoot some mountains and you can shoot a lake and you can paste the two together in Photoshop, but anybody with eyes to see and an understanding of photography will recognize it as a fake in a heartbeat.
The camera is a recording instrument. It's not the
kind of tool that lets you express your own ideas about what reality should
look like. If you're careful it can give you images that are pretty, sometimes
verging on beautiful. But it's very difficult to make it give you an image
that'll grab you and shake you with a transcendent, spiritual experience –
that sudden flash that goes beyond anyone's ability to describe or explain. And
that's really what art is about. It's not about making records of things.
Beyond landscape there are plenty of things out there to record, and though recording them isn't art, recording them can be satisfying. Sports are a challenge because it's not easy to grab bodies in motion, so when you mange to do it effectively you have a picture you can hang on your wall. Birds and critters of various sorts make satisfying nature pictures. Unfortunately, if you're shooting birds at rest you can be sure Audubon did it better in paint, though the birds he painted were dead. Reportage is a lot of fun. In my spare time I photographed for the Colorado Springs Downtown Partnership for a couple years. I had the same access any newspaper reporter has, and recording downtown events and the day-to-day workings of downtown was fun and satisfying. But neither sports nor nature nor reportage normally can qualify as the kind of photography that evokes the spiritual.
On the other hand one kind of photography that sometimes can satisfy the definition of art is street photography. There's an awful lot of misunderstanding about what street photography is, and I know of no instance where its been defined effectively in words. Instead, street photography is defined by the work of people like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz, Brassai, Willy Ronis, Walker Evans, Elliott Erwitt, Dorothea Lange, Helen Levitt, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank, and others doing similar work.
What is it that sometimes brings street photography close to giving us a spiritual experience, and sometimes takes it over the line into transcendence? I think the answer is that the best street photography can reveal truths about spiritual relationships between people, and between people and their surroundings. One such picture is Cartier-Bresson's "The Locks at Bougival:" a man, a woman, a child, a grandmother, and two dogs on a working boat. There's joy and toil in that picture and to try to use words to deal with what's in it is futile.
Most people know who Ansel Adams was, and many of them have seen a few of his pictures – often in banks or doctors' offices. But both Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank were far more influential photographers than Ansel was.
Cartier-Bresson was seventeen when Oskar Barnack's Leica first appeared. Until then photographs had been made with cameras requiring tripods, black hoods, and lengthy exposures. A picture of a person was a picture of a person posing. There was no other way to make a picture of a person. Any picture showing relationships between people or between people and their surroundings was posed. The little Leica with a fast lens and movie film changed all that. Andre Kertesz was fourteen years older than Henri, and he was the first I know of to take the Leica out onto the street. But if anyone can be called the inventor of street photography, that person is Henri. With the Leica Henri revolutionized photography.
Another revolution took place in photography in 1959, when Robert Frank's book: The Americans was published in the United States. I remember the reaction of the photographic community when that book came out. Popular Photography, which in those days actually dealt with photography rather than with equipment, panned the book. The problem was that The Americans dealt with us as we actually were in the fifties – showing "sanitation approved" motels and drugstore diners – rather than with the purified illusions presented by Norman Rockwell's paintings and by photographers such as Alfred Eisenstadt who followed Rockwell's lead. It was a giant flap, but Frank's book became a classic and changed the whole course of street photography.
I think street photography can be real art, rarely but occasionally reaching transcendence and spirituality. A photograph is a recording. That's all it is. It's an image of a small piece of the world – a very small piece. It doesn't allow the recorder to change things in that little piece. In post-processing you can change colors, remove things, move things around, and introduce other recorded pieces of the world that weren't in the picture to begin with. But in the end, you can't force into a photograph the emotion you can force into a painting.
On the other hand you can record much more believable interactions between people or between people and their surroundings with a camera than you can with a brush. That's where transcendence and spirituality can appear. People are more interested in people than they are in Half Dome, or in a bird, or in the suspended action in a good sports grab, or in the generalities of a downtown event. People project onto other people. They understand human action and human emotion and they can empathize with it, because they too are people.
To clinch the point, there's the work of W. Eugene Smith. Gene Smith did some wonderful street photography, but the pictures he made that fall most surely into the category of art are pictures of people he shot as parts of photo essays. One of those is Smith's picture from his Life magazine essay "Country Doctor," of Doctor Ceriani leaning against a counter and smoking a cigarette after losing a patient. The tragedy in the man's face is powerful stuff. Another of Gene's masterpieces is a picture of an inmate in a Haitian asylum whose insanity projects tellingly from his eyes. And finally, there's his picture of poor, deformed Tomoko Uemura in her bath, a picture that became a world classic almost overnight. Smith's photographs of people certainly reserve him a place alongside Picasso and the Impressionists as a truly great artist.