Defining Photography

Once, I came upon a thought provoking comment on some local online photography community in Lithuania. It was posted under an apparently heavily, yet skillfully manipulated image, and in fact it was done so well that, at first glance, it was rather hard to believe it was a manipulation. The text was posted by an elderly photographer who is known to write very argument-rich comments under many works on that particular website. From what I’ve noticed before, he was usually intrigued by a lot of different images in different styles made by different photographers and he seemed to be very objective with his evaluation, if slightly conservative with his approach to photography as a form of art and expression. Still, given his age, experience and especially taking into account post-soviet influence in understanding of what art is, it was only natural. However, this time the respected online critic (as strange as it may sound to some) was strongly bewildered by the author’s approach to photography and how much digital manipulation (Photoshop in particular) was part of the work. “Where does photography end and digital art begin?”, he wondered. I wondered too.

Manipulation Example

It seems the understanding of what photography is (and art photography in particular) has changed during the last few years. Few? It’s a been over a decade now since we had the launch of Nikon D1, a camera seen by many as the first big step towards the revolution brought by DSLRs. Not only was it usable and offered decent at the time resolution, it was quick and as robust as the film SLR it was largely based on, the Nikon F5. And artists – not only photographers, but all kinds – must have burst with excitement. “New ways to express ourselves”, they’d think. The beginning of the real, readily available digital imaging offered artists new ways to deceive, and trick, and provoke the viewer.

I’m an artist. At least I should be – I study at the faculty of arts, and not the kind you would think of first. We, sadly, don’t talk much about Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams or Salvador Dali – they are too ordinary, as funny as it may sound. Too known. Too legendary and too classic. We do talk about the likes of Leigh Bowery and Marina Abramović, who, while just as known to some, are much less acceptable, at least in a country as conservative as Lithuania. And so it is good – we are taught to be less conservative, to evaluate not purely with emotions, but with our minds. To try and understand before becoming judgmental. We are taught to expand our understanding of art. Not to necessarily like, no – this remains our freedom, but to understand why artists do what they do even when it seems to be the strangest and silliest thing in the world.

And then there are lines that, not so long ago by some standards, were not to be crossed. They defined where photography ends and, for example, videography begins. But now, now we have sculpture, but also installations. Now we have theaters and video art, but also performances and video performances. We have conceptual art and art that has yet to be named and defined only to lose the definition in a year, or five, or ten. What does Vik Muniz do? Is he a sculpturer, or a master of installations, or a photographer, or a painter? He’s everything.

And we crossed the lines. Art is becoming just that, art. It’s harder and harder, sometimes, to define it and frame it. But the process of evaluation is no easier because of this, and harder still. Where does photography end? I believe it’s hard to compare such different things. A portrait made by Irving Penn can hardly be compared to a modern photographic manipulation, even though they are or can be both great works. It’s also hard to compare Irving Penn to someone like, say, Magda Berny, although they both do portraits. Too different. Both good, yet different in their purposes and thus incomparable. As long as we keep that in mind and accept photography as a way (or part of it, however small or big) to express ourselves, we should have no problems evaluating different works differently.

Keep an open mind, they teach us at the University. It’s what we all should try to do.


  1. 1) Muddasir Javed
    March 5, 2012 at 12:31 pm

    Good article. I agree that the defining lines of art are getting blurred as time passes by. Lets just leave it to that and call it ‘art’. Every image is made and not taken, i am paraphrasing from Ansel Adams, hence with digital photography you can go wild, at the end of the day you would have either created a master piece or extended your imaginative boundaries. A win win situation I would say. As you said, key to appreciate art is to have an open mind.

    • Profile photo of Romanas Naryškin 1.1) Romanas Naryškin
      March 5, 2012 at 12:35 pm

      Thank you for reading, Maddasir! I’m glad you agree. I sometimes forget to follow my own advice, but we live and learn.

  2. 2) Peter
    March 5, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    I agree. What difference does it matter if a photographer used Photoshop and an oil painter used a brush to take out a fire plug in his work. “I like it therefore it must be good” is how much of camera club photography is evaluated. My usual refrain is: “Who is a better painter, Monet or Picasso?” “Which one do you like best?” Two distictly different questions of which I NEVER get a reply.

    One of the best things that ever happened to me and made photography so much fun for me was the Art History Major I got over 50 years ago. I had no choice; I can’t draw anything better than a cartoon.

    Lastly, if you want good advice about how to improve your photography, ask an artist

    • Profile photo of Romanas Naryškin 2.1) Romanas Naryškin
      March 5, 2012 at 3:00 pm

      The difference is in context. :)
      Thank you, Peter, for reading – I’m glad it sparkled a few thoughts in your mind.

      • 2.1.1) Peter
        March 5, 2012 at 4:58 pm

        The only singular context is in capturing beauty, regardless of your medium. I hate to admit it, but artists do it better.

        • Profile photo of Romanas Naryškin Romanas Naryškin
          March 6, 2012 at 12:30 am

          I can’t agree that Art is about beauty – I’ve seen too much of other examples, but I’m glad you have a strong opinion that is also based on experience. :)

          • Peter
            March 6, 2012 at 10:33 am

            Ok. Let me put it this way: Stand in front of the Pieta in Rome (I have), look at Ansel Adams photos (I have) , then look at superb documentary photos of Nazi concentration camp victims.
            I can’t look at them for more than a split second.

            The first and second are examples of beauty.That is art. The third example is not art no matter how well done.

            Tosca is art; the 60s music is not art.

            Sophia Loren…Oh, my God…now you know how old I am.

            • Profile photo of Romanas Naryškin Romanas Naryškin
              March 6, 2012 at 11:13 am

              And here, you are wrong, in my opinion.
              Look at what Marina Abramović does. It’s art. Look at what Bill Viola does. It’s art. Even Jonas Mekas – it’s art. One might like it, or might not. It doesn’t matter. The point is understanding.

              It’s a narrow point of view to think that art serves beauty. That’s basically what I wrote. If you don’t understand something, don’t go screaming it’s rubbish – try to understand. They teach us that.

              Art is about making the viewer think or feel something – it can be inspiring and breathtaking, it can make you smile or feel any other good emotion, it can also make you feel sick, or disgusted, or afraid, or bored, or nothing (which can also be the goal of the artist).

              Life is not always good. Not everyone spends days painting flowers on a gigantic canvas again and again, and then a different kind of flowers. It can also be good. Open up your mind. :)

              By the way, Marina has just the right performance for you. :)

              I understand how you might not see art the way I do. You should also understand how there is no one truth and, while you have your own preference as to what art is, it doesn’t mean you’re right (or wrong, too). It’s a preference, nothing more and nothing less. :)

            • peter
              March 6, 2012 at 3:23 pm

              Roman, I have about a half a century head start on you in trying to discover the truth.
              I was 1 year old on December 6, 1941. Guess what greeted me a day later?

              The Pieta is sheer beauty. It stunned me the first time I saw it. I could not imagine that something this beautiful could ever have been created. That’s a damn good reference point, isn’t it? Go see it.

              I am not a relativist. That philosophy is easy for some in order to avoid facing reality.

              Good luck in your efforts. Your article was excellent, and I wish you the best.

            • Profile photo of Romanas Naryškin Romanas Naryškin
              March 6, 2012 at 11:43 pm

              You do, Peter, but a lot has changed. If you were so touched by those documentary photos that you couldn’t look at them again, how can you say it’s not art? They had an enormous effect on you, just as enormous as the Pieta, but on the different end of emotional range. It was just as strong, but the other way. It made you feel how it must have been, made you realize, made you disgusted, maybe, and angry. Those are strong emotions. Art does that :)
              I would gladly discuss this with you in person – I really am sad it’s not quite possible.
              Best of luck to you too, Peter, thank you for visiting!

  3. 3) Julie
    March 5, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    Congratulations on a very good start, Roman!

    • Profile photo of Romanas Naryškin 3.1) Romanas Naryškin
      March 5, 2012 at 3:02 pm

      Thank you, Julie. I’m glad you liked it. :)

  4. 4) Dovas
    March 5, 2012 at 2:32 pm

    So true. I hate when people or even an art students are so poor in their minds and can not understand what art is really about. No one can say what it’s about. It’s about everything.. Btw, great thoughts Roman, hope to hear more..

    • Profile photo of Romanas Naryškin 4.1) Romanas Naryškin
      March 5, 2012 at 3:03 pm

      Thank you, Dovas. Everyone has a choice how to evaluate – with an open mind, or a tightly closed one. I hope we can open up a few eventually.

  5. 5) Tom
    March 5, 2012 at 5:39 pm

    Thank you Roman for the well done article and for the inviting us to pause and reflect on our passion of photography.

    • Profile photo of Romanas Naryškin 5.1) Romanas Naryškin
      March 6, 2012 at 12:30 am

      You are most welcome, Tom!

  6. 6) Randall
    March 5, 2012 at 6:26 pm

    I agree that the lines are officially blurred between photography and art. I guess photography really has always been art. I rarely do anything to my photographs post process but I am not against it. Heck the only reason I shelled out the cash for my 85mm 1.4g is to become more “artistic” with my photography. It allows me to do things with my pictures that I normally could not. I am considering the 24mm 1.4g for the same reason. I also enjoy seeing how creative people have become using things such as photoshop or cell phone apps like hipstamatic. Some of the images I have seen are very artistic and powerful images. But as far as post processing goes I think this guy (Mark Wainer) takes the cake. He spends countless hours editing his images and I think that he really has pushed the photography / art boundaries. CHECK OUT HIS SITE! :)

    • Profile photo of Romanas Naryškin 6.1) Romanas Naryškin
      March 6, 2012 at 12:34 am

      Thank you, Randall, for sharing. I liked his work – it’s optimistic and easy on your mind. It’s easy to forget how important such work is in the sea of contemporary – thought provoking – art.

  7. March 5, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    I totally agree that the line is blurry. Given how different an amateur landscape can be from a masterpiece of the exact same subject (even in just composition, let alone exposure and focus), it’s hard to argue that the viewer’s perception isn’t extremely influenced (if not directly dictated) by the photographer’s choices, intentional or otherwise. Another great example is the case of photoshopping people out of images, which you can often do with just an ND filter and a longer exposure. On the one hand, how can we draw a line between those two when you get the same result? Does it matter whether the “magic” happened in the sensor or on your desktop? On the other hand, does that mean there’s no difference between that and photoshopping out all kinds of objects?

    • Profile photo of Romanas Naryškin 7.1) Romanas Naryškin
      March 6, 2012 at 12:44 am

      Thank you, David, for reading!

      I believe that, depending on using what ways you chose to make your final image look the way it does and speak the way it does, you should evaluate it accordingly, in it’s own context. If it was heavily manipulated – treat it as such. By no means is it somehow less real, less valuable than a photograph (which I personally prefer, but that’s just it – preference), or vice versa. All it means is that one needs to see it as a manipulation, and not a ruined photograph. It’s different. Not a photograph. Photographing was just a small part of the work, a tool used, not the final work.

      I’ve learned that you shouldn’t try and use things as if they were not what they are – you can’t shoot a Kiev 4am camera as if it’s a D700. Shoot it as if it’s a Kiev 4am. The same thing can be said about wanting to be who you’re not just because someone thinks photography is more real. It’s more real on a personal level, just as a manipulation might by more real on a personal level to someone else. If one’s a manipulator, he should be proud of it and not stand in the shadow of photography.

      But, again, that’s just my opinion on a personal level. Keep an open mind. :)

  8. 8) Yusuf
    March 5, 2012 at 8:53 pm

    Hi Roman,
    first of all let me congratulate you for such a beautiful article, which I think is so much needed today.
    I have often faced criticism saying “ohh… come on, this isn’t the original pic, you’ve manipulated this one.”
    and I simply reply with a smile “Do you like it?” and most of the time I hear “Yes, but…” I interrupt “that’s more important for me…I am glad” we all need to start appreciating things on how it looks or feel , rather than thinking how effortlessly or effort-fully it has been done?
    Hope to hear more from you.

    • Profile photo of Romanas Naryškin 8.1) Romanas Naryškin
      March 6, 2012 at 12:47 am

      True, Yusuf. I’m glad you like what you do and find meaning in it. If someone says your work is not real photography, nod and smile, because if it isn’t, it doesn’t mean it’s worse.
      I’d love to see your work! I find manipulations interesting, especially because I don’t do them myself – the image in the article was the first and last I’ve ever tried!

      • 8.1.1) Yusuf
        March 6, 2012 at 1:05 am

        here is a link to my work
        Let me inform you well in advance that am just an amateur photographer so my photos may not be that professional, but hope it brings a smile on your face :)

        • Profile photo of Romanas Naryškin Romanas Naryškin
          March 6, 2012 at 1:10 am

          I like it, Yusuf. You will see the value of those photographs grow as time passes – especially for your children and family. :)

  9. 9) Ajay
    March 5, 2012 at 11:18 pm

    Wonderful article Roman. We’ve all faced this issue so many times, where a simple photoshop manipulation makes the viewers cringe, just because the photo did not come out of the camera that way. And I agree with Yusuf, as long as you like what you see, it really should not matter.

    • Profile photo of Romanas Naryškin 9.1) Romanas Naryškin
      March 6, 2012 at 12:48 am

      Thank you, Ajay, I’m glad you found it worthwhile to read!

  10. 10) John Richardson
    March 6, 2012 at 3:00 am

    Great start Roman!

    To me the lines have never been blurry. Photography is art, from the moment you make a decision to bring that camera to your eye (or the ground glass as the case may be). Just because some of us can’t draw a straight line or make a reasonable representation of a circle even on a computer does not mean we are not artists.

    Artists manipulate what they see, they create their vision into something tangible be it clay, canvas or photo paper, and now to the electronic screen. We, manipulate each and every photo we take by manipulating “time”, freezing it forever. But that was only our beginning and if you are here reading this site or any site dedicated to photography you are more than likely doing everything from deciding to shoot to your own post processing, do not despair if you shoot only film for you are an artist also as your decision process has created something, and to be honest, film is a lost art … 24-36 exposures made us think a little harder before we heard that satisfying sound of the shutter dancing just shy of the film plane.

    I used to scoff at shots of kittens and babies, but they are the product of the mind behind the shutter button, their decision to capture that one cute moment that will forever be alive for them each time they view that photo of little Fluffy with his big blue kitty eyes and baby Molly’s cute little hands. Because when Fluffy is old and fat and shedding hair all over the place you can always go back to that moment. (Molly may suffer the same fate also…). I no longer scoff, I just enjoy what others enjoy and am glad they take the time to share it.

    How we use the tools we have defines a skill level at bringing the artist’s vision to final product. But to me, the skill level is not as important as the fact that we as photographers/artists strive to be better by our constant education. We have sooooo many tools, soooooo many choices, soooooo many visions. I can only hope each one of us does not get caught up in “LIKES” but gets caught up in striving to be satisfied with themselves and the art they create.

    So, we stand on the shoulders of the old masters who did the best they could with the tools they had, as artists/photographers we will be the shoulders of tomorrow.

    I love this hobby where art begins at a decision.

    • 10.1) John Richardson
      March 6, 2012 at 3:09 am

      p.s. I forgot … I like monkeys and squirrels because they blur the lines … between aloofness and insanity, though that are not yet artists. However if you give a monkey a Lytro camera insanity can be focused, give it to a squirrel and you will get a dark hole filled with nuts. Could be art I guess…art is subjective after all.

      • Profile photo of Romanas Naryškin 10.1.1) Romanas Naryškin
        March 6, 2012 at 1:42 pm

        Very, very true – art is subjective. :) Thank you, John, for reading!

        • Nelson Siregar
          March 7, 2012 at 5:58 pm

          I agree with John Richardson…. “Photography is art”….

  11. 11) Jens Johansson
    March 9, 2012 at 11:44 am

    Can’t recall who said it or the exact wording, but the principle is something that stuck to my mind: “Art is expressing what cannot be expressed in words”. To me, that sums things up very nicely. And to me, this is something that is becoming more and more important in our current world where logic, rationality and the written word is everything. Most people, including myself when I’m not making an effort to avoid id build their thoughts upon structured language and block every non-verbal activity of their brains from being considered as “thinking”. This makes art, which cannot be fully comprehended or explained in words important to provoke people into liberating peoples minds from the confines of rationality.

    Great article Roman, in a world of photography blogs which are nothing more than gear-mania and technique it’s refreshing to have someone take a step back and talk about what we are doing, and why. And BTW, about the photoshop discussion: I’m sure you all know that the most expensive photo ever sold, Rheine II by Gursky, was photoshopped, as is most of his work. Sure, I could see why in nature photography editing images would be frowned upon, and it’s a very current subject here in Sweden where one of the most renowned nature photographers has been caught manipulating a lot of his images, but in most kinds of photography, like in other forms of art, the purpose isn’t to copy reality, which can never be done in a 2D medium anyways, but to capture the artists vision.

    • Profile photo of Romanas Naryškin 11.1) Romanas Naryškin
      March 9, 2012 at 1:10 pm

      I enjoyed reading your comment, Jens – thank you! I hope you enjoyed the article at least half as much.

      I remember the story of the nature photographer you mentioned reached even our news sections all the way out here, in Lithuania. We had some hot discussions about it going on, too.

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