Well, first of all, if you’re going to ask the question, “Is photography art?” or “Can photography be art?” or “Is this picture I just made art?” you have to define art. We all know you can’t really do that, and on that failure, it seems to me, the whole question crashes down.
To me, art is something that gives me a transcendental experience: a sudden flash of knowledge I can’t put into words. That’s my own definition, and it’s certainly not universal. Was Duchamp’s “fountain” a work of art? A urinal, however beautifully designed and satisfyingly functional is not art as far as I’m concerned because a urinal doesn’t give me a transcendental experience, though it may give me relief.
I keep coming back to Archibald MacLeish’s Poetry and Experience, because, in that book, he gives the best explanation of the experience of art I’ve ever found. I’m going to quote his explanation at length. He’s dealing with poetry, but as far as I’m concerned, photography and poetry are very close to each other. MacLeish uses this short, very old, English poem to illustrate the point:
O westron wind when wilt thou blow
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ that my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.
[blockquote]Here the two little scenes of wind and weather and love and bed are left side by side to mean if they can. And they do mean. The poem is not a poem about the one or the other. It is not a poem about weather. And neither is it a poem about making love. The emotion it holds is held between these two statements in the place where love and time cross each other. Here, as in those old Chinese poems, the emotion, somehow contained in the poem, is an emotion which words cannot come at directly — which no words as words can describe. How can you “describe” in words the poignancy of the recognition of the obstacle of time — its recognition not on the clock face or among the stars but on the nerves of the body and in the blood itself? But if you cannot “describe” it in words how then can words contain it? Well, how do they contain it here? By not speaking of it. By not speaking of it at all. By speaking of something else, something off at the one side and the other as the man at the helm of a ship looks off and above to starboard and larboard to see the channel marker before him in the dark. By speaking of two things which, like parentheses, can include between them what neither of them says. (emphasis added) By leaving a space between one sensed image and another where what cannot be said can be — this sensuous, this bodily knowledge of the defeat of love by time — this When? When? Ah when? — When will the wind go west and the spring rain come to bring her back to me and me to her?[/blockquote]
[blockquote]But... is it only emotion which the coupled images in a poem capture? ...There is the west wind, the spring wind, and its small rain. There is a bed and a girl. And there is emotion certainly there between them, and ache of longing. But is that all? Or is there also, and on beyond, a recognition of something known, something known before and now, in the space between the bed and the west wind, realized? Are the bed and the girl and the wind and the rain in some way caught up together, not in the mind, which cannot understand these irrelevancies, but in the emotion which can? ...Has this hollow between the wind and the rain on the one side and the bed and the girl on the other filled, not with emotion only, but with something emotion knows — something more immediate than knowledge, something tangible and felt, something as tangible as experience itself, felt as immediately as experience? Is it human experience itself, in its livingness as experience, these coupled images and the emotion they evoke, have captured? And was it this that Wordsworth meant when he spoke of truth "carried alive into the heart by passion"?[/blockquote]
Now, are there photographs that can do the same thing? Can a photograph convey meaning beyond what the mind can grasp? Of course it can. But I think that with both photography and poetry you have to be open to the transcendental experience available in the art, and that kind of openness rarely comes naturally. You pretty much have to submerge yourself in the medium to achieve it. Cartier-Bresson’s “Lock at Bougival” is one photograph that gives me the kind of experience I’m talking about, but I suspect it leaves many people as cold as might “O Westron Wind” leave someone who’s never delved seriously into poetry. I could give several examples of the same thing in painting, especially among the Impressionists, though I must admit I’ve never had a transcendental experience from a Campbell’s soup can, real or painted.
So, in the end, we’re right back where we started. Art is in the eye of the beholder, and if you create a photograph someone can accept as art, you’ve created art. Once you get into this roundabout there are no exits.