Is digital photography "Art"?

Humphry Bogart as photographed by Yousuf Karsh

May 2005 will once again see Toronto play host to the “Contact: Toronto Photography Festival” ( A month long event featuring exhibits, seminars and other photographic events taking place throughout the city at various venues. Feverish preparations for the upcoming festivities will no doubt produce some interesting, if not heated, dialogue between professional, amateur and student photographers alike regarding the true “nature” of the art of photography. Before we continue lets get some perspective. According to PMA Marketing Research and InfoTrends, digital camera ownership in the U.S. climbed to 20% in 2002. That’s nearly 23 million households. Sales of traditional film and processing services however declined at an average rate of 1 and 2 percent respectively. The recent closure by Kodak of it’s Ontario manufacturing plant speaks to the exponential shift from “traditional” to digital photography within the consumer market. My point here is that by effectively eradicating the “learning curve” which stigmatized the adoption of traditional photography by the mass market, the digital medium has afforded the average consumer the opportunity to play “Ansel Adams” more easily and more affordably then ever before. Whether or not this is a good thing remains to be seen. Just because someone “can” take a picture doesn’t necessarily mean they “should” take a picture. A similar dynamic is evidenced in the film industry with the advent of digital video production. While bringing the technology within reach of everyone may seem like a good thing, the flood of just plain “bad” films saturating the market is not.

Is seeing believing in the digital age? For the purposes of this article I will focus on the divide that exists between traditional photographers (and it’s many facets) and “new school” digital photographers who have at their disposal a myriad of processing tools allowing them to truly “bend” reality. Many traditional photographers hesitant to acknowledge the validity of digital photography as “photography” often cite one argument in defense of their art. The fact that you can never really know if what you are looking at really is what you are looking at. Indeed, digital manipulation of photographs is as old as the medium itself (just ask any celebrity who has had their likeness imposed onto a pornographic photo). In the interests of narrowing the scope of this dialogue lets assume for the moment that “photography”, as it pertains to this writing, refers to the honest reproduction of what the lens is seeing to the final product, be it print or otherwise. In other words, removing your mother in-law from the family portrait falls beyond the scope of our discussion here. But what about removing those age spots? Or crows feet? Or how about punching up those colours in your family holiday photos? Indeed a skilled film photographer, through subtle variations in timing and chemical processing, can achieve almost surreal effects in the darkroom, In the digital age, the darkroom has simply been replaced by the computer. Processing chemicals replaced by “clone brushes” and “auto levels”. At what point though does the camera cease to be a “gadget” and instead become a “brush”? The answer is remarkably simple in that it all boils down to a matter of motivation. People take pictures for one of two reasons, to capture and to express. The moment you peer through the lens with the intention of expressing your values or your world, you my friend are creating art.