Bert Hardy, 1940

Take a look at the above image. What if I ask you: “What is this”?

Not “What’s in this”, but “what is this”. I’m pretty sure the most likely answer – at least the one I would give – is: this is a photograph.

Let’s go through these now:

They all are photographs as well. This doesn’t sound like a very bold statement, nevertheless there’s something intriguing under its surface that becomes clearer when we switch to (mostly) any other form of human creativity.

Stay with me here:

What distinguishes PHP from something like client-side JavaScript is that the code is executed on the server, generating HTML which is then sent to the client. The client would receive the results of running that script, but would not know what the underlying code was.

→ This is a manual (PHP manual).

All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, those who in their own language are called Celts, in ours Gauls, the third. All these differ from each other in language, customs and laws.

→ This is an authobiographic story (Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallico).

QUIRE TRELAWNEY, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17– and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn and the brown old seaman with the sabre cut first took up his lodging under our roof.

→ This is a novel (R. L. Stevenson, Treasure Island).

One’s-self I sing, a simple separate person,
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.
Of physiology from top to toe I sing,
Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse, I say
the Form complete is worthier far,
The Female equally with the Male I sing.

→ This is a poem (Walt Whitman, Leaves of grass).

This week, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

But, as Mr. Dylan himself has said, his songs “didn’t get here by themselves.” The influences that have informed Mr. Dylan’s work are legion.

→ This is an article (N. Y. Times, Listen to Bob Dylan’s Many Influences).

1. Milk
2. Bread
3. Coffee

→ This is a grocery list.

And this is exactly how you would describe them if I’d ask:

  • a manual
  • an authobiography
  • a novel
  • a poem
  • an article
  • a list.

Why are we so prompt to describe any of the objects in the first set as a photograph, but we didn’t call the items in the second one just writing? The same would apply to a list of sounds including a song, a jingle and a ringtone, or a list of drawings with a painting, a sketch and a blueprint (and so on).

There are indeed sub-species of photography – many of which represented above (street photography, portrait, photojournalism, landscape, “fine art”, casual instagram shot) – but this is exactly what they are: sub-species. Most of the times, the line between a “functional” representation of reality and a “work of art” is easy to tell: an essay might be wonderfully written, but it still is an essay (which proves that it has nothing to do with just form, beauty or craft). Not so with photography: even what is usually called “fine art photography” is hardly considered “art” by some, relegated instead to some peculiar niche of photography or illustration.

Let’s get back to the pictures for a minute. Fan Ho’s street photography gives a lot of attention to lines, geometry, contrast, composition. They are “beautiful”, but their main purpose is to represent a real scenery, not to be just nice to look at. Mark Seliger’s portrait is staged, lighted, posed with the same care a painter would adopt; a creative effort is spent to obtain a pleasant, aesthetic image, but – even if it could eventually be hosted by a gallery – its destination is a magazine. Don McCullin is a photojournalist: his goal is to document facts; nevertheless, this goal is often reached because his images convey an inexplicably powerful content that trascends the mere recording of a fact. We also give, in our most casual Instagram shots, a certain degree of attention to composition, filters, balance, even if we’re taking the picture of our breakfast.

Photography has a peculiar bond with reality: it cannot be a pure work of the intellect. This is its curse: it is always “in the middle”. But this is its blessing as well, because that “place in the middle” is exactly where the creative, artistic process is supposed to happen. Move too much towards reality (whatever it might mean), and you’re a mere recorder; point your eyes too much at yourself and you’re just taking a selfie. This tension is what makes a work of art worth creating and enjoing.

Because of its curse, photography bares the secret that “conventional” arts keep hidden. It doesn’t matter at all if a photograph is “art” or not, I don’t think anyone cares. But we can tell a photograph is “interesting” when it gives us a glance (through its unavoidable point of view) at the world; it is much less interesting when it is just a representation of the self.

Isn’t it the same with a novel?