Academic Papers Le Ngan Ha Dieu

Photography: looking into a modern art form

Pictures seem to prompt more thoughts and imaginations on what else the subject can be, and understanding a picture then creates a compilation of thoughts on its representations, combined with an eagerness to think even more. Hence a need to branch out to even more representations.

Written by Le Ngan Ha Dieu

As far as I am concerned, it is not odd to point out that photography has grown into a form of art, especially in our modernized and industrialized society. It certainly does not bear limitations to a privileged population, nor does it propose extreme senses of aesthetics for one to be qualified to produce and appreciate. Hence, according to Susan Sontag, photography is no longer “the toy of the clever, the wealthy, and the obsessed” (Sontag 1977:5); it became a form of expression using social notations in engaging it to the wider public, thanks to industrialization. Although Sontag also argued that photography is now practiced without being considered a prestigious art form, this variation of photography itself is what sets itself away from its precedent visual method, paintings, in both their guiding of our ways of seeing them, as well as their social use, suggesting the clear shifts in art appreciation and social situations between our day and the time before the first camera’s invention. 

John Berger has had lengthy discussions on how classical art pieces, namely pre-modern paintings and drawings, have presented a form of authority over their appreciators as well as their subjects. The only ones who had their paintings done were the wealthy, privileged, and the paintings themselves act as a tool of showcasing such authorities over the less privileged. The paintings, also being attached to a specific place deemed of higher status, also creates an invisible class barrier, while it “makes inequality seem noble and hierarchies seem thrilling” (Berger 2008:29). It was the reproduction of these classic paintings that Berger argued for a “new means of mystification” (Berger 2008:21). Classical art now can be viewed at anyone’s expense through the growth of televisions and other visual industries, meaning its uniqueness in who gets to appreciate it is diminished, and the ways in which we see classical art now is rather more mundane, more diversified. Similar to how Berger wrote: “The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe” (Berger 2008:8), Scruton also noted on representational meanings of paintings: “…to understand a painting involves understanding thoughts. These thoughts are, in a sense, communicated by the painting” (Scruton 1981:581). The paintings then provoke thoughts, which are formed from our own knowledge and understanding of whatever is depicted in the painting. The mind looking at the painting is now analyzing the thoughts we were provoked by, putting them into the social context of the painting itself, comparing to ourselves’ to form a solidified understanding of what we see. In this sense, is it safe to assume that art appreciation is somehow similar to self-reflection, where understanding oneself is a step in understanding art? 

But how did photography come to be the “mass art form” (Sontag 1977:5) as it is today? Sontag suggests that industrialization opened new social opportunities for the photographs to present themselves in social contexts, making viewing and reacting to photographs become more socially common, therefore enhancing the idea of it as an art form in the public’s minds. Her idea is sound regarding the fact that photography has in fact risen to prominence through the growth of economies in marketing and advertising tactics. Hence, Berger was also referencing the reproductivity of photography, especially in reproducing classic paintings to distribute them into mainstream media (Berger 2008:19-20). He argued that through this reproductivity, photography diversifies the meaning of a single painting, which further forms new mystifications; it not only reproduces the sight of the paintings, but also how people view them. My argument is, as photography can perform such reproductions on paintings, surely it can also perform similar reproductions on itself, notably with the incredible mobility it has nowadays. Their wide publicity surely would bring diversified meanings as a consequence; just like how traditional art – paintings – are supposed to be thought-prompting, thoughts evoked from various meanings of a photograph would bring forth a new consciousness for “photography-as-art” (Sontag 1977:5). 

Of course, the mere aspect of reproductivity does not mean photography and paintings are essentially the same. Scruton drew up a distinct concept that comes between them, and it lies in what we see in them (the subject), which leads to how we understand them. It was the ability of photographs to represent, whereas paintings point us directly towards its subject without much of such representation. He argued: “One might put the point by saying that a painting, like a sentence, is a complete expression of the thought which it contains” (Scruton 1981:589), and “the photograph acts as a visual reminder of its subject that we are tempted to say that it represents its subject” (Scruton 1981:590). From my understanding, pictures seem to prompt more thoughts and imaginations on what else the subject can be, and understanding a picture then creates a compilation of thoughts on its representations, combined with an eagerness to think even more, a need to branch out to even more representations. The possibilities are then limited only by our knowledge and how far we can interpret the subject. Hence we see pictures through what it represents, not simply what it is at sight. “Thus if one finds a photograph beautiful, it is because one finds something beautiful in its subject. A painting may be beautiful, on the other hand, even when it represents an ugly thing” (Scruton 1981:590).


  1. Berger, John. Ways of seeing. Penguin UK, 2008.
  2. Scruton, Roger. “Photography and representation.” Critical Inquiry 7.3. 1981: 577-603.
  3. Sontag, Susan. “In Plato’s cave.” On photography 3. 1977.

This essay was submitted as a “Synthesized reflection paper” for DCUL 416 Visual Sociology

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