When does a photograph become a work of art?
How do I decide if the pictures I am doing are snap shots or something worthwhile? When does a photograph become a work of Art and who decides?
Yowza. These are not easy questions at all — questions, plural. Let me have a shot at them — okay, a timid shot at best — one at a time. I'll start with the easiest one.
We all know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and probably art is in the eye of the beholder, too. That does not, however, make it interesting, good, worthy, or important art. In our modern culture, almost anything can be called art, but that doesn't improve it. I was told by a British friend of mine that anyone from his country would not dream of calling themselves an artist. Such a term is one used by others, but never self-referentially. I sort of like this idea, but I admit I don't stick with it in practice. Just the opposite, I actually prefer to think of myself as an artist rather than as a photographer. But, some of that is just a semantic teaching aid.
Perhaps of greater interest is the whole structure of value in the art world. Who has the magic wand that sprinkles Master Dust on an up and rising star? Some say it is the New York Gallery scene, or perhaps major museums. Others think it is publishers. (It is not, I can assure you.) Far too much emphasis is placed on buzz and media attention, but here again that doesn't necessarily imply greatness.
My answer is unsatisfying because it's neither controllable nor objectively measurable. I think the decision about great artwork is nothing more than a cumulative measure of lots and lots of individual decisions amassed over time. The Sistine Chapel is considered great art because millions and millions of people have all come to that conclusion over time, not because some power broker declared it so. Likewise, Ansel Adams was a great photographer because so many people over time all agreed that he was — in spite of the fact that no one in academic or critical circles now still thinks that way. Who decides? Every single person who looks at a work of art does so in their own mind and the sum of those decisions is the final verdict.
By implication of my answer about who, the when is a function of the cumulative decisions. Time comes into play. So does distribution. It may have potential to be art when it exists in the closet, but if no one sees it, it's like the proverbial falling tree in the forest — no one has the benefit of experiencing it.
Snapshots or Something Worth While?
And now we arrive at the really sticky question. I may think my new photograph is the bee's knees, but how do I know my judgment is valid? Group agreement might be some form of validation, but that will depend entirely on the group who sees the work. That pesky "eye of the beholder" stuff again.
Ultimately, I don't have an answer — but I do have a strategy. Produce your work to the very best of your ability. Send it out into the world. Listen to feedback, but measure it against your instincts. Learn from the feedback, but don't supplicate yourself to it. Produce more work to the best of your ability. Be honest with yourself. Strive for deeper understanding and expression with all you've got. Give your work and yourself time to mature. Finish things so you can let go and move on. As has been so often said, even a fool who persists may eventually become wise. Then produce more work and plunge deeper into the process of awareness and expression. Soon, you will no longer care about the terms used to describe your work — snapshot or "Fine Art." Do not confuse the map with the territory.