What is the ultimate objective of artistic photography? (Let's exclude photography for journalism.) My understanding is that the objective is to make an emotional impact on the viewer. I could also see that the photographers themselves also gain some satisfaction. But isn't that a by-product and not the primary purpose?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Kiran, while there is an inherent subjectivity to photography, and while we do want to encourage questions about the artistic and other more subjective aspects of photography, I am sorry to say, this particular question is both overly broad and much too subjective. I appreciate the effort to bring more art-side photography questions into play here, truly! Please do not let the closure of this question discourage you from continuing to ask about those aspects of photography. All we ask is, try to word them so they fit with the format of stack exchange, and so they are answerable. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    Commented Oct 8, 2018 at 18:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ The question incorrectly presupposes a single common "ultimate objective," and that false premise makes the question unanswerable. Different photographers have different goals: to influence; to entertain; to express; to earn a living; to document; to question; to educate; to unite; to amuse; to shock; and so on. To try to cover all those motivations in a single expression is to dilute them into something meaningless. \$\endgroup\$
    – Caleb
    Commented Oct 11, 2018 at 2:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Caleb - that could, in itself be an answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – AJ Henderson
    Commented Oct 15, 2018 at 16:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AJHenderson Maybe, but here's why the question is unanswerable is more a reason to close than an answer IMO. \$\endgroup\$
    – Caleb
    Commented Oct 15, 2018 at 17:19

3 Answers 3


I'm going to avoid talking about the goal of art overall — partly because I think that's explored nicely at What makes "fine art" fine art?, but also because the specific question of the of the role photography as an artistic medium has a definitive answer.

In fact, let's take for granted the broader, general notions of "what is art?" — art as communication, art as emotion, art as conversation, art as creation, art as provocation, whatever. Yes, sure. But photography as a medium is in service of all of that. We don't need to argue about what exactly "all that" is, because even when people disagree, it can all be right.

However, when we talk about different media, these actually have different real and physical properties. Sculpture is about form in space, and may be about the properties of stone, wood, metal. Pen and ink is about lines, modeling, and texture. Textile art is about fibers and colors and draping and weight. Art can fulfill all of the big ideas that make it art without attempting to be true to these — but following the nature of the medium opens up another facet, and that's the aspect that's interesting to concentrate on here.

So, photography! Fundamentally, this medium is about drawing with light captured from the reflection of the object itself. This gives it a connection with reality that's different from all other visual arts — this, along with a highly mechanical nature makes nature printing in some ways a closer cousin than other two-dimensional visual arts like drawing or painting.

The photographic process and the nature of the camera — a light-proof box with an aperture — provide unique limitations which form the backbone of the photographic language. Photographs:

  • Distill the time of capture, whether a short exposure or long, to a single, unified still image. They distort motion, by freezing or blurring it.
  • Reduce three-dimensional space to a flat frame, with perspective, focus, and depth of field frozen in a way that's all to do with optics and nothing to do with an omniscient observer's perception of form.
  • Select a narrow field of view, providing a narrow window onto the world.
  • Set color and key in a fixed way, removing the human vision system's natural accommodations for changing light.

Altogether, photography involves an intentional distillation from reality to image through a bounded mechanical process. John Szarkowski identifies this as the key unique element of the art of photography, calling it "a process based not on synthesis but on selection" in the introduction to The Photographer's Eye.

Art, of course, is not bound by these limitations, just as sculpture can incorporate found materials or ink drawings be combined with colors, but art which is photography is art which works with, through, and because of the unique elements of the medium. Likewise, the objective of photography as art is to use this medium in the strongest way possible to accomplish the larger goals of the artist, whatever those are.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "To photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude." - Susan Sontag from Regarding the Pain of Others. This goes right along with Szarkowski's statement that, I believe, distills the most fundamental nature of what a photograph is. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Commented Oct 8, 2018 at 19:55

If seen from the purist viewpoint: Making a somewhat permanent copy of the visual impression an incidental or staged scene provides, for aesthetic or emotional enjoyment of the result, enjoyment of the process of creating, or both. Focus is on the visual impression.

The counterpoint to this is what journalism, simple product photography, other documentary applications, keeping memories, pornography and other are about: Creating an incomplete but economical copy of the subject matter for information, documentation, communication, emotional usage - the focus is more on the subject matter here.

In practice, you will usually have a mix of both :)


Specifically artistic photography? I would say that an image "succeeds" (fulfills its objective) when it is an image that someone wants to look at more than once. There are a multitude of reasons why an image might capture someone's attention like that -- from simple beauty, appreciation of technical merit, historical significance and so on. It might not be the original photographer who's attention is captured, for example, it seems likely that many of Vivian Maier's photographs were only appreciated after her death.

And, I suppose, that implied in "someone wants to look at more than once" is the idea that the more people who want to see it more than once makes an image "more successful" -- but I think using eyeballs as a measure of quality would fall apart after a while. At some point, you get millions of people looking at something because millions of people have looked at something.


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