Is photography art?

Patrick Ward Pearly Kings and Queens, East London, 1974

Patrick Ward Salvation Army at a care home, Accrington, 1976

Patrick Ward Master of Hounds, Blencathra Hunt, 1992

Patrick Ward Ballet students waiting to dance, London, 1978

While down in London last week, I picked up a copy of Grayson Perry’s new book Playing to the Gallery. As you would expect, it is both witty and profound at the same time, with his illustrations illuminating his reflections about art. I was particularly taken by his paragraph on photography:

‘We live in an age when photography rains on us like sewage from above. So how do you tell if a photo’s art? Well, you could probably just see if they’re smiling. If they’re smiling, it’s probably not art. And you could also ask, is there a lot of meaning emanating from this image?’

Perry then asked Martin Parr for his definition of an art photo. “Well, if it bigger than two metres and is priced higher than five figures” was the slightly facetious reply.

Now I am not going to get embroiled in the arguement about photography and art – too much energy has already been spent in that direction. My own interest in photography is in its value in documenting the moment. I am fascinated by that frozen moment in time that will inform future generations about who we are. My support for photojournalism is to ensure that the hard work of great photographers is made available for a wider public.  The books I publish are a record of their time, whether the 1940s and 50s through the lens of Bert Hardy, 0r, more recently, Pete Dench’s often shocking images of our obsession with alcohol. Are they art? Well, they don’t sell for five figures and they are available only in a modest 29x27cm page format – so that might answer the question. And people do smile – maybe not all of them but a good percentage.

At least they do in Patrick Ward’s marvellous Being English. Fifty years of documenting his fellow natives have resulted in a perceptive and funny take on how we celebrate and enjoy our leisure time (even in windswept Blackpool). Patrick is the consummate professional; having started work as ex-Picture Post‘s John Chillingworth’s assistant in the early 1960s, he went on to work for The Sunday Times and Observer magazines in their pioneering days. I have not asked Patrick if he considers himself an artist – I am sure he will be happy to be known as the great photographer that he is.


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