Into the Photographers’ Universe: What Separates Photographers from Artists?

Camera no. 3, 1962

Camera no. 3, 1962

This essay describes a global community of photographers, their constant struggle to be recognized as artists, and the constant failure of this struggle. In this essay, I introduce the term “photographers’ universe” to define the community of photographers. An abyss separates this photographers’ universe from the art world. There is Venice Biennale, Documenta in Kassel, and numerous other events that are important for the art world. And then there are events like Rencontres d'Arles, Kaunas Photo, Riga Photomonth or Riga Photo Biennial that are important for the photographers’ universe, but not so for the art world. As a case study that can help to understand the abyss separating the photographers’ universe and art world, I discuss the international photography magazine Camera in the 1950s.

What has changed since the 1950s and how we can apply the historical knowledge to understanding today’s situation?

Instagram is a great place to study the photographers’ universe of today. Many creative photographers use Instagram as one of the means of sharing their work, especially at early stages of their careers. Today, a fitting description of a particular stage in a photographer’s career is “under 10,000 followers on Instagram.”[1] These photographers—very much like their colleagues in the 1950s—explore the potential of photography as an autonomous creative medium.[2] They use Instagram as an alternative to the exhibitions and portfolio publications in magazines. But, like with the photographic art in Camera of the 1950s, creative photography explicitly made for Instagram exists on Instagram only. These images are known only to other Instagram users. People outside the photographers’ universe are not very much interested in the current technical and aesthetical trends of Instagram photography. Apart from the dedicated Instagrammers, who else knows what is a “flat lay” and “white on white” or who else cares about the differences between editing options of apps such as Meitu Pic and VSCO? Although Instagram promises a wide reach for one’s creative work, this reach typically remains within the bubble of the photographers’ universe. Even 10,000 followers on Instagram are not enough to make a photographer an artist. At least not for the mainstream art world.

Camera no. 5, 1963

Camera no. 5, 1963

[1] Katherine Phipps, “10 under 10K: Emerging Black and White Street Photographers on Instagram,” The Phoblographer, October 12, 2016.

[2] Lev Manovich, for example, calls the work of such photographers “designed photographs,” which he distinguishes from “professional” and “casual photographs.” Lev Manovich, Instagram and Contemporary Image (New York, 2016).