Sociology and The Art World of Photography

By Elizabeth Ambrose

This semester I had the opportunity to study with Dr. Christian Vaccaro, a passionate associate professor for the Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Sociology program, in my Honors College Core class for Unit C. In his class, we focused on the sociology of different art worlds such as music, fashion, street art, and film. Within this analysis, we identified the five primary ways we look at art in a sociological perspective: collaborators, conventions, resources, distributions, and judgement. These elements helped me and the rest of my class to analyze specific art worlds accurately and to gain a better understanding regarding the unique sociological element surrounding them. At the end of our unit, we were asked to compose a thesis paper that looked at any particular art world, and to dissect it from a sociological standpoint. For my thesis Unit C paper, I chose the art world of photography because I have always seen it as an underrated art form and craft. I hope the readers of this article will gain a new respect and perspective of photography, and realize the importance of sociology outside of the scientific world. In closing, I would like to thank Dr. Vaccaro and the Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Sociology Department for giving me this opportunity to share my work with others. It is truly a privilege and an honor to do so.


The world of art has many different forms and standards that are unique to their specific craft. For example, the art of film is moving into the digital world of computer generated imagery (CGI) instead of just standard film. Film, however, is judged and dictated by the reaction of fans as opposed to the world of fashion where most of its art is deemed worthy by a small circle of higher up executives. I have chosen to analyze the art world of photography, which in comparison of the other art worlds, is fairly new. Photography became popular around the early 1800s and has since evolved tremendously. The beauty of photography is that the work produced is universal. You don’t have to be a professional to take quality pictures and they are easily accessible to everyone. You can purchase many different types of cameras such as a digital or DSLR that allow amateurs and professionals to enjoy the art in different levels of seriousness.

Even though photography seems like an obvious art form to us, it wasn’t always seen as such. It is a debate that has been going on for approximately one hundred and eighty years, yet we still cannot agree on it. People such as critics and photographers have argued that its technique and form was too literal to compete with works of art. Since photographs capture real images, it does not allow the mind to think creatively and imagine. Another argument as to why photography is not an art is because it is seen as too easy. In some eyes, a photograph is an image captured within seconds as opposed to a painting which could take hours to make little progress. There are artists, however, who believe photography redeems itself as art with the use of nude models. Photographing nude people allows all details to be exposed without paying for a model to pose by the hour. Depending on a person’s point of view, the argument can be deemed valid from either standpoint. As a photographer, I can attest to the fact that taking a picture is more than just the click of a button. Depending on what you are capturing, photography can be as time consuming as painting a picture, or even longer. (H) To truly appreciate and understand the art of photography, one must analyze and understand the collaborators, conventions, resources, distribution, and judgement that exist within it.

Read More: Photography is it Art? – The Guardian

The collaborators that exist within the world of photography are highly dependent on the particular artist. For example, if he/she runs her own business as a professional photographer and is hired by a company or one person to do shoots, a collaborator could be the subject of the photograph, the company or group the photographer is working with and of course the photographer. On the other hand, a photographer who works for a magazine would be working with collaborators that could be found in the fashion world such as models, designers, makeup and dressing specialists, a crew for lighting, sets, and designs, and executives of the magazine. A nature photographer would primarily deal with him/herself, a crew if it is an expedition photo shoot, and possibly the collaborators of a magazine (editors, publishers, etc) if he/she was hired by someone like National Geographic. The conventions that would exist within photography vary upon their status as a photographer. (H) The goal of the collaborators in photography is to produce a high quality image that will evoke some sort of reaction from their target audience or the public. Their motives also depend on why and who they are working for. Referring back to the National Geographic example, motives for collaborators in this situation would most likely be capturing an image that best symbolizes the specific featured article topic. The opportunities that arise when people collaborate with photography is that you receive multiple different ideas and feedback. Having a diverse range of input from different people emulates the general public, being that no one thinks and perceives things in just one way. However, the problem with collaborating is that an influx of ideas also can hold up the creative process. Depending on how stubborn people can be with their opinion, the team of collaborators will never come to terms with how the art should be created and displayed.

When a photo is judged there are several conventions that are analyzed. These conventions are the unspoken rules and criteria that are used when judging and creating art. The conventions of photography are broken down into five main categories. The first of these categories is technical criteria. Here, judges are analyzing the focus and sharpness, contrast, lighting, and color. Visual and aesthetic criteria is another convention that focuses on the framing and choice of viewpoint, the background, design elements and principles, the appropriation of techniques used to manipulate a photo, and the visual impact that is produced. The third category deals with content, which involves more subjective  specs like emotion, mood, feeling, meaning, the symbolism and metaphors that might exist, the subject’s impact, and relevance. This is obviously a more gray area in terms of the judging process because the photo might illicit different feelings for viewers. The fourth abstract convention is viewer’s response. As stated by its title, this is like the content category since it relies heavily on what the spectator gains out of it. The focal points of this are visual, aesthetic, intellectual, emotional, excitement, and interest. Finally, the last category is called general characteristics. This involves incorporating thoughts about the photographer and how he/she sees their work. It’s judged on originality, style, context, photographic vision, empathy, insight, and validity. (Photographic)

Other conventions of photography also include ethical and moral factors. In regards to nature and wildlife photography, photographers are highly discouraged from disrupting the habitat and interfering with the animal. A true nature photographer is expected to respect the environment and to understand that any disruption could disturb the balance of the wildlife. Although these rules are unofficial, photographers know and follow this ethical and moral code. Conventions are necessary because like laws in a society, the art world would fall apart without having set standards for people to follow. It also helps to incorporate and influence cooperation between people by making sure no one oversteps boundaries and crosses lines. However, people might also see conventions as a bad thing because it limits potential and ideas for photos. Others argue that pictures that have too much editing such as cropping and color change performed on them are a violation of photography ethics because it can deceive the viewer and portray a different meaning than what is originally captured. This is very common in the practice of propaganda. A picture is worth a thousand words, and these words can be warped to mean something else by the image produced. Some photographers also argue that editing pictures is a disgrace to the photography community and business. It comes across as “too fake” and takes away from the pure creativity and simple art that is photography. Conventions can also become gray areas because people have different beliefs with ethics and moral conduct. No matter what stance you take on the argument, conventions are without a doubt necessary.

Read More: Posing Questions of Photographic Ethics – New York Times

The things that are used to produce and create a form of art can be defined as resources. From this, resources can be broken down into material and personnel. Material resources, by definition, includes all physical materials that are used to produce the art. For photography in its basic form, this would comprise of items such as the camera, film, lenses, and tripod. Personnel resources are the people who have motives and drive to engage in creating the art. Examples of this in photography this would be the photographers themselves, technical personnels like set and lighting people (for profession photography shoots), and publishers for photographic magazines. The problem with this is that the cost of equipment and hiring people can become very expensive quickly. An example of this is a quality DSLR telephoto lens that is commonly used with nature photographers to capture distant images. This lens starts at a base price of about $1,800, and that is on the cheaper end. While the right professional equipment and staff will be pricey, the product quality produced will be exceptional. A professional photographer having the proper resources is what sets them apart from amateur photographers who use their iPhone, or it could even be the deciding factor for getting employed by a company or person.

Distribution is the process that involves how art forms are shared with the public or a specific audience. Photography aligns with the gallery distribution system, where their art attracts critics and fans to review their work in display room. However, photography is not just limited to a gallery setting, but it is applied in everyday life. The most common form of distribution of photography would be through magazines and other printings. With the technology we have today, we are able to take pictures with any type of camera and have them printed and developed at our nearest drug store. This allows for easy sharing between friends, family, or a larger audience. Another form of distribution is through social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Distributing via social media makes sharing extremely easy and quick, rather than a magazine which may take weeks. Distribution of photography occurs because it is a way for serious and amateur photographers to retrieve feedback on their art and to share it within their art community or the public. It helps them to become recognized for their art and to develop a significance. Despite the opportunities, there are also limitations that arise in distribution. The main reason for this is money. Opening an art gallery is not a cheap task to do, but this is why the use of Instagram makes distribution easier for photographers. It does not cost anything to create an account and they can reach a large audience. The artists can also make a profit by gaining sponsors to support their work or by advertising and selling their art to buyers.

The judgement of photography is quite similar to the judgement of music, in that the general public and small executive boards both play a role. In the United States we have what is called the Photographic Society of America (PSA). This group was founded in 1934 and invites amateurs and professionals to band together for their love of photography. The organization holds contests based on different skill levels, open online evaluations, and online galleries where people can comment on certain pictures. In this case, there is a community and a panel of PSA judges that deem what pictures are spectacular versus mediocre judgement that comes from the community is similar to judgement in the modern art world, where graffiti artists judge one another’s works. PSA judges allow there to be more of a formal and structural evaluation in the process, but ironically, anyone is eligible to become a formal council member. If you wish to be on the board, you need to become a general member of PSA, submit an application, and pay a fee. This draws another parallel to the art world of music concerning the Grammy’s. Anyone can become a voting member and allow their vote to count as long as they pay a fee. (2016-17)

Even if you are not a member of the PSA, you still make daily judgements regarding photography without even realizing it. This is demonstrated by how usually on a daily basis we are attracted to certain ads or magazines. Usually, our eyes are attracted to magazines with the most compelling covers. Being intrigued by the pictures on the cover leads to purchasing that certain magazine versus the other magazines on display. The same applies for advertisements that use an enticing photo to lure consumers. For instance, if a Coca Cola advertisement using a photo with great quality and a very intensive shot as opposed to a Pepsi ad where the image might be grainy and not as creative, more people are probably going to favor Coca Cola because our brains interpret that as the better option.

Read More: How Photography and Online Video Influence Customer Purchasing Behavior – Marketing Profs

Social media also provides a way for people to informally judge a photo. We measure the quality and success of a photo it is by looking at the different comments by people, or looking at the numbers of likes and shares. Instagram is easily the biggest contender regarding this. People strive to create and share the perfect image to score the most number of likes and reactions. You can find thousands of Instagram pages that are dedicated to photography. Most photographers just share their photos on their page in order a method to gain a following and earn feedback on their work. This form of judging allows all types of people to participate in evaluating a photo. Most likely when judging, they use the categories of viewer’s response and content to determine if they like it or not just because these categories do not require any formal background or specific knowledge on photography. If they find an image that they judge as aesthetically pleasing, then they’ll click the like button.

I have always been fascinated by the world of photography and consider myself a serious yet amateur photographer. In my opinion, the art of photography is overlooked or neglected when it comes to studying art worlds just because most people are unaware of all of the different collaborators, conventions, distribution, and means of judgement that arise from it. While you can justify this for any artist in any art world, I really believe people do not appreciate true professional photographers as much as before. I believe this to be because of the new camera technologies and image qualities we are able to produce with only smart phones. The era of film cameras and dark rooms is fading while social media websites such as Instagram and Facebook are rising. Today, editing effects and filters are very user friendly and easily accessible through websites or even a phone’s features. We can manipulate images easier than ever, and photoshopping takes away the charm of a truly beautiful photo. Before the days of Instagram, if you wanted a certain lighting or casted shadow on an image you had to actively think about how to create and produce it. I’m not trying to discredit any modern day photographers, but I think there is something to be seen by comparing the days of film cameras to now.

With that being said, I believe what we need to do is to help educate people on the true values and appreciation of photography. Obviously we can not force everyone to sit down and be lectured about it, but we could incorporate this into younger generations by promoting photography in schools. Rather than having your regular art class focus solely on drawing and painting, teachers could plan a lesson about photography and a project that goes along with it. Depending on school budgets these lessons will be on different scales, and if a school can afford it they can add a photography class into their schedules. As a future educator and huge supporter of STEAM in schools, I think the best way to tackle an issue like this is to educate younger people because they are the ones who decide the future, are (usually) more outspoken compared to adults, and are easily motivated by their passions. It’s also important to encourage people to experiment with taking photos artistically. Photography is unique in that it allows people of all skill sets to enjoy the art of photography, unlike music where a beginner might have to go through breathing and technical exercises before they can truly experiment with making music.

Photography is an art world that has evolved rapidly rather quickly over time, and with the movement of technology its future has the opportunity to go many different directions. What is more concrete, however, is that it is an art that all levels of photographers really enjoy. It provides a sense of community and allows people to express themselves through the eyes of a camera lens. Photography reaches a variety of people of different levels of skills, which in turn allows for many different conventions, collaborators, resources, distribution methods, and means of judgement to exist. There exist limitations and opportunities for each factor of this art world and it is important that every photographer considers all of these aspects. Understanding the complex world of photography from a sociological standpoint helps people to gain a greater appreciation for photography, and allows us to ponder on how we can improve and increase other’s acknowledgement of it. While we may still wonder how we can spread awareness and recognition of the art, one thing remains concrete; photography is a beautiful, complex art world that is enjoyed by everyone everyday.


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