Can Astrophotography be Considered Art?

The debate as to whether photography can be an art – or whether (at least some) photographs are art – has been long standing, and in some circles doesn’t end. The fact that there is some kind of equipment involved, and a process that wasn’t available in Renaissance Times to the great masters, seems to be a sticking point for some. For those that only consider art to be a handicraft executed with traditional materials, astrophotography must seem like arcane technical fiddling resulting in – what? A picture of the moon or stars? How is that art?

That there are now about a trillion photographs per year being taken around the world, most of them with cell phones, doesn’t help resolve anything, I suppose. Then again, art is not about a set kind of process or a formulaic end product. It can’t be. Otherwise, the skillful application of a paint bush to the side of a barn is art just as is the Mona Lisa.

Defining what is and isn’t art isn’t a matter of technology applied. At least in my mind, art is a process of communication in which thought and creativity are combined to express something of meaning. This is of course very open-ended, but in my experience there’s little more specific that can be brought together in one short definition that fits the range of artistic expression I see around me. Art isn’t just about a defined product, because that removes the receptive mind of the person experiencing the art from the equation, too. The receptive, critical mind of the observer/audience is as important to defining art as is the creative, skillful, intent of the artist.

This is nearly as vague as stating that “art is what an artist does or makes,” but even this second idea isn’t all that far off the mark. Who is an artist? Is someone who has great technical skill but does not apply any critical thought to their work, or who never puts that work into the sphere of a receptive audience, an artist? I’m not sure, of course. An interesting case in point is that of the late American street photographer Vivian Maier, who is being recognized as an amazing artist, but only after others found her work and popularized it. Was she an artist? A hobbyist? An obsessive-compulsive photo-snapper hoarder?

Some photographers have rejected the idea that they are artists. One of the greatest living photographic masters, Sebastião Salgado, is a Brazilian photographer whose work is considered as social documentaries. He has stated that he doesn’t think he makes anything new, but instead picks up things around him to tell stories. Yet, when I see his work I am moved, and his work has the qualities I identify as art: great creativity, expression of ideas and passion, and technical mastery. For me, an artist must bring some measure of all of these things together, regardless of the medium being used. I call Salgado an artist even if he is reluctant to do so.

“I don’t know art but I know if I like it,” or perhaps more honestly, “I don’t know how to define art, but I know it if I see it” might be closer to the mark. And perhaps more honest, too.

I am certainly prepared to dispense with the question of whether a photograph can be considered as art. More than anything else, it depends on who is looking at it. One point in favour of the proposition that astrophography can be an art was provided in 2012, when an art museum in the USA put on an exhibit of astrophotographs as art. This step – of having a curated exhibit at a museum – is one of the only widely-recognized measures of whether something that may previously be considered “not art” suddenly makes the jump into the “art” sphere.

“Starstruck: The Fine Art of Astrophotography” (http://www.bates.edu/museum/exhibitions/past-exhibitions/2012y/starstruck/) was an exhibit at the Bates College Museum of Art (Lewiston, Maine, USA), on exhibit from 8 June 2012 through 15 December 2012. This is the first instance of which I am aware that an art museum has taken on astrophotography specifically as art.

Others have approached the question, too. Russell Corman considered on his blog whether astrophotography is art or science (http://www.rc-astro.com/resources/art_or_science.html), and describes what he does as a “very technical art.” (http://www.rc-astro.com/about.html). Interestingly, I would argue against amateur astrophography for creative purposes as being science. For me, science isn’t just the application of technology for some activity. Science, like art, is a process that results in interaction with a community, and with the communication of scientific results in a way that the community understands and recognizes. It may be educational, fascinating, and highly technical, but if an activity doesn’t put results into a peer-reviewed journal, for me it’s not exactly “science” either. There certainly can be amateur scientists (Darwin was one), just as there can be amateur artists (most, in fact, are, by definition: someone who does what they do for the love of it, not because it’s a regular 9-5 job). It’s not whether or not you work for some “sciencey” institution that designates you as a scientist – it’s whether you apply the critical thought process of science to a problem that interests you and then disseminate the results so that others can learn what you have learned.

I expect that this question will remain an open one, and that’s encouraging and exciting. I don’t consider all astrophotographs as art any more than I’d identify all photocopies as art. However, could a photocopier be used by an artist as part of her work? Certainly. Could a camera and telescope be used by an artist to create an image that was thought-provoking and moving? Yes. Can it be considered art? Show me and we’ll discuss it. The precedent of the Starstruck museum exhibit opens the door in a serious manner. An examination of some of the images that were included in the exhibit is, perhaps, an indication of where the art is to be found in astrophotography. Some of the images available in the on-line material about the exhibit were in fact taken by NASA spacecraft. They were selected and prepared for the exhibit by artists, using a variety of processes and final media. The show also included images considered historically significant that were created for documentary purposes.

I recall my dear, late mother’s view of art, too, when I approach questions like this. For her, art was something that represented something she recognized. She loved Pablo Picasso’s early works, but hated his cubism. She even kept a print of his Harlequin on her bedroom wall, not knowing who had done the work until I pointed it out to her. If a work wasn’t a skillful, draftsman-like rendering of something she recognized (and liked), my mom wouldn’t give it the time of day.  For her – and for everyone, in reality – the determinant of whether something is considered as art depends on a complex set of cultural expectations and filters. Recognizing that we all have those sorts of filters is an important first step to asking a more difficult question: is my own set of filters keeping me from seeing what others might be seeing? I think that’s where art has one of its strongest roles in society, and it’s where an artist’s contribution is most vital. Bringing things forward that others may not see. In that sense, some astrophotography is art indeed.

Copyright © 2013 David Allan Galbraith
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