et's imagine that I'm a very great artist ("Yeah, we'd have to imagine!"
says someone.) Ho-ho, but humour me, Crivs. Pretend I've painted a magnificent landscape which is hanging in a gallery, and that I'm standing in front of it admiring the fruits of my labour and talent. (In much the same way that I stand in front of my mirror every morning and admire my rugged, manly-man handsomeness.) Let's just say that I'm a 'natural' and that it all comes easily to me, with no great insight as to why I'm so gifted. (Yes, we're still lingering in Imaginary Land.)
Then you come along and stand beside me, and take in my magnificent painting at a glance. You then proceed to expound on why it's so magnificent - the use of colour, the composition, the technique, the detail, the brushwork, etc., - all things that I recognise when I hear you say them, but wasn't consciously aware of in the form of a list when I painted the picture. That means that you have an artistic sensibility (perhaps even greater than mine - my imagined artistic sensibility for the purpose of this post that is), but you then astonish me when I ask if you're a painter too, and you say "No, I couldn't draw or paint to save myself."
So I'd say, if I may be so bold, that I have established one important fact. Namely, that being able to recognise what is good in a piece of art (or anything) doesn't necessarily make us capable of producing it ourselves. I remember, many years ago in primary school, drawing a picture of the young Arthur withdrawing Excalibur from the stone. On either side of him stood two men, though I now can't recall who either of them were meant to be. However, I'd drawn the curve of one man's left boot in a way that I was immensely proud of. The curve was just 'right' and I was extremely pleased with it.
A fellow pupil looked at the drawing, pointed at the boot and said "That's a good boot." He could see it too, though wasn't able to draw himself. (Please, no jokes about self-portraits - you know what I mean.) Imagine the irony of being able to recognise a specific talent in others while not being a receptacle of that particular talent ourselves. And that's the case for just about everyone. I might be better at something than you are, but you're likely better at something else than me.
Voltaire once wrote "By appreciation, we make excellence in others our own property." I like that quote, but it's true only to a certain extent. We can appreciate the beauty of someone as much as we want, but that won't in itself make us beautiful if we're not. We can appreciate an excellent meal, but may not be able to cook such a high-quality repast ourselves. You get the point. I once worked as a letterer in comics, doing it the traditional way, by hand. Now people with no calligraphic skills themselves, by using the computer fonts of others, describe themselves as letterers when they're really not. They're simply typists or 'type-setters'.
So you couldn't fairly describe someone who recognises what makes a good picture but can't draw or paint one himself as an artist, could you? And then you put a camera into his hands. He sees opportunities for great pictures all around him and snaps away all day long. Some of the results make spectacular photographs, but does that make them art and him an artist? I'd say not, and here's why. A photographer uses technology in the form of a camera that he couldn't manufacture himself. "Ah, but artists use pencils, paint and brushes that they don't make themselves" you say.
True, but at one time, all artists did make their own 'tools' and mixed their own paints (from plants, blood, excrement and other things), and their innate ability to reproduce images in front of them (or from their imagination) resided in their mind and was translated through their hand, which they manipulated in such a way as to create an image on a piece of papyrus, paper, canvas, or cave wall. The ability to create something from nothing lay in them, not their tools, which were mere servants with no inherent 'ability' in themselves. Same goes for music I suppose. Musicians have the ability to use instruments to make music, but the music is 'in' them, not their instruments, which merely relay what's in a musician's mind (or soul).
However, it's very different when it comes to photography. Using an 'optical machine' to capture an image in front of its lens isn't the same as producing a tune on an instrument. With a camera, you point and shoot, and anything of interest, beauty, wonder, or excitement pre-exists outside of the camera, independent of the photographer, who has merely recognised that it would make a good photo. If I invented a machine that, by the press of a button, could issue any tune sounding like any instrument I chose (regardless of the absence of musical ability in me, or any effort by me), would that make me a musician? No, of course not. Likewise, a machine that, by the press of a button, can capture any scene or view I point it at, doesn't make me an artist.
Another example worthy of consideration is woodwork. Once, all furniture was made by hand. For example, someone would cut and carve and shape and sand pieces of wood until they'd made a chair. If it was an intricate, ornately-fashioned chair, finished to a high standard, then it could truly be said that the maker of the chair was at least a highly-skilled craftsman, even an artist. That designation would depend on the intricacy of the design and the quality of the execution. Just knocking something together that can be sat on is not the same thing.
So let's explore that further. Nowadays, furniture is made by pushing blocks of wood through machines that ejects them on the other side in whatever size and shape required. Then someone assembles the different pieces, gives them a sanding, a coat of varnish or a lick of paint and, hey presto - you have a chair, or a stool, or a sideboard or whatever. In both cases, furniture is being made, but in only one instance (the former) would the result perhaps deserve the accolade of being considered a work of art. Sure, the first guy uses knives, and chisels, and saws and hammers, etc, but it's him doing the work. With the second guy, it's the machine that does the necessary - all he does is feed wood through it. Not quite the same thing, is it?
Okay, perhaps that's an oversimplification, but I think the truth of my point still stands. And my point is that cameras and certain other devices fall outside of the description of being merely the 'medium' in which an 'artist' works, a popular rationalisation that many camera-buffs use to justify themselves. It's perhaps a fine distinction, but I believe it's an important one. Even if you have an eye for what makes a good picture, but can't draw or paint it yourself, then having a camera shoved into your hands and being suddenly able to snap photographs doesn't transform you into an artist, or your photographs into 'art'. There's more to it than that - unless your definition of art is anything that can be framed and hung on a gallery wall.
Also, bear in mind that, nowadays, artists buy their brushes and paints out of simple expediency. Give an artist a nail and a surface to scratch on and he can produce a recognisable image, but a photographer would be incapable of manufacturing a camera. Could musicians manufacture their own instruments though? Well, I think it's worth remembering that the very first kind of musical instruments were created by those who wanted to compose and perform music, so it's not altogether outwith the bounds of possibility that they could. I can't play the guitar, but I made one in woodwork class when I was at school.
No doubt many people will vehemently disagree with me. After all, it's not easy to relinquish the self-deception that one is an 'artist' when one covets such elevated status in order to validate the belief that one is 'artistic' or 'creative' or 'gifted' in some way. Mind, I'm not saying that the best photographers aren't skilled at what they do, but being skilled doesn't automatically translate into being an artist - not in my opinion anyway. Be satisfied with being a photographer, there's no shame in it - but please - photography isn't Art. At least not with a capital A.