Is Wedding Photography Art?

(Above image: Bouveret, Pascal. Une noce chez la photographe, 1879.)

Almost no one can define art concretely, but everyone has an opinion about it. In some cases, we pretty much agree: The Mona Lisa. Michelangelo’s David. Starry Night. Others, not so much: A urinal displayed as a sculpture? A 5-year-old’s finger painting? ….Wedding photography?

My favorite definition of art, given to me by my high school art teacher, is simply “visual communication”. The artist has something to tell the viewer, and he or she communicates through a visual medium rather than with the spoken word. Not all visual communication is good art, but I like this definition because it includes three important components: An artist, a message, and an audience.

It took a long time for photography itself to be accepted as art. It took even longer for color photography to be considered art. Now, I frequently find myself in discussions about whether or not wedding photography is art, usually only with other wedding photographers (because the rest of the art world doesn’t really care). The main arguments I hear against it as an art form are that “art is made, not captured”, and that you are not free as a wedding photographer to communicate your own message, instead telling the couple’s story. Duly noted. But let’s pick those arguments apart a bit.

Many of the great classic portraits were commissioned pieces. (For example, the Mona Lisa – probably commissioned by the subject’s husband). Many even celebrated the weddings of important people, like Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding Portrait:

Eyck, Jan van: "Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his bride", 1434

Jan van Eyck. “Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his bride”, 1434

For more famous wedding art, check out this awesome collection on Flickr. Some of these artworks are simply artists interested in weddings as a subject, but many were commissioned by their subjects.

All right, so the subject matter of weddings doesn’t exclude an image from being art, or whether or not it is commissioned work. What about the intentionality of a photograph? Does a photograph have to be constructed to be art, or can it just be captured? To answer this question, I look to the street photographers. Henri Cartier-Bresson. Roy DeCarava. Vivian Maier. These artists took their cameras to the streets and just observed and captured, and the photography world accepts them as artists of high caliber.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Now, here’s the thing. In the end, maybe it doesn’t really matter whether your wedding photos are art or not. It’s all just semantics. I’ll be the first to admit the term “fine art wedding photographer” is WAY overused in our industry. I’m not a Cartier-Bresson or a Van Eyck, and I never will be. I can pretty much guarantee that the wedding photos I take will never go on to make a huge impact in the “high art” world. (And that’s a good thing, in my opinion.)

What does matter is that your photographer treats his or her craft like an art form. If your photographer doesn’t think of himself as an artist, he may still capture your day thoroughly, but not with care or craft. Everything is shot from expected angles, with expected lighting, and every wedding he photographs starts to blend together with the same approach. And that’s fine for some people, but it’s not the way I want my clients to be treated.

The artistic photographer sees every wedding as a new opportunity for storytelling. She finds new and interesting angles from which to shoot. She composes carefully and thoughtfully. She waits for just the right moment to press the shutter. She edits carefully. She considers all the effort that went into the details of your day to make it unique and beautiful, and represents your wedding as a work of art itself.

So, whether or not you think wedding photography is art… the mindset of the photographer you hire matters.

What do you think about the great wedding-photography-as-art debate? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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