Photography and Function

My Mother Posing for Me, by Larry Sultan, at SFMoMA

Sort of a follow-up post to my review of Just My Type.

When we lose track of what art is for, it becomes harder to appreciate and we give in to the temptation to judge everything based on arbitrary distinctions of process and method.

Ever since my post on Art, Craft, and Function, I’ve been thinking about the function of photography and how it relates to art. Photography still occupies a somewhat unique place in most art museums where it is displayed on its own. It’s not typically part of other art movements nor does it get mixed in with the paintings, drawings, and sculptures.

This reflects the fact that photography as a medium hasn’t quite sorted out what is, and what isn’t art. The ruin porn debate started to touch on a lot of this. Similarly, there is a huge grey area where only upon editing a collection of photos does it become art. Photography can be repeatedly revised and reviewed in ways that no other media can be.

What has become clear to me though is that the more functional photography becomes, the less likely it is to be considered to be art. I believe this to be because of how photography is usually used—specifically as a way to illustrate or describe a specific narrative. And the more supplemental to the narrative it is, the less likely it is to be considered art.

Which makes some sense to me. Art is expected to evoke the imagination while photography’s function is documentary and not imaginative.

It doesn’t have to be like this. With proper editing, the most documentary of government photography can become art. In doing so, it also helps us understand how functional photography can fit in the museum.

To-date, the only functional photography I’ve seen become really art-worthy are either transcendent family photographs* or personal photos which are part of a larger exhibition.** As a result, the way most people use their cameras ends up being deemed low-brow even before they’ve had a chance to do anything with the camera. This is also why most people who want to take art photos end up gravitating toward street photography or landscapes—it’s what we’ve been told is art.

*Sally Mann’s Immediate Family, Nicholas Nixon’s Brown Sisters, and Larry Sultan’s Pictures from Home are good examples of this.

**For example, Annie Leibovitz’s family photos in her Photographer’s Life exhibition.

The Brown Sisters, 1975, by Nicholas Nixon, at SFMoMA

It probably also doesn’t help that personal functional photos like these need to be seen in groups and context. Larry Sultan’s My Mother Posing for Me is often shown by itself but it can only be appreciated in its larger context within his project. And Nixon’s The Brown Sisters needs to be seen in the complete series of yearly shots since 1975 in order to make sense. Museums are geared toward the “each item is a work of art” mentality and so don’t deal well with works which belong in a series.

Which is a large portion of why photojournalism doesn’t usually make it into art museums.* Not only is it crippled by its need to illustrate a narrative, it also requires multiple images together in order to tell the story. Plus, if something is too arty, people start to question the journalistic integrity.** If photography’s function is involved in documenting the truth, anything which is too perfect triggers our lie detectors.

*Photo museums? Yes. Art museums? Not nearly as often.

**Sebastião Salgado and the ethics of taking truly beautiful photos of truly ugly things is the best example here. But the ethics of ruin porn are also relevant to this area.

So where does functional photography fit into a museum? A few ways. Like the best street photography, it can evoke its own stories about what’s happening in the frame. The story doesn’t have to be the true story, it just has to be something which most people respond to—whether it’s photos of kids being kids in a way that most of us don’t have the balls to photograph or photos of family members just aging over time. Or it can be something so striking that no text is really required to explain what the situation is. It can take us to the moon and show us the wonder and beauty of space.

It has to stop being about a specific story and instead illustrate a more general narrative. When we see the photos we can fill in our own details.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

13 thoughts on “Photography and Function”

  1. Pingback: Ethics | n j w v
  2. “And the more supplemental to the narrative it is, the less likely it is to be considered art.” — I think this also goes toward the fact that, generally, the older a piece of photojournalism is, the more likely it is to be acceptable as fine art, because it is being disconnected by time from its narrative use.

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