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The Art of Seeing  #05: The photograph as an artwork and as a document

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A popular perspective on the nature of photography is the one that is being conceived as a neutral document of reality. Considering its supreme representational accuracy and the ability to capture whatever detail the naked eye misses, we can say for sure that photography conveys an effective documentary function. And this was mainly the case, until photography set foot in the world of arts officially. A whole new discussion emerged concerning the clarification of photography as an artwork or as a document. Various dilemmas and assumptions were raised attempting to explain the content, the limits and constrains of such a distinction. Things became even more complex when galleries and museums started to exhibit the work of photographers that were referred to as social documentary photographers, when photojournalism gradually permeated the art market, or when documentary photography interplayed with modern conceptual art.

We could argue that even today, the perceived distinction between photography as a document and as an artwork is still blurry and dim. Is there a discrete line that separates artistic from documentary photography? Does photography constitutes an art form or just a mere recording of reality? Is it an autonomous picture or a real world’s trace? For once more we run across the question ‘what is art?’, accompanied this time by another question: is it possible a document to be justified as a work of art, and if yes, when?

During the last century many photographers walked upon this invisible line between art and document while philosophers and critics provided their view with respect to modern art approaches. But let us go back to 1928 and reflect upon Walter Benjamin’s (1928) list of thirteen binary suppositions concerning artworks and documents:


The artist makes a work.

The primitive expresses himself in documents.


The artwork is only incidentally a document.

No document is as such a work of art.


The artwork is a masterpiece.

The document serves to instruct.


On artworks, artists learn their craft.

Before documents, a public is educated.


Artworks are remote from each other in their perfection.

All documents communicate through their subject matter.


In the artwork content and form are one: meaning.

In documents the subject matter is dominant.


Meaning is the outcome of experience.

Subject matter is the outcome of dreams.


In the artwork, subject matter is a ballast jettisoned during contemplation.

The more one loses oneself in a document, the denser the subject matter grows.


In the artwork, the formal law is central.

Forms are merely dispersed in documents.


The artwork is synthetic: an energy centre.

The fertility of the document demands: analysis.


The impact of an artwork increases with viewing.

A document overpowers only through surprise.


The virility of works lies in assault.

The document’s innocence gives it cover.


The artist sets out to conquer meanings.

The primitive man barricades himself behind subject matter.

The above sentences give us an interesting viewpoint proposing that the documentary and the artistic function may coexist inside a photograph. These contrasting pairs serve as an indication of the function that prevails and dominates over the other. In Walter Benjamin’s view, it seems that despite the possibility of a document’s existence inside an artwork -and vice versa- there can be no conciliation. Nevertheless, the world of art in recent years has embraced a compromise between the two. Maybe, as David Campany (2011) argues:

“Photography has made its strongest claim to art not by choosing between these oppositions but by insisting on having it both ways, putting itself forward as the medium best placed to dramatize the tensions between artwork and document.”

Taking into consideration the above thoughts lets reflect on a mental experiment. Suppose that the following photograph is a documentary photograph taken by a photojournalist concerning the life of Roma people. What would you say about it? Then suppose that it is an artistic photograph exhibited in an art gallery. What would you think now?

Emese Benko

© Emese Benko

Probably, a classification of a photograph under one category would bias our reading against the other. Or maybe after all, as Hercules Papaioannou (2006) notices, there is a post-documentary condition, according to which the photographer is no longer a mere witness, but an active operator seeking for a multi-faceted truth.


Benjamin, W. (1928). One Way Street and Other Writings. (New Left Books, London 1979).

Campany, D. (2011). Traces and pictures. Essay on “Through the Looking Brain, A Swiss Collection of Conceptual Photography.” Retrieved from

Papaioannou, H. (2006). The photograph as a document and the post-documentary condition. In “Post-doc” exhibition catalogue of Photosynkyria International Festival. Museum of Photography Thessaloniki.


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