Photography. Ayn Rand, to the bewilderment of photographers everywhere, denies that photography is an art:
A certain type of confusion about the relationship between scientific discoveries and art, leads to a frequently asked question: Is photography an art? The answer is: No. It is a technical, not a creative skill. Art requires a selective re-creation. A camera cannot perform the basic task of painting: a visual conceptualization, i.e., the creation of a concrete in terms of abstract essentials. The selection of camera angles, lighting or lenses is merely a selection of the means to reproduce various aspects of the given, i.e., of an existing concrete. There is an artistic element in some photographs, which is the result of such selectivity as the photographer can exercise, and some of them can be very beautiful -- but the same artistic element (purposeful selectivity) is present in many utilitarian products: in the better kinds of furniture, dress design, automobiles, packaging, etc. The commercial work in ads (or posters or postage stamps) is frequently done by real artists and has greater esthetic value than many paintings, but utilitarian objects cannot be classified as works of art.
(If it is asked, at this point: But why, then, is a film director to be regarded as an artist? -- the answer is: It is the story that provides an abstract meaning which the film concretizes; without a story, a director is merely a pretentious photographer.) [RM, 74]
Beyond demonstrating her lack of specific knowledge about photography, this passage also shows the weakness of her theory of definitions. Much of Rand's argument against photography as art stems from her entirely arbitrary definition of art as "selective recreation." Of course, Rand would deny that her definitions are arbitrary; yet they are. Definitions merely define what people mean by the words they use. They are usually social conventions in that they arise from the attempts of many individuals to make their meanings understood by other people. There is no such thing as a right or wrong definitions: there are merely definitions excepted by most people and definitions accepted only by individuals or eccentric groups (e.g., Objectivist definitions). Generally speaking, it's best to follow standard usage in the use words; otherwise, the chances of being misunderstood will tend to increase, sometimes dramatically.
Rand wants to believe that art requires selective recreation. She tries to defend this point of view by emphasizing the importance of selecting only those concretes that are "abstract essentials." This touches upon another fallacious aspect of Rand's view definitions, words, and concepts: her essentialism. Since Rand never provided a convincing explanation of how to distinguish an "essential" from a non-essential abstraction, her essentialism merely becomes a cover for her arbitrary assertions. The essential is whatever Rand declares to be essential. Once Rand grants herself the exclusive right to determine what is essential, she can arbitrarily dismiss any type or genre of art as non-art on the grounds that it concretizes "non-essential" abstractions.
On purely philosophical grounds, therefore, Rand's assertion that photography is not art is insupportable. Yet, curiously enough, it's not even consistent with Rand's own definition. Rand's belief that art photography involves only an insignificant bit of selectivity demonstrates her ignorance of that particular art. It also demonstrates the dangers of making dogmatic assertions about subjects you don't know much about.
To be sure, Rand appears to have at least inkling that she might be in over her head. She does at least understand that there is some selectivity in photography. She mentions camera angles, lighting, and lenses, but what she fails to mention is the most important aspect of all: selection of subject. The most important aspect of any photograph is the subject, and this is most emphatically chosen. Indeed, photographers will go to a great deal of trouble to get the subject they want. I speak from my own experience as a photographer. Except in rare instances, spectacular photos don't just happen by accident. They take enormous amount of planning, of placing oneself in situations that are likely to yield find images. As an example, consider the following photograph, which I took about a month ago:
There was an enormous amount of "purposeful selectivity" that went into that photograph. It is a photo I had been thinking about for over a year. It required a great deal of planning and effort to bring off. There's only a brief time of the year where you get to this specific location (i.e., Discovery Point at Crater Lake) while snow is still present around the caldera; and there's no place to stay, except at an expensive, well-booked-in-advance lodge, within 25 miles. In other words, a picture like this doesn't just happen. You have to want it: which means, you have to select it, just as a painter or a sculptor selects his subject.
Rand acknowledges that photographers can exercise some selectivity, but not enough to make photography an art. Photography, she claims, is mostly a technique; but the same could be said of painting and sculpture. The main difference between painting and photography is the tools: one creates images with paint, brushes, and canvas, the other with a camera, lenses, and filters. Otherwise, they are merely two means of achieving the same end: creating two-dimensional images.
Consider the following two images. Which is the painting and which is the photograph?
They are actually both photographs. Nor has either photo, beyond some minor tweaking of exposure and contrast, been digitally manipulated. Rand would have us believe that such images may contain an "artistic element" but are otherwise not art. Wherefore so arbitrary a declaration about something she really doesn't know much about?