What, in your view, makes photographs unique as an art form?
I think the primary thing that makes photography unique as an art form is that the camera is a powerful tool for abstracting time. At its most basic, the camera is a box with light-sensitive material that can exposed to light for a wide range of times. Only because of photography are we able to see a single scene in a way that our eye could never capture in a single glance—either for an abnormally long period (minutes, hours or days) or for an abnormally short period (thousands of a second). The camera changes our ability to perceive, capture and represent time in a way that other artistic tools cannot.
Because we can now perceive change differently, our understanding of our world has changed and, with it, our perception of motion and change in the physical world. While working of some of the assignments in Part 3: Visual Communications, it occurred to me that some of the visual conventions we now take for granted very likely owe their existence to photography, whether still or moving images. Where did "speed lines" or distortion of a moving object come from in illustration without having seen motion captured on film? And were cartoon cells influenced by the individual frames of a motion picture?
To me, this suggests that every photographic image—by its very nature—is an abstraction of our perception and that it has fundamentally changed the way we see our world, permanently.
It occurs to me that abstraction is also present in the moment of creating a photograph. Unlike most (all?) other arts, the photographer is a step or two removed from his or her creation—we cannot normally see the film as it is being exposed and we can only see a mediated representation of the a digital image as it is being captured. There is little or no immediate possibility of a direct, manual or sensory creation with the thing being produced.
Think of the production of artworks in relation to time: photographs are always in the present – they are captured not synthesised. Think also about what we mean by ‘photographic image’. Does it have to be something permanently fixed? Does a photograph have to exist in hard copy? Is there a difference between a printed photograph and a digital image that sits virtually on someone’s device, for instance?
I'm not sure I completely understand the distinction being made: photographs "are captured not synthesised." Since the early days of photography it has been possible to synthesise photographs by combining or otherwise altering images whether in-camera or in post-production. It is so common now that it is not always clear if the image we are looking at is a 'photograph' that was 'always in the present,' a purely digital creation or some combination of techniques.
I'm also not sure about a photograph having to be permanently fixed or to exist in hard copy. My work on re-appropriating images for Assignment Three showed me that photographs can persist powerfully in people's memories and imaginations, whether they have access to the 'original' (assuming there is just one) or not. Once frozen in a photograph—or perhaps in a striking sequence from a movie or video—I think that the memories they leave can become 'fixed' in the imagination. Not only that, but it seems to me that those images in the imagination have the power to shape and reinterpret memory itself. More than once I have seen family members 'remember' an event because they had seen a photograph of it, only to be informed that they had not been present or perhaps even alive when the photograph is taken.
I don't think the great distinction in photography lies between prints and digital images. There is indeed a difference in experiencing a print versus viewing a digital image on-screen or as a projection, but I think that there is something qualitatively different between an image that started out as a piece of film—there is or was an original, physical artefact that had been exposed to light—rather than the output from a digital sensor which is a mathematical representation of captured and interpreted data.
Beyond these considerations, though, I think that the most important distinction to be made in photography is between images that are still and images that move. They are captured differently, show different things and are perceived and remembered differently by their viewers.