‘Photography isn’t looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.’
Don McCullin

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Best-known for his war photography, Don McCullin is a photographer walking the line between recording what he sees and capturing his feelings, or emotional connections with his subjects. His focus on ensuring his subjects are depicted with dignity and compassion, not merely as flat pictures for the news image industry, but real people, real places, gives his images an arresting expressive energy. He gives you the strong impression of seeing through his eyes and feeling what he felt on meeting that person or encountering that landscape.

I would argue that this expressive power comes in part from how we think of photos, a sort of unwritten agreement about the truthfulness of photographic images. Somehow in the back of our minds we cannot shake the feeling that what you see in a photograph is real and true.

With the rise of digital photography, the ubiquity of photographs must take its toll on this uncanny feeling of the photo – that it is real and not real, there and not there, memory and object. However I don’t think enough of us are digital natives yet for us not to continue to feel something about the veracity of the photograph.

Though we know photos can be doctored, airbrushed, touched up, Photoshopped, we still see them as real. Our head tells us to be cautious, look closer, analyse what we see, but our heart cries out ‘It’s real! I am seeing it with my own eyes!’

This feeling of truth is I think strongest with portrait images. For those of us old enough to have loaded a film in our camera and seen the negatives come back from the developers, we cannot shake the idea that the light touching that person has been crystallised, saved, by the taking of the photo.

In Susan Sontag’s On Photography, she explains this:

a photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image); an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask.

The old thought that on first encountering photography, people may have thought a photo steals a bit of your soul only has continued credence as we all feel a little that it might be true; that a photo of us shows something inherently truthful about us – we cannot believe that the camera CAN lie.

With a painting or a sculpture, no matter how lifelike, we still see the touch of the artist. In a photograph, we see the touch of the subject. The photographer’s hand seems more distant than the painters, though their eye seems closer.

Do you agree? Does the ‘real-ness’ of a photograph make it more expressive than painting or sculpture?

Tate Debate aims to open up new discussions around art, museum practice and wider culture. The topics debated are chosen and written by a range of people across the organisation.


Mab MacMoragh

There's a difference between the expressiveness of photojournalism and the expressiveness of artwork, although the distinction between these two states (or functions) of a photographic image can sometimes blur or overlap especially over time. The commodification of photography puts another spin on it, that of the bottom line and/or propaganda. Does an image possess more of a claim on reality if it is a documentary photograph? What is reality? Is it art? Is a poem less real than a landscape because it is constructed of words rather than light? Jean Baudrillard was speaking of cinema but his words also apply to photography when he said: "The secret of the image...must not be sought in its differentiation from reality, and hence in its representative value (aesthetic, critical or dialectical), but on the contrary in its 'telescoping' into reality, its short-circuit with reality, and finally, in the implosion of image and reality."


I don't believe this question can be answered. The degree to which something is expressive can only be understood by the person who is trying to express something, the artist, and, therefore, comparisons cannot easily be made. Degrees of expressiveness are not quantifiable, and, even if they were, there would then be disparity betweeen the artist's and viewer's perspective.


The heading of the post confused me - "Is photography is more expressive than other art forms?"

Michael Fenelon

Ruby Falcon, Just the opposite you ignorant and biased woman. In painting you are NOT limited to what you see in front of you, unlike photography.

Rich Bunce

I think for a lot of people, photography is more accessible than other mediums. The broad nature and widespread use of photography means people are able to recognise, relate and react to a photograph faster and with more confidence. I would argue that the accessibility and wide reach of a photograph certainly creates a sense that photography is more expressive, even if this isn't the case.


Love the question , how long is a piece of string? Well put.


I think Cinema is more expressive than Photography but having said that I think it's just easier to get the main meaning in those art forms but if you want to go deeper photography can be as obscure as any art form.


A photograph is the transposition of what someone sees.

Usually, the image shows what most of us haven't seen...a live situation going from holidays, concerts, accidents, birthdays...etc

The danger of digital shots is the airbrushing technology.

What is useful, is the information carried by a photograph (the exif and the geo tag with most new camera). It can locate excatly the place and time where is was taken.

A photo can be slightly more real because it is caught within a few seconds as a sculpture and a painting takes time...it is stretched and can take hours - weeks and months sometimes.


Photography is the very least expensive form of art. Everything involved can be borrowed and rented. The only thing taxing is thought.


The above being said, as long as you have a good idea or concept, any art form can be expressive. You can photograph your painting, and with the right lighting you can express even more emotion than the painting itself.


All of the art forms can be expressive in different ways -- none are "more expressive" than the others. To the extent that any work of art is expressive to a high degree that just shows that it is a particularly successful example of expressive art.

Dance and theatre, for example, can show facial expressivity but also movement and bodily expressivity seen visually and experienced kinaesthetically. Music is also expressive, even though it need not express emotion, to the extent that it conveys qualitative (rather than propositional) ideas through sound. Literature can be expressive through words and poetic imagery. Film combines expressive aspects of photography, theatre, literature and often music and dance as well. Architecture and sculpture can be expressive in line and texture and density, etc.

If you are looking for the one quality of photography that sets it apart from all the other arts "expressivity" is not it.


Aili Bresnahan

George Sharp

Photography is not more expressive than other art forms, just more personal and in some cases more engaging. To capture a second, an instant a physical record is intimate but not neccerceraly expressive

Ileana Doble H

I understand what you're saying, and as a photographer, I find every form of art as a form of expression, because art is an expression in itself. Maybe the thing with photography, because of its relation with reality, as you explain, is that it express more convincing. Great post!


Photography is an act & it's the art expressing ones inner feelings thruogh a skillful use of a medium, however photography captures what we can't see within a given time. It ISO it's the best form OT expression.

Susan Milligan

I truly believe that all art is expression. Photography is an excellent form of expression. It's an exact image. Some people feel emotions through that image and some don't. Like other art forms it depends on the skills and the character of the artist.

Staged photos and staged portraits lack emotion to me. Candid photographs tell stories, give meanings, trace history, and capture events. I think for a fine photographer it's his skill at capturing the images, getting the light just right, and the surroundings that give the meaning and expression to their work.. Luke Swank did a good job of this in his short career, of picturing life in Western Pennsylvania in the 1940's.


in my opinion different forms of art could not be compared by the degree of expression they communicate, certain piece of art, it's concept and the effect it creates could be compared to another piece. however different forms of art are different ways of communicating the thought behind the piece and all of them are expressive in their own way.

Johan Ã…gren

Art photography may provide more strenght to some people. Perhaps people that require an expressive expression to fulfil their requirements of an art experiment. That said, it may also be the case that expressive art tend to distract some people from projecting there own inner subjective meaning to the artwork. It's all about extraversion and introversion and what level of static symbols and meaning that is (pre)loaded in to the artwork.


I find it really tough to be 'objective' when it comes to photography as compared to painting or sculpturing.

Choosing a certain way of seeing a photograph or a painting ot a sculpture makes it 'real' for me in that my reality of viewing those objects exist pretty much for me and for my sake.

Given the way the brain works, it's really hard to say that my way of viewing is the same as someone else who might be viewing the photograph/painting/sculpture at the same time/space.

Ricardo SAjor

I dislike questions like this. Like asking what is art?

Nikolai Ishchuk

I've actually blogged on a similar issue today, which was triggered by my visit to FOAM Amsterdam a short while ago... bit.ly/nY64Z3 (the thing is too long to quote)

Photography can be as expressive or bland as any other art form. It's not expression that photography has a problem with, it is, like you say, the assumption of veracity. Though this has been discredited (both in theory and practice) many times over, the public at large doesn't seem to have caught up. It probably has a lot to do with the many uses to which photography can be put, the ensuing confusion between them, and the belief that its purpose, its very raison d'etre is to be truthful. Photography as an art needs to be released from this obligation.




Michael Fenelon

Photography is very limiting with the "decisive" moment. Painting is not limited in time or space and is hence infinitely more creative (I'm not talking about Coca Cola bottles, LOL, nor most modern art) Do any of your photography lovers know about, for example, Victorian narrative painting? I doubt it. They praise what they know about and ignore the possibility that they are simply ignorant. "They not only don't know nothin', they don' even suspec nothin".

Sunil Shah

The "real-ness" of photography makes it both highly accessible to anyone wanting to use it as a medium and to anyone looking at a photograph, due to its ubiquity and therefore our collective visual literacy in understanding the image. Whether it is more expressive than painting or sculpture is irrelevant really. Everything is expressive if we know it well enough.

Tim Best

Photography is not necessarily more expressive. It IS much more specific, more scientific about it's message.

Robert Ash

It depends on the viewer, and the personal connection the photographer is able to make with the viewer.

My current landscape photography exhibit at the State Theater of Kansas is an example of this. It had by far the most successful opening night in the history of the gallery. ARTtrust's Paris headquarters even did 2 write-ups on it (story on ARTtrust's Paris, France, website www.ARTtrustOnline.com see the News section). The president of the board of directors told me a board member since 1994 who'd never bought anything from there bought 2 of my pieces. The State Theater gallery shows a lot of painting, sculpture and crafts, so my photography was certainly expressive to that board member. It touched her in a special way that all their other exhibits for whatever reason hadn't done before.

My most recent portrait photography customer is a breast cancer survivor who had been through chemotherapy and radiation therapy and wanted a keepsake portrait of her for her family in case anything happens to her (she's at year 4 of surviving and year 5 she says is the pivotal year for her).

I used to doubt the ability of photography to be as expressive as other art forms but I've learned that the emotion, message and personal connection and relationship that art establishes with the viewer is the key factor involved in being expressive, it's not necessarily the art form itself.

Shaina Craft

Now that's just silly. Has no one thought to address what the word 'expressive' even means here? If we are talking about simple communication then this argument is very similar to discussing if German is a better language than French or Spanish. Are apples better than oranges?

Perhaps we need to realize that our purpose, the desired function of our artwork, should determine the medium.

Robert Ash

It's not silly at all. It's anything but silly. We're not talking about 'simple communication'. We're talking about a piece of art speaking to a viewer's heart, about a piece of art moving them in a way that's personally meaningful. That can be anything from making them feel better when looking at it to making them feel like they're entering another world for a moment for a pleasant escape or diversion to literally giving them a sense of hope they didn't have before in certain cases. At least that's what 'expressive' means to me personally.

One of the outcomes of my exhibit, for instance, has been young people getting excited about photographing a historic building in its restoration process. And enrolling in photography classes. And adults who never cared about photography becoming excited about it. That was a most unexpected result for me.

Art, including photography if the artist is able to make that connection with the viewer, is much more than simple expression. It can speak to a person's heart.

Diana Jordan

Beauty and creativity are in the eye of the beholder but also it does not have to be expensive to capture images that some people may miss.Bringing out the living subject/subjects and their inner spirit is all down to the camera man/woman's magnetism.Also it pays to keep your eyes wide open at all times and be aware of everything that is going on around you.

Ruby Falcon

I find photography very expressive because I have complete control over the world in which I am creating. There are also no limits or restrictions to what I can portray unlike fine art where you are recreating a place, person, object almost exactly as they are!

This is just my opinion!


I would question the assumption that people necessarily attach a notion of veracity to a photograph. The Internet is brimming with - often wonderful, sometimes screechingly awful - photography which has clearly taken far more than a click of the shutter to produce - from carefully composed land- or cityscapes through long exposures, use of filters, stunningly lit portraits, all manner of post-processing techniques, double exposures, clever/gimmicky lenses...

Maybe I just see more of this because it's what I enjoy looking at (and, with limited success, trying to make myself). But there is a great amount of photography that is clearly not interested in, or claiming, veracity, and it seems unlikely to me that its viewers would ascribe that quality to it either.

Is it expressive? Yes, definitely. More so than other art forms? How long is a piece of string?



Robin Tryloff

Thank you for this thought-provoking essay.