The difference between photography and photographic art is far from clear, and it is almost impossible to determine where one finishes and the other begins. The simple and extreme stating points are those adopted by a snap-shooter with a camera on the one hand, and an artist with a blank canvas on the other. The snap-shooter raises a camera to his eye and uses the technical wizardry of the device to "take" a photograph. The word "take" is important because the snap-shooter has merely made a record of something perhaps created by nature. He has added nothing to the image other than a process of selection that determined in which direction to point the camera. The artist with a blank canvas, on the other hand, must begin by using her imagination. She must begin with a creative process and strive to achieve a concept she has visualized which may not exist in the physical world. The tools used by the snap-shooter and the artist are also different, but of little significance. In the modern world, the artist may choose to use a computer and sophisticated software to realize on canvas an idea conceived in the mind.
The creative process may take many forms, but begins only when the artist understands how an image might be improved and made more interesting to others by utilizing her skill. Some photographers may argue that the simple act of cropping a photograph is inspired by their artistic vision, but others see this as nothing more than a trial and error process of improvement. There is of course an element of creativity in cropping an image, because the photographer must have the skill to know whether such actions result in improvement. However, this hardly represents photographic art.
At the next level, photographers may argue that skilful composition or clever use of differential focus, aperture or shutter speed are elements of photographic art. There is undoubtedly some merit in this view, but the simple use of a low shutter speed to blur an image of a racing car, or the alteration of a portrait by the straightforward application of a Photoshop filter, represents something from the lower reaches of creativity.
Photography of the nude is another area surrounded by blurred definitions. Here, art, glamour and even pornography can be difficult to separate. Anyone can photograph the naked male or female body by releasing the shutter of a camera, but this is an area where images very easily fall the wrong side of the ill-defined boundary that separates art from blandness or even poor taste. Once again, it is the artistic awareness and creativity of the photographer evident in the final images that makes all the difference. It is all too easy to expose or shock. It is much more difficult to create something which will be recognized by the large majority of viewers as a work of beauty. In the case of the nude, success is never far removed from the careful use of atmosphere, abstract effects, subtle lighting, and concealment and suggestion rather than simple exposure. The photographer who perceives such indistinct boundaries, and who understands the power of abstract or impressionistic approaches, may rightly claim to be involved in a form of photographic art.
Conceptual photography is undoubtedly art. A creative process which begins with an idea, particularly when driven purely by inspiration, and then blends all the necessary elements together to form an image, is certainly best described as photographic art. Montage imaging is an extension of conceptual photography and is an area of work requiring a high degree of artistic skill. Amazing creations can be found in high-quality photographic books, and on the internet galleries, but they are not often seen in local photographic society exhibitions. Many photographers consider such work to be too close to graphic art.
Various modern technologies have now merged with traditional skills to blur the boundaries even further. Some artists scan painted textures and shapes, or even use mathematical techniques to generate extraordinary patterns and images, which are then incorporated into original and creative photographs. Such work involves a high degree of skill in the use of computers, traditional photography and even chemical processing. However, as in so many other cases, it is the creative input and artistic awareness of the author that ultimately determine whether the work should be described as photographic art.
The line between photography and photographic art is indeed difficult, and perhaps impossible, to define. However, it is probably reasonable to suggest that an image which has been taken significantly forward by its author from the moment of capture, and consequently shows artistic awareness, creativity, originality and a degree of interpretation, may with at least some justification be described as photographic art.