What defines a photograph?

Answering this question requires more than stating: "an image created with a camera". To begin with, a camera may not be involved at all (photograms). So we have the question of media. The purpose of the image must be examined, which brings up genre. Also, presentation and/or context plays a large part in our perception of what defines a photograph.

In many ways, a photograph defines itself. The evidence is in the image.

Dorothea Lange: Migrant Mother; 1936

The above photograph, Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother", is recognized as one of the greatest images produced. As a photograph, it is rather straightforward. It was produced with a camera, using a lens, on film, then printed onto photographic paper. So, medium-wise, it is unquestionably a photograph. Consider the following:

Anna Atkins: Dictyota dichotoma, in the young state; and in fruit. c.1843

This image uses neither a camera, nor what is considered standard photographic media (film, paper). It was not printed from a negative. It was part of the first publishing illustrated with photographic images. Is it still a photograph?

So with just these two examples, a debate exists. Does the medium define photography? Does the purpose? The presentation?

‘Ian’, 2006

Now this image. Is it a photograph? A bit of information: it was taken digitally, and only exists in that form (it has never been printed). It is also a snapshot, in that it was taken casually, more as a record that anything else. So we have questions about, again, media, purpose, and presentation… Most importantly, with this image, is that idea of the distinction between a snapshot and a photograph. What makes an image one rather than the other, or is there no distinction? Is a snapshot valid? Can a snapshot be a photograph, or is just quibbling over semantics?

Herein probably lies the biggest dilemma. With the utter ease of making and (for want of a better term) sharing photographic images – think mobile-phone cameras – how do we separate the wheat from the chaff? When does a photographic image become something more than a snapshot?

Timothy H. O'Sullivan: Ancient ruins in the Cañon de Chelle

The answer may be sort of elusive, but I think it lies somewhere with intent. Intent gets wrapped up with meaning, which is attached to the image. This makes the image deliberate. The deliberation does not automatically imbue any kind of quality, but it does bring an image above snapshot status. A good photograph is a combination of deliberation, concept, materials, presentation, and skill. When all of these come together we get something special.