Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor



This research examines a medium of symbolic communication--photography--to understand how the social context of the use of that medium shapes its social meaning. Camera club photography is compared with photographic activity which is institutionally legitimized as art, in order to elucidate how art world legitimization shapes the nature of photographic activity. The distinctive featues of "art" as a communicational system, as manifested in photography, are described. A variety of research methods were employed. Data on camera club activities were gathered through participant-observation over a three year period. Observations of art photography activities such as exhibit openings and conferences were conducted. Interviews augmented observational data: 10 camera club members and 19 art photographers make up the interview sample. Pertinent documents were analyzed as well. Art and camera club photographic activities diverge. Art photography is highly personal and concentrates on representations of artists' ideas. Successful artists contribute innovations to the field. Art photographs do not convey easily interpretable meanings. Successful work is described as mysterious and interpretations involve viewers' own personal reactions to ambiguous content. Conversely camera club photographs are direct, their content straightforward. Camera clubs carry on the pictorialist tradition in photography, updated with borrowings from commercial portraiture, nature and travel photography. Camera club photographers demonstrate their competence through skillful reproduction of the camera club aesthetic code. Innovation and personal self-expression are devalued. Art photography has been constructed in contradistinction to all other uses of the medium. The accessibility of photographic technology to amateurs and professionasl alike, and the ease with which competence in the medium may be attained are inverted in art photography. Art photography transforms this democratic medium into a pursuit requiring special criteria for admission. The relationship between camera club and fine art photography may be described in terms of folklorists' distinctions between folk art and fine art. While innovation attends art world legitimization, the club context frames amateur photography as a traditional activity, maintaining aesthetic values distinct from the art world. Both highly skillful uses of the medium, the social contexts of camera club and fine art photography shape the social meaning of these activities.