The handbag question: value and meaning

Posted on February 25, 2013


I’ve just been reading a new book by Lucy Souter called ‘Why Art Photography’ and in it she recounts how she always asks her photography students the same question during her course.

The question is ‘What is the difference between an art photograph and a designer handbag?’ (Soutter 2013, Location 179)

She says she always gets the same range of responses which she describes as follows:

“Some are natural modernists; they believe that an art photograph has aesthetic, expressive and craft value for its own sake and that it is inherently more precious than a mass-produced handbag. Others are critical realists. They argue that photography’s function is to tell important social and political truths, whereas an expensive handbag is a mere frivolity…..There is usually a small group who we could call fashionistas who hold the view that the commercial fashion industry makes an important contribution to individuals’ identity formation….others are cynics; as far as they are concerned the photograph and handbag are only worth whatever someone is willing to pay for them…All of these students are right in their own ways, and it is my job to help them to see each other’s point of view…’

Its an interesting question…not sure how I would answer it…somewhere between the aesthetes and the critical realists I think..where do you stand?


Soutter L. (2013) Why Art Photography? [Kindle Edition] Abingdon:Routledge