Photography as Art
I sing only passibly, can't write more skillfully than that, can't draw water and can barely play music on a radio. I was very lucky and pleased and eventually fulfilled by finding photography as a creative outlet. While most other areas of 'art' have a required technical underpinning that is relatively well concealed behind the public impression, photography, because it uses a complex device - a camera -camera, is seen as a 'skill' rather than a 'talent' to be exercised.
In most other avenues of art – drawing, sculpture, painting, dance – the technical underpinnings are so difficult to attain that anyone who achieves some level of skill, no matter how uncreative, is regarded as an artist. Witness the public success of Thomas Kincade. And the inability to attain the skill is obvious because there aren't any technical supports to boost the unskilled along, so an unskilled painter, dancer, sculptor, writer is easily detected.
Photography, on the other hand, is well supported by technology and thus even the worst, unskilled, untalented photographer can occasionally produce a good picture just by random chance. Modern cameras auto-expose and auto-focus so what is left to signal the difference between a hack photographer and an artist who is a photographer?
Well, first, what is the difference between an artist and a photographer – or between an artist and someone who is content just to practice a craft? I read a definition somewhere, so I can't attribute it, that an artist strives to present a view that no one has seen before, to show something in a new way or to bring a new way of looking at a otherwise familiar concept.
That doesn't mean that all artists, or even a significant percentage are good or successful at achieving this goal; it just means that urge to be on new ground is the driving force.
The 'torture' in 'tortured artist' comes from the constant agony of attempting and failing to do that in the vast proportion of attempts. One doesn't have to be a good artist to be a tortured artist.
To actually be creative, one first has to be able to control one's tools, have an artistic vision and then create. In photography, the technical issues are so prominent, and even difficult, that the vast proportion of photographers who get past the 'push the button' stage are content just to achieve technical 'perfection'; to create perfect reproduction of what they point their lens at.
And, unfortunately this passes often for artistry. Look for yourself at the vast number of perfectly done commercial photographs in publications; enormous technical achievement but rarely an artistic ones. When faced with the uncertainty and pain of creativity, many photographers just amend their goal to technical perfection.
What is art in photography and is it possible without technical perfection? To answer the second question first, technical perfection is irrelevant in a good picture, the degree of technical perfection is important only if the lack of it detracts from the impact of the image.
When a picture creates an idea or an emotion that transcends the frame and exceeds the impact of the content alone for the viewer – that is art. It doesn't necessarily have to be a high concept or intellectually fulfilling. To this day I remember a Kodak commercial on television that showed a bunch of puppies and a little child tumbling over each other. It was photographed incredibly well and the supporting music was appropriate and not intrusive. That combination, for me, was art.
There are many good photographers (Gary Winograd) whose artistic vision is less accessible and one needs a little education and understanding to 'get' them. Like tasting wine, the more experience and teaching one brings to a subject, the more that subtleties can be appreciated.
Ansel Adams always springs to everyone's mind when the average person thinks of photographers. One of the biggest disappointments of my photographic life was seeing a large traveling AA show. With the exception of a very few iconic images, his pictures were perfectly exposed, perfectly composed and sterile of feeling. For most of his images, IMO, AA elevated technical perfection above art.
On the other hand, Paul Strand was several levels below Ansel Adams in technical achievement, if by that one means perfect reproduction of what lay in front of his lens, yet his every picture carried an emotional impact that virtually leapt out of the frame.
How does one get to be an artist – even a mediocre one – as a photographer? The same way one gets to Carnegie Hall, practice, practice, practice. Take pictures, look at pictures, understand and internalize the forms, structures and arrangements that resound in your mind and memory and then try to use those concepts to build your own pictures.
Feel welcome to go back to my pictures - some successful, some not so.
Great read, Lew. Some interesting bits to chew on.
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