Monday, December 16, 2013

Is photography art

Recently, a member of the photography forum I frequent posted a question to the members of the forum; "Are you considering yourself to be an artist? If no, what else? If yes, what's your message?"

While I think this is too open of a question, it does bring up a few points about the duality of photography, as a recording device and as an artist's tool. Here are my thoughts on what constitutes an artist and the use of a camera to create art. If you have a different viewpoint or philosophy about the topic, I welcome your thoughts. Feel free to share your ideas in the comments section below.

The wonderful thing about photography is that it does span so many disciplines. Photography is used in astrophysics, aeronautics, engineering, macro science, medicine, robotics, geography, archeology, anthropology, journalism, entertainment, film, security, military, manufacturing, textile printing, and so on, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

Each one of those requires different approaches and most of them are not "artistic" in nature, at least according to conventions we consider to be art. The core of the process is mechanical. A machine is used to capture light, through a series of chemical or digital processes, to deliver a resulting product based on the manipulation of that process. Art is not created by a machine but by the person manipulating the machine. A camera can not create art any more than a pencil can create art without an artist behind it.

Just because someone can obtain a proper exposure, follow some pre established rules of composition and post process it to be appealing to the eye is no qualification for art.

As an artist, I feel art is a deliberate process. A concept is formulated in thought then, through experience and understanding of my tools, that thought is given shape and substance to produce the desired effects on the substrate of my choosing. As a tattoo artist it begins as an idea or concept then it is put on paper as a conceptual sketch which is then transferred to the skin and finally rendered permanently into the skin. If I am designing a logo it also begins with an idea before it is put on paper then brought into a computer for development.

We are so accustomed to thinking of art as something that is created from nothing. I put pencil to paper and within an hour I can turn that blank piece of paper into a work of art. Since we have all put pencil to paper we can all relate to the process and appreciate the dexterity and subtlety of hand needed to create a beautiful drawing. Appreciation becomes a tangible emotion because we have all been there.

A composer puts pen to paper and in a month has written a symphony. There is a theme and sub themes that run through the melody that can move a person to tears when they hear it. Copies are made and handed out to musicians to play. They did not write it, they just copy and interpret the notes they read while being directed by a conductor. Would they then not be considered artists? After all, they are simply technicians adept at manipulating a machine (the instrument) to reproduce the desired effects created by the original artist (the composer).

We do place artistic value on someone who can manipulate an instrument in an adept way. Someone who can produce a pleasing sound from a guitar or flute or piano is considered a musician and a form of artist because we understand that manipulating those instruments properly, to create what convention calls music, is difficult. Can I come along and pick up a guitar or flute, sit at a piano and create sounds? Sure I can. With some fiddling I can probably croak out some semblance of a tune, but that constitute musical artistry? Of course not. Why? Because it lacks the refinement and style we, as observers, have come to understand what good music is.

A gift for me from Haley, 12 y.o.
But how is it that we non-musicians can differentiate between what good music and bad music is? Let's expand that to visual arts also. How do we determine what good art and what bad art is? The answer is because we have the ability to compare and contrast.

This qualification process operates on two levels though; objectively and subjectively. Our objective side analyzes the art piece being presented and can see if there is some mastery involved. Is the skill of the producer evident and at what level of quality is that skill. Subjectively we also analyze that art piece and question how it influences us emotionally. Does it align with our sensibilities and our current understanding of what art is? Does it match our tastes? Does it match our ethics? Sometimes these two sides collide and one part takes over the other and leads to conflicts.

With photography, artistry is rather distilled. Technology has leveled the curve between skill of the operator and skill in the engineering. Which leads to the question; how much of photographic art is the photographer and how much is the equipment. Sadly I think we all know the answer to this when we are asked to critique someone's image. Because we understand the mechanics behind the photograph we can dissect that particular image and determine how much actual technical skill went into creating that image. I am sure we would all like to say what we really feel too, but conventions as they are, we refrain from being impolite.

Unfortunately we all know that is the truth, even if we can't publicly acknowledge it. We know this because we have the ability to judge through comparison and contrast. We compare all the images being presented to us today and we contrast that one we are asked to critique against all those thousands of images, including our own. Because we have a trained eye, we can probably discern flaws more readily than the general public.

If you noticed, I said "technical skill" not "artistic skill". Going back to my opening statement, I feel art is created and when a photograph is created rather than just captured it truly shows. It doesn't matter if you shoot portraits, landscapes, products or whatever else can be photographed. If there is a decision process involved in maximizing the visual impact or, better still, the emotional impact of a photograph there is art in it. How many times have you read of a photographer returning back to a location in order to find that perfect light or that perfect atmosphere or that perfect whatever in order to create a more impactful image? It happens all the time. Studio photographers do the same thing but in a shorter amount of time as they are in control of their environment. Move a light here, tilt a head there, adjust a prop that way...

Even photojournalism can be influenced by art, though in a subtler manner in my opinion. While many people look at photojournalism as documentary there are artistic decisions being made. Often very quickly and, depending on the artistic skill of the photographer, almost instinctively. In this case the photographer is dealing with capturing an emotional concept. One that speaks to the viewer's heart not the rational mind. Choices are made in what to present and what to leave out. Compositions are being manipulated on a rawer basis since many of the artistic tools have been stripped away. Think of it this way; the difference between an artist having oils and fine brushes or a box of crayons. Beautiful art can be made from both but one will be more refined.

Anyhow, one thing I do know about photography; not all photography has to be art. Then, not all art has to be beautiful. This doesn't really answer the original question, does it?

Personally, I am an artist but not because of any one particular process.

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