When I am doing my share of the chores around the house I like to plug into my smart phone and listen to podcasts and music. As you might expect, I follow several photography podcasts. Some are technology and equipment heavy and some are just pleasant conversation about our hobby. One in the latter category is actually one of my favorites: “the Irish Photography Podcast”. Now, having a name like Flynn, why on earth would Irish photography interest me?
Diarmuid and Darren are two fellows in Ireland who simply chat about anything photography. They don’t get gear heavy nor dwell on the technology but chat far more generally about the hobby and day to day issues of taking pictures. Listening to them is like being in a conversation around the kitchen table about a subject I love.
Before its printed and framed, it’s just pixels that can evaporate in an instant. Fine Art must seek to communicate a vision. It must be printed and become an object for an audience. It is not enough to post images on social media.
Last week I was listening to their recent episode entitled “It’s Good to Travel” which I found interesting because I travel a lot with my cameras. During the course of the conversation they got onto a subject that raised an issue that I have been struggling with about art in photography: photography tours.
The question was this: if you want to take a unique masterful landscape image, do you travel in a group on a photo tour or do you go on your own? Does the fact that you are taking a photograph of the very same image that 10 others are taking at the same time have any impact on the “art” content in your picture? If you go to a location chosen by your guide, a location he takes dozens of people to every month, can you make “art”? Of course this is a question very close to the overall issue of what makes one photo “art” and another simply a nice snapshot.
Now, to be very clear, I am not saying that making “art” is any more worthy than making “snapshots”. A hobby is intended to bring pleasure and relaxation to participants. At what level one functions is irrelevant. I make no value judgement. The only photographer any of us should compete with is the photographer we were yesterday. My quest, simply put, is to understand what qualities raise a photograph to the status of “art”.
And that is the issue in the situation posed by Diarmuid and Darren. Of the dozen or so people all present at the same time photographing the same scene, can one create something more than the others, can one create “art” in the midst of snapshots?
In my mind, if all of those people looking at a lovely Irish landscape simply posted their images to Facebook and
Instagram and did nothing further, they made no “art”. What they did, as pretty as their pictures might have been, was make a record of a scene on that day and at that time that anyone can see if they go there. They made a record of a location. But where is the “art” in that? There must be something more!
This old fishing boat abandoned on the river was an interesting image but it was uninspiring. It simply recorded the wreck. It had a distracting opposite shore, the sky was boring and the water was a dirty brown color. But when I took this picture I saw it differently.
I saw a mist shrouded wreck sinking into the mud under a setting sun. In the end I used the original image, an image of sun and mist from an olive grove in Tuscany and finally some blue sky from Langley, B.C. This is what I mean by art needing the image that exists in the photographer’s imagination.
But, what more? The very famous French painter Edgar Degas said “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see”. I like that because it says that you must do something: you must make others see. Or consider a comment by Paul Klee, a well known Swiss artist, “Art does not reproduce what we see, it makes us see”. There it is again. The artist must actually do something. James Whistler said, “An artist is not paid for his labour but for his vision”. So it appears that it is our vision that we must reveal to others.
I think it can be summed up by quoting P. H. Emerson who himself was quoted in the 3rd Issue of Camera Work in 1903. Now, the prose from so long ago is awkward by our modern eyes but read past the style and get at the meaning.
“Art is the application of knowledge for certain ends. But art is raised to Fine Art when man so applies this knowledge that he affects the intellect through the senses and so produces esthetic pleasure in us; …. The real test as to whether the result of any method of expression is a fine art or not depends upon how much of the intellectual element is required in its production.”
So you see it has been long recognized that there must be more than the recording of a scene. There must be intellectual input that produces esthetic pleasure. There must be a “vision”; there must be something more than a record of that place on that day. There must be something that draws out in the viewer an emotional response to the work. This can be accomplished by a particular camera placement or by a certain exposure, it can be accomplished by its treatment in post processing, it can be achieved by the means of printing and display. Usually it is a combination of these things. But it must be more than simply getting out of the bus, putting the camera on the tripod, setting the camera as instructed, releasing the shutter and then getting back on the bus to go to the next shop-worn location.
These daiseys were in my wife’s garden this past summer. I love photographing her flowers. However, this image is a bit flat and uninteresting.
I have literally hundreds of thousands of images. Of those I have worked on a few hundred to see what I can create. And on my walls at home I have 3 or 4 actually finished on canvas or cold pressed watercolor paper and framed. Those three or four I gaze at constantly and derive continuing pleasure. Guests in my home are surprised that they are photographs because they are not used to seeing photographs presented so. I am often asked if my pictures are oil paintings or watercolors. And I am always asked “How did you do this?” I have a few dozen more in the homes and offices of friends and business associates. But, the hundreds of thousands of images I have may have potential, but they are not art for they are hidden away communicating nothing.
As for posting images on social media, I do not believe they can be classified as, to use Emerson’s phrase, fine art. To me a piece of art is exactly that, a “piece” of something. It has substance and form. It will outlive its present owners and be valued by others.
Travelling in a photography group, while it would be fun and probably instructive, would be frustrating. I am a slow photographer. I like to walk about to examine angles. I like to wait for the light to be right. I like to fiddle with my camera. And all of these things would not be possible on a tour timed to a schedule. For me, photography is a solitary activity where I can be alone with my muse and seek my vision in peace in my own time.
But let me say again, I am not denigrating photography practiced for the pleasure it brings in the moment. There is nothing wrong with decorating our social media or the walls of our homes with pretty pictures. I often go out and take pictures on a walk with Susan (much to her annoyance, I am sure) and just enjoy the experience. I shoot with film often which, at heart, is a silly activity when I own the most modern digital cameras. But I enjoy it. It needs no more justification than that!
But at the end of the day, when I have gone off to that great darkroom in the sky, which of my pictures will my children value and keep and which will be packed off to the Good Will store or the city dump? They will keep the pictures that move them. They will keep the pictures with “something more”. And if I have managed to make any art, those will be in that group.
Sometimes the skill of the photographer lies in seeing the panorama and taking the several images necessary to create it and then stitching it together. However I have never printed this image. I have nothing on my wall that I can show you, let you hold and examine, let you admire the detail, the weight, the texture. And as I have nothing, it is nothing. It is nothing more than potential art.
After writing this I have realized that that the examples I have used put me squarely into the old argument about what is acceptable as “photography” and what is acceptable manipulation of an image. Going back to Diarmuid and Darren and the Irish Photography Poscast they did a really interesting episode on 18 October of last year in which they discussed post processing and whether or not it was “cheating”. (They also discuss the evolution of the tripod which was interesting.)
This argument has been going since the creation of photography in the 1840’s and it goes on to this day. We must bear in mind, though, that all images are processed to some degree. This is especially true in the digital era. Camera sensors do not capture what we think we see in front of us. Sensors are very mechanistic and unconcerned about how we perceive things. They just record what is before them and the result is generally dull and lifeless. It takes software processing to bring that image back to what we felt that we saw. We set color balance, we set contrast, we adjust sharpness, we tweak the color space. How do we set limits on the process? In essence, we are discussing only degree. The digital image is born to manipulation.
What is the difference between the photographer who uses a can of artificial spray mist in setting up his photograph and the one who creates a layer of mist in Photoshop?
I feel no one has the right to say what is “proper” photography. We can set our own limits and try to achieve as much as we can within them. But that is personal choice. There is no “right” way to do it. I see photography as a graphic art and the photographer as laying down ink or dye on paper to create an effect, to express his vision, and we as observers, can like it or not but we cannot say it is wrong.
Creating fantasy using cameras and computers can still lead us to art. Consider the work of Renee Robyn who does this beautifully. She works in fantasy but she uses photography and does it with great skill.
These comments apply to the artist and graphic designer. In other areas of photography accuracy is essential. Anything that relates to historical recording, news gathering, creation of family memories, must all be accurate renderings of the scene in front of the camera. But in these things there is no intention to create art.
Art seeks to produce “esthetic pleasure” in the viewer and the artist must not be constrained in how he does this be it by pencil, water color, oil paint, inkjet or dye sublimation printer. They are all valid tools. We can judge the result as we will, but there are no “wrong” methods and there is no “cheating” in their use. So there!