Monthly Archives: May 2015

Photographs as Art

Twisted Trees Triptych No. 1

Twisted Trees Triptych No. 1

One of my favorite observations about photography goes something like this:

“A photograph shows you what you would have seen if you had been there, a work of art shows you what you would not have seen but for the artist showing it to you.”

This observation is not mine, though I don’t recall exactly where I came across it (maybe on Guy Tal’s excellent photography blog?).  Still, after writing my immediately prior post on the art of photography, this insight has been on my mind all week and I’ve remembered just how much I think it perfectly cuts to the core of why photography can be art.

Anyone can point a camera at a subject and make a photograph that, more or less, approximates what the subject looked like when the shutter was tripped.  Indeed, as mentioned last week, the technical aspects of camera operation are so user-friendly these days that it’s increasingly hard, if not impossible, to stand on technical prowess as the basis for artistic merit in a photograph.

However, even today not very many people can point a camera at a subject and produce an image that reveals something not readily apparent from otherwise having been there.  Those who think photography is all about cameras and software (or darkrooms) miss this point entirely, and probably betray an even more fundamental understanding about what constitutes art and what does not.  It’s the successful communication of the artistic idea from the artist to the audience that constitutes art, not the nature of the tools that effect the communication.

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The Art of Photography

Wiry Tree, Wire Fence. Weld County, Colorado, 2014.

Wiry Tree, Wire Fence
Weld County, Colorado, 2014

Few art forms get conflated with their tools as much as photography does.  No one claims to be a painter simply because they own paint brushes, or to be a writer simply because they own a word processor.  However, the popular perception of photography seems to be, to paraphrase a remark I once heard, that if you own a camera you’re a photographer, whereas if you own, for example, a violin, well you just own a violin.

There is an art to photography, but it’s not in the operation of a camera.  Learning how to work a camera – and all of the other tools of photography such as computer software or wet darkroom processes – is relatively straightforward.  With a relatively minimal amount of time and effort, just about anyone can become competent at these skills.

Rather, the art of photography lies in recognizing and capturing visually compelling images in a chaotic and unruly world.  Truly, it’s not easy to consistently make good photographs out of the visual clutter that constitutes the everyday world.

This, then, creates the paradox of photography as an art form.

On the one hand, it’s probably among the easiest of the arts in that there is a modest technical barrier to conquer.  Where it may take years to master, say, a musical instrument before one can make art with it, the skills required to master the use of a camera are so minimal as to be virtually no barrier at all.

But on the other hand, this makes photography one of the most difficult of art forms at which to excel.  Because the technical component is so minimal, the artistic value lies almost entirely in the vision of the artist.  One who photographs cannot hide behind technical achievement, such as the attaining of technical competence on a musical instrument that’s difficult to play.  Rather, the quality of a photograph stands or falls based almost entirely simply on how well the photographer visualized and expressed the image.  If you enjoy a photographer’s work, essentially what you are enjoying is a fairly pure expression of how that photographer uniquely sees the world, and what could be more quintessentially called “art” than that?

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