It is a question I’ve asked myself many times over the years and it doesn’t come with an easy answer, after all, how can something so easy as pressing a button on a camera be considered artistic? To start this off let’s have a look at some non-definate definitions of art and whether or not photography has a place in the art world.
To quote Wikipedia, “Art is the product or process of deliberately arranging items (often with symbolic significance) in a way that influences and effects one or more of the senses, emotions, and intellect. It encompasses a diverse range of human activities, creations, and modes of expression, including music, literature, film, photography, sculpture, and paintings.”
One could say because Wiki has already stated in the first paragraph that photography is an art that this article is already done, but let’s take a moment to analyze why photography can be considered art.
“The photograph itself doesn’t interest me. I want only to capture a minute part of reality.” ~Henri Cartier Bresson
While most disciplines of photography do not involve the photographer “deliberately arranging items” to influence the viewer it does have the ability to show reality in something of a surreal manner, it takes things we see everyday in our lives and shows us something different. A discarded coffee cup carelessly thrown from a car can land in a tree and become a symbol for humanity’s apathy towards protecting our environment, or perhaps what started as a tree gets processed into a paper cup, then returns to the tree from which it came.
While other forms of art such as painting can form an idea or emotion from scratch they still lack the ability to capture reality in quite the same manner as photography. People tend to trust a camera to represent reality more than a brush on canvas because it is reproducing life verbatim. For me photography takes on more of an art form when the photographer can capture an idea in the confines of his/her lens in both a combination of technical art and creative effect. Knowing how your camera works is only the first step to creating a work of art, much like learning how paint brushes vary in effect.
While a photo can be technically pleasing, without an idea or emotion it is just a pretty picture.
In no other art form is there a greater chance for an accidental piece of art, after all, name any other art that can capture a piece of time as quickly and efficiently as photography. Now this is a tricky subject matter, after all, can something with minimal forethought be considered a work of art? Well the short of it is yes and no, yes it represents an idea or an emotion to the viewer and no in that very little creativity was involved in the making of the photograph. This is where photography starts to lose merit in the art community because it can be really easy to stumble upon a great image, it’s like throwing your paint brushes at a canvas and painting a Mona Lisa, or running your fingers across a piano randomly and playing a symphony.
Now let me be clear here, I’m not talking about photographing a blurry shot of your cat leaping through the air here, that isn’t art, not even accidental art. No, what I mean here is catching a moment in time without any forethought and having something of substance captured in the photograph. For me one of the best examples of accident art is shot by Ted Grant, he happened to capture this iconic photo of Pierre Trudeau sliding down the stairs of parliament.
Was this shot preplanned before hand, did they get together and say, “Hey, you slide down the rail after today’s meeting and I’ll capture it on film”? No, Ted Grant got three photos shot off before the moment was over and only the above mentioned photo was in focus. He didn’t have time to balance his exposure, barely even had a moment to focus, aim and click and an iconic photo was born.
Creating a photograph
“Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.” ~Ansel Adams
We’ve looked at controlling your camera to achieve a specific idea or emotion, and we’ve looked at finding those by accident without any forethought. Now let’s look at what sets apart a photograph from an artistic photograph.
Let’s be honest, anybody can take a photograph, even a, now famous, monkey can take one… and with everybody having some form of a camera on them all of the time the need to separate yourself from picture taker to picture maker is more important now than ever.
Perhaps the first, and most important edit, that can make or break a photograph is it’s composition. Sounds too easy but it’s true, sometimes your photographs do not fit perfectly into the bounds set by the camera and a simple crop of unwanted elements can change a photograph completely. Using a well compositioned image you can direct the viewer’s eyes towards the important elements of your photograph.
Next comes dodging and burning, to help lead the viewer with minimal effort, doing this, even if in minimal amounts can have a huge impact on the overall aesthetic and power of your photo. While helpful in color photography this is infinitely more important in black and white photography because black and white tend to separate distractions caused by color and capture the truth of a photo. The original capture of this shot was quite colorful, but by converting it to black and white and dodging/burning I brought out the strong lines and shapes to the viewer’s eyes.
“Scruffy, The Mural” by Travis Shpeley
For some people editing a photo by adding or removing elements no longer makes it a photograph, and while true in a sense I find this statement limits the power of the photographer and also limiting to the growth as an artist. Maintaining truth is important when covering photojournalism, but is rarely needed when you are just capturing an idea. Take for instance this photograph I shot of a caterpillar climbing up a plant.
This shot is a composite of about 5 images, shot at the same time of the same subject, and later merged into one image in photoshop. I used several shots to achieve maximum sharpness out of my tiny subject because sometimes in macro you just simply cannot capture everything in focus in one shot. Further edits included enhancing the skin color of the caterpillar to form a nice yellow stripe pattern that was not as strong in the original photographs. Is it wrong to change the color of this caterpillar? If I was documenting this subject then certainly, but in this instance I am looking to achieve a high quality photograph of an insect and perhaps give it a little extra edge.
Where A Photograph Becomes More Than Just A Reproduction Of Reality
Taking post production to the next level can change a photograph completely to the point where it’s not about the photograph itself, but the picture as a whole. For me this is the highest echelon of photography was art because now the photographer must think in creating elements to purpose a whole, this is where the creativity, such as that of a painter, starts to come out and shine.
Sure, there’s a chance I might be somewhere in the air right at the moment three Spitfires are flying through a fiery sunset, but really how likely is that? Rather than give up that dream I sought out the elements to create that dream and make it myself. Is this still a photograph? Probably not in the truest sense, but in the world of art does that even matter?
Is photography a form of art? I suppose at the end of the day that depends on you… nobody can define what art is and what it means to you, just the same nobody can tell you what a photograph should be…. Is your blurry photo of your cat art? To me I would say probably not… but again it’s all subjective, if it means something to you then run with it, but always strive for that next creative venture.