A statement last night from a painter acquaintance came to me as a bit of a surprise. Her statement led to a stream of consciousness that could best be characterized as a contemplation of “the zen of fine art photography.”
Perhaps I should have expected that one day somebody out of the stone age would have said something like this to me, but I didn’t.
The conversation began with a discussion of why people buy fine art photographs, but eventually led to the real issue on her mind: whether photography could ever be considered “art.”
You gotta be kidding. This was actually said to me in the year 2017.
Let me start by saying I love painted art. My wife and I have spent many, many hours in galleries such as the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, the Louvre in Paris, and galleries in Rome, Florence, Seoul, not to mention here at home in the States.
My sister-in-law Carrie Patterson is a gifted abstract artist, one of her pieces hangs in our home, along with several other pieces of painted art. And I hope it shows that painted art has inspired much of my photography.
After challenging the “photography as art” premise, she concluded with, “All you photographers have to do is snap the picture. I spend weeks laboring over one of my pieces.” I looked at her to try to gauge whether she was being serious, and by all indications she was.
Of course, this lady had absolutely no idea what it takes to make a good photograph. Trying my best to avoid looking offended, I began pondering the art of fine art photography.
I will deal with the “all you have to do is snap the picture” bit of “fake news” first. Then we will deal with whether photography can actually be art.
What it takes to make a good image
For those of you who aren’t photographers, here is a brief summary of what a photographer has to do to make a noteworthy image:
Planning. Prior to a trip, I spend months researching locations, lighting conditions, the best time of year to go, and special equipment I might need to capture the image. I may seek out somebody familiar with the location to help me get to the spot more efficiently rather than wasting precious hours poking around looking for the spot I had in mind.
Noted professionals like Marc Muench, Andy Williams, and others have been instrumental over the years passing on their wisdom about timing, technique, and location, and for this I am very grateful. But more than half of my trips I have made on my own.
Next, I always, or nearly always, have in mind exactly what image I am hunting for before I depart on the trip. Yes, as a “student” of Ansel Adams (at least figuratively, I’m not that old), I had already envisioned my “Serpentine Vapors at Yosemite” before I ever set foot on that airplane, without any knowledge of whether in situ conditions would favor capturing it. Same for “Sunrise at Manarola.” I planned that sunrise shot, even discussing it with a local guide, months before leaving for Italy.
Do you think it was coincidence that I was able to capture the gibbous Moonrise over Stonehenge exactly as the sun was coming up? It wasn’t. I used the Photographer’s Ephemeris to plan exactly what day I needed to be there to get those factors to line up.
Nearly all of my shots are planned out like this. (Or at least my good ones are.) I carry a “future location list” on my iPhone, essentially a bucket list I’ve created for images I covet. I use it to prioritize and plan future excursions. I’m regularly adding to it, deleting from it, and racking and stacking the order based on changing opportunities.
Of course, there are exceptions to the “I planned it all out” rule. I could not have counted on a giraffe walking across the Amboseli plain right at sunset (“Giraffe in Silhouette at Sunset”). Or a lion climbing onto a rock in the Serengeti in “The Lion King.” Or the couple taking the selfie in Korea in “Lovers by a Pond.” Or the pony running past the pyramids in “Arabian Colt Fleeing Dust Storm.” Sometimes serendipity is certainly involved. It’s almost always involved in wildlife shots.
And “luck” is enabled by:
Preparation. I’ve spent thousands of hours learning the techniques of this craft. Understanding my equipment to the point where I can operate it in the dark. Mastering the technical aspects of capturing a perfect exposure.
To those of you who believe “today’s cameras can achieve a perfect exposure by themselves,” even the best of today’s cameras do not possess anywhere near the dynamic range of the human eye, so compromises have to be made to render an image that comes close to what your eye can see.
If you allow the camera to decide, you are rolling the dice on what comes out. Einstein said “God doesn’t play dice,” and neither does a good photographer. These compromises require judgment, and that judgment is a function of the artistic vision you have in mind when you attempt to create an image.
What is your intended focal point (composition)? Where do you want the eye to be drawn (composition)? Do you want a shallow depth of field (wide aperture) or deep (narrow aperture)? How much digital noise are you willing to tolerate (ISO setting)? How “creamy” do you want that water to appear (shutter speed)? Do you want the motion frozen, or do you want to capture some motion blur (shutter speed)? Do you want to properly expose the land, and risk the sky being over-exposed (the “exposure triangle”), or do you want to expose for the sky, hoping the land will not be too dark to draw out details (the mid-point in your equipment’s dynamic range)?
These decisions are driven by the photographer’s intended balance between artistic and technical factors.
So when people say to me, “I own a camera. I’ll just take that photo myself,” I usually respond with:
And I own a stove!
It’s an old photographer’s joke. At a dinner party one evening, the host says to a photographer, “that’s a fantastic image, you must have a great camera!” to which the photographer replies, “that was a great meal, you must have a really nice stove!”
After the snarky comment settles on them, I usually go on to explain my “recipe” for the image we’re discussing. How I achieved the particular effects in the image. What extra equipment (tripods, filters, timers, etc.) were required to get those effects. What special techniques had to be used. After a bit of education, they can begin to see what makes the image what it is.
Let me be clear: absolutely wonderful images have been made with the worst cameras imaginable, but usually by people who knew what they were doing. Good images can be made on an iPhone.
But that is very rare.
Phones and other small-sensor cameras are very limited in what you can do with the image. Very little maniuplation is possible, and the image cannot generally be enlarged into a decent sized print.
If your intent is to maximize compatibility, editability, and enlargeability of an image (as any professional would want to do), that requires the use of “professional gear.” That’s why, despite the proliferation of consumer-grade gear, $15,000 cameras still sell.
I don’t want to list the exact value of the gear that I carry on my back when I go out on one of my excursions, but you can assume I am carrying the cost of a new Kia. To capture an image with the required resolution, color density, and enlargeability, that’s what it costs.
The point being even with something as ubiquitious as a stove (everybody has one), there are very few people who are so good with it that their products are considered to be “works of art.”
And then there is the final element:
Time. Getting back to the photography critic’s comment that “all you photographers have to do is snap the picture,” it usually takes many months to make a noteworthy image.
Even after the image is in the camera, all you have is a bunch of digital data, ones and zeroes, on that memory card. No camera sees the way people see.
In my case, a group of Japanese engineers at Nikon did their best to write code to translate those ones and zeroes into something they hope looks like what I saw when I took the image.
However, (a) even the best software engineer isn’t good enough to get inside my head and see what I was thinking when I captured the image, (b) because a digital sensor reacts to different light temperatures (sun, shade, cloudy, night) differently, not the way the human eye reacts to those changing conditions, digital sensors can’t even render a literal interpretation of the scene correctly with their magic software, let alone an artistic interpretation, and (c) even the best of today’s 100-megapixel sensors don’t come close to the number of “pixels” God placed at the back of your eye.
Hence, the only way to render those ones and zeroes into the image you had in mind when you captured it is to do so manually with software like Photoshop.
So you use Photoshop!
I know the word “Photoshopped” has a bad connotation these days, but what I’m talking about isn’t putting things into the picture that weren’t there when you took it (or making the mountain look “skinnier”). I’m talking about overcoming the limitations of a the digital sensor to create something close to what your eye saw (or, at least, what your “mind’s eye” saw) when you were standing there capturing the image.
That takes hours upon hours on the computer, doing pesky little things like calibrating your monitor’s color gamut for the viewing conditions the print will be exposed to, color balancing the image, lifting the shadows, restoring the dynamic range, eliminating digital noise, sharpening, sizing, rendering, exporting, uploading, etc etc etc. And then doing it all over again when the print comes back and you find something was lost in the translation between your computer and the printer’s computer.
And of course, doing this requires hundreds of hours learning how to use the software to get the effect you were looking for. And at the risk of sounding un-humble, not everyone who tries to do this is capable of getting it right.
So can photography be art?
Defaulting to another snarky response, I might reply, “Ask Christie’s.”
Of course I haven’t seen any canonical definition of art, nor do I believe there ever will be one, so what passes for art will continue to be a matter of personal opinion.
But does anyone doubt that there were many critics in the 19th century who questioned whether French impressionism or pointillism was really art? Or cubism in the 20th century? Have those debates been put to bed? Haven’t you heard that chimpanzees and elephants have created “abstract art?” If an elephant can do it, how can it be called art?
My point being the debate still rages to this day for painted art, so I don’t expect it to die any time soon for photography.
There have always been narrow-minded groups of people, including artists, who are very eager to keep others out of the “club” by denigrating their vision, technique, motivation, training, method, format, visual style, hair color, size of their ears or lack thereof. (Did I say I love Van Gogh?)
If you need empirical evidence as to whether photography is art I point to the photographs that have sold for millions of dollars, more than 99.9% of the paintings for sale today.
If you want less empirical (emotional) evidence, you simply need to look at the right photographic image with an open mind, just as you might for a piece of painted art. There are paintings I love, paintings I don’t “get,” just as there are photographs I love, and photographs I consider crap.
But if you find even a single photograph that you believe qualifies as art, then the debate has been resolved, if only for you.
Which leads us to: The Zen of Fine Art Photography
On the home page of this blog I quote Ansel Adams:
“Art implies control of reality, for reality itself possesses no sense of the aesthetic. Photography becomes art when certain controls are applied…”
And then I add what I strongly believe to be an additional necessary qualifier:
“…and when certain aesthetics are achieved.”
How do we know when those controls have been applied and those aesthetics achieved? In truth, 99.9% of the photographs you see do not meet any of these criteria, and therefore are not art.
As for me, I know it when I see it.
Is my work art?
I hope so. I strive for it to be. But it’s not a question I can answer. It’s one I need you to answer.
So last night when I heard the painter say, “You photographers are so lucky. All you have to do is snap the picture. I spend weeks laboring over one of my pieces,” all this is what went through my head.
I thought about how I might respond. I thought about how I could explain this to her.
But it was noisy, I was tired, and so I just smiled and said, “You’re right. We are lucky. We get to do what we love.”
And I left it at that.
If you like my work, please share with your friends!