The Magic of Photography

Posted November 2, 2016 in ... Thoughts On Things

This is the third post of the series, “The Strange Art of Photography”.

A photograph’s magic lies in the idea that our tangible and often mundane world can reveal other truths. As I discussed in my last post, expressive photographers may use their photographs to emphasize, suggest or present subjective qualities they have discovered in the subject or themselves. An expressive photograph isn’t simply an exposure of the subject in front of the camera — it is primarily an exposure of the artist’s ideas.

To sneak those subjective qualities into a photograph of the objective world, the photographer has a difficult task. The difficulty is not found in manipulating the image. Cameras, lenses, film, and pixels are relatively easy to manipulate, especially in today’s digital world. Simple manipulation isn’t the key anyway. No, the difficulty lies in finding an appropriate concept — a concept that squeezes subjective ideas into an image full of objective, “real” objects.

In photography, though, it is not enough to reveal the artist’s concept. All arts do that. What makes photography unique is that it is rooted in the outside world. It must hang the artist’s ideas on the framework of our common reality, without totally diminishing the importance of that reality. Otherwise, the art evolves from photography into other visual arts. Art that is missing a strong “hook” on reality may be absolutely valid, but it isn’t photography.

When properly executed, though, the artistic photograph is extremely powerful. Seeing becomes believing. When the photograph is clearly based in our common world, the abstract ideas of the photographer appear to be PART OF the world around us and NOT ADDED to the image.

Like a member of a magician’s audience, the viewer doesn’t really want to know the truth. It’s the experience that matters to them. And THAT is the magic of the Art.

The Enigma of Photography

Posted October 17, 2016 in ... Thoughts On Things

This is the second post of the series, “The Strange Art of Photography”.

What is the purpose of photography? The real world in front of the photographer will always be more accurate than any photographic reproduction that can be made. So why bother making the photograph?

The photographic artist, however, is not merely attempting to reveal the subject as it appears before the lens; an unadulterated copy of reality is not the goal. (This may be the desire of some documentary photographers. But most photographic artists have other ambitions.)

Often the goal is simply to emphasize some perception of the subject (such as beauty, color, or form). Another objective may be to reveal traits the photographer believes are hidden in the subject (such as personality traits in a portrait). Or perhaps the intention is to express some emotion, mood, or thought of the photographer. The photographer may even be grappling with greater truths about the world. In each of these cases, the photograph somehow becomes both less AND more “real” than the “reality” that inspired it.

The uninitiated believe that the expressive photographer is, at best, a good observer. They say that the photographer “takes” a picture–and effectively captures an interesting bit of the outside world. But in fact, the successful photographer uses our shared world to create a less concrete (and more personal) idea. Photographic artists never really “take” pictures. They “expose” something much more personal — a bit of their innermost thoughts.

Perhaps this is why the camera is such a mysterious imaging device. It is the only machine in existence that combines light collected from the front end and meaning gathered from the back. The images it produces are the enigma of photography.

The Strange Art of Photography

Posted October 1, 2016 in ... Thoughts On Things

All art starts within the mind of the artist it starts with a concept. That is to say, an artist decides on what it is they would like to express with their art. And then in most traditional arts, such as music, writing, theater, painting, or sculpture, the hand of that artist gets busy, shaping and molding their abstract idea into a final product to be introduced to the outside world.

Reality is gently introduced into the process, and becomes more apparent at each step. From simple raw materials, a complex product emerges. The work of art starts as an abstract idea, and becomes most tangible at the end of the creative process.

Photography is a strange art though. It remains true that the photographer’s concept is still conceived in the artist’s mind, but then the process sharply diverges from the other arts. Reality is not gradually and subtly introduced. Rather, full blown reality pounces as soon as the search for the subject begins. The photographic process becomes immediately rooted in our messy, confounding, wonderful world. Our shared world — the one that follows natural laws. The world of infinite detail, light and shadow, solid earth, and hazy air.

The subject of the art starts as real as it gets. But then the photographer begins the difficult process of transforming that reality — that subject — into a more abstract image. First the camera is utilized to frame, compose, and possibly simplify reality into a two dimensional image.  And after exposure additional processing is done.  From raw materials of flesh and bone, wood, water, air and rocks, the photographer creates a simple piece of multi-toned paper. Contrary to most arts, the final product becomes LESS tangible at the end of the creative process.

This begs the question though, How can you stay true in such an art? How can you work in an art that accepts as a basic precept that you will at best merely distort the very subject that exists so clearly in front of the artist? Why bother?

When I began working on this post, I thought it would be a short and simple piece on one unique aspect of photographic art. I never suspected that it would grow into a larger piece which touched upon many of the basic tenets that I feel are essential to the art itself. And so more posts will follow…