The Responsibility of Photography

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

This is the fourth and final post of the series, “The Strange Art of Photography”.

Two photographers go out to make an image along the ocean shore.

The first is a professional who has mastered the techniques of the medium. His goal was simple — make a best selling image. He knew enough to come at sunrise so that the light would graze over his subject. With a sure hand, he quickly set up his equipment and framed his view. Confident that he had followed the necessary compositional rules, he then made a proper exposure, gathered his equipment, and left.

The second was a beginning photographer. Her goal was to express something deeply personal about the world and her place in it. She went out in late morning, found a subject that she believed could best express her feelings, and tentatively composed the image. She was not at all technically competent, but made a guess at the exposure settings. She lingered for a while, taking in the fullness of the experience, and then quietly walked away.

The professional photographer posted his image online. The response to his image was exactly as he had predicted, and went on to sell wildly.

The beginning photographer was disappointed by her finished product. It was underexposed and slightly out of focus. It was overly contrasty, and ineffectively composed. But most importantly, it didn’t express the feelings she wanted to express at all. Discouraged, she threw it into the trash, but resolved to try again the next day.

The question comes to mind though…Who was the better artist? I would make a strong argument for the beginning photographer. Even though her image wasn’t very successful.

Every enterprise needs a firm foundation. The foundation of Art is its message — a sincere and honest emotion, thought, or feeling from within the artist. Without that proper foundation, the rest of the process is meaningless.

Her ideas were built on that firm foundation, but she didn’t yet understand the proper use of the medium. Unfortunately, she didn’t have enough knowledge and experience to insure that her viewers would discover her message.

His image, on the other hand, was like a magnificent castle built on shifting sand. Sure, he understood the tools and techniques of photography. But he wasn’t trying to communicate a message; his interest was simply to garner more sales. Tomorrow, his photograph may seem trite to most viewers — there is little or no substance to insure its’ survival.

He understood the techniques of the art, but she understood something much more profound — the purpose of the art. She will eventually learn the techniques of the medium; those details can be mastered. But he may never realize that the purpose of the art — any art — isn’t learned, it is felt. And that is a far more difficult concept to grasp.

Any art must present an honest and authentic message before being considered good art. And only good art can be made great through technical mastery.

Photography is a popular activity. It is so ubiquitous that it is easy to forget that it can be a true art form. But when treated as an art it carries responsibilities. The first responsibility of Art is a true and authentic message. It’s the entire point.

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.