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.