This post attempts to draw some strings together and define what is meant and what I mean by the Art of Photography. A difficult task as I am ambivalent myself about self styled Fine Art Photography and especially the contorted artistic statements made by so many practitioners.
Spurred on by having been recently invited to join Al Andaluz Photographers Collective, if I’m honest I’ve put off writing this for a very long time, being uncomfortable with my instinctive rejection of what I see as pretension and wilful obfuscation. I doubt the best artists of yesterday were ever so preoccupied with explaining their motivation!
Table of Contents
What is the Art of Photography Not?
So firstly let’s look at what the Art of Photography is not. It is not about craft although craft certainly has something to say about whether the medium successfully conveys what the artist means it to convey. Check out my post What Makes a Good Photographer? for more on this topic and How to Take Better Photographs using a Shared Visual Language for some detail about the use of visual patterns.
Art is not about technology. Although some artists have technology as a theme, it would be unusual to build an artistic career on the technology that supports the chosen medium.
Lastly it has nothing to do with Business, although some artists excel at this activity.
Craft vs. Art
It should be obvious that business and technology are parallel strands influencing a photographer’s practice, but they have little to do with art. The line between craft and art on the other hand is at best blurred. So what is it that differentiates an artist from a crafter?
Craft is first and foremost about skill and experience. In photography, these skills include working the camera, composition and post-processing. In addition, so far as landscape photography is concerned, the ability to read weather forecasts and assess that information in terms of how favourable it is to producing a good photograph. None of this has much to do with art. A master craftsman is somebody who has achieved mastery of their craft through a combination of practice and study.
In terms of an image, a photograph could be of a tree in a forest, or it could be about a tree in a forest, or what that tree symbolises to the photographer. The first would be an expression of craft, and the second is where the artist has succeeded in conveying what they feel about larger themes that are contained in the photograph of the tree. This is the point at which craft transcends its own boundaries and becomes art.
When people talk about a photograph telling a story, they are not necessarily talking about documentary photography. Any picture can draw the viewer’s attention to a story. For example a still life draws the attention to the objects in the frame, we are encouraged to speculate about them because there are no distractions.
A common problem in Landscape photography is that landscapes are by their nature full of distraction, the world is a chaotic place and it is sometimes difficult to rid the frame of distracting content.
My Own Photography
Writing this post has made me think about my own photography, and that in itself is often a good thing! As photographers we can become immersed in the craft, there’s a reason the word ‘practice’ is used so often to describe a photographer’s life. With aspirations to doctorly status, the word also means just that, practice. Part of my ambivalence about fine art photography is that so many practitioners seem so very poor at the craft of photography,
So however reluctant I am to self analyse, writing this post occasioned some introspection. The first and most obvious thing I noticed was just how much the photographs that by my own criteria qualify as art, are influenced by the music I listened to, the films I watched and books I read as a teenager.
The Photograph at the top of this post is one of several urban photographs I have taken that convey something of the ambivalence I feel about cities.
Don’t Look Now
I borrowed the symbol of the red coated woman from the Nicholas Roeg film “Don’t Look Now” to convey menace. The shot of Brighton City Centre in the pouring rain, to anyone who has lived there, would convey freezing cold and despite the festive trappings, the juxtaposition of these two elements combines to represent superficial warmth with an undercurrent of menace.
I’m realising as I write, that most of my photographs containing cities, architecture and people also capture this sense of uncertainty and loneliness that is entirely absent from my landscape work. The art of photography is about more than simply representing a landscape. It is about expressing the photographer’s feelings about that landscape.
Here is another example, taken in Chicago, in freezing rain.
Apart from the fact this image is in black and white, it is virtually the same image with one small difference. In this image the protagonist is the one in danger. Alone in a brutal post-industrial landscape. She is heading for home, warmth and a glass of wine, oblivious to anything behind her. That was my aim, but the picture is also quite ambiguous. The viewer can supply their own narrative.
This Crystal World
This next image is a hybrid, landscape/street photography image. Inspired by the writing of JG Ballard, Shot in Brighton it is an inverted reflection taken at low tide. The image is still about alienation and loneliness, but the sense of danger is absent.
The protagonist is purposefully navigating a more comfortable, if empty environment. There is none of the ambiguity of the previous photographs, simply a man striding across a somewhat abstract landscape. The only ambiguity here is the rock protruding from the water like a full stop. Compositionally, it works because it implies the character’s journey out of the frame is about to cease. It also offers a hard stop to balance the fading of the texture on the water.
Another photograph on the same theme, influenced by the American artist Edward Hopper, shot on the pier in Brighton some time around midnight. The crowds have gone. Who are these people and where are they going? What is their story?
I’m also aware that all of these images were achieved using the same technique. And I think this is intrinsic to the art of photography; I set out with a vision, I set up the shot and waited, sometimes for an hour or more, for subjects to occupy the right space in the frame to help nudge my narrative to the front. Each session has maybe a dozen or twenty rejects, where the positioning was not quite right. These are not photographs of things; they are images about things. Objects, people and the complicated relationship between them and their environment.
Last Days of Lockdown
The last picture I will use in this post is much more of a documentary shot about optimism. Shot in Granada city, where I now live, it shows a group of friends on the last day of compulsory Covid precautions. The masks are still in place, but as well as a slight sense of trepidation in the shadow, a new optimism is emerging in the sunshine. The story of these women is principally one of hope, not alienation.
If you’re interested in street photography, my post “Successful Street Photography for Introverts” mat be of interest.
What Makes Photography Different
The mechanics of photography are very literal. Unlike painting, writing or music, photography has to transcend the very literal limitations of the medium in order to become art.
We can’t generally manipulate a landscape as a sculptor manipulates clay or the writer, pen and paper. With a few exceptions, we take the world as we find it and bring our imagination to bear on the things we see in front of us. One exception oddly enough is commercial photography where we manipulate the hell out of every aspect of a photograph from composition to post-production.
This is why, in my opinion, the status of photography as an art is often questioned and it may also be the reason that photographer’s artistic statements are so often implausibly contorted. We have to try harder to convince a sometimes sceptical audience that what we are doing is more than just pointing and clicking.
This post was intended to be an academic text about the Art of Photography, but it’s turned, perhaps inevitably, into a bit of a look at my own artistic practice. The challenge it raises for me is how to turn my landscape photography which is very much about craft, into art.
I think that projects may be the answer. So I’m going to try to complete one mini-project per month and see where it takes me. It will mean looking at the landscape with a different eye and getting out of my comfort zone. It is not as simple as more shots in the city; it’s more about making the landscape images more meaningful.
Follow my progress. To paraphrase another of my influences, I hope it will never be boring!
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