Essay: The Art of Photography

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Art Work by William Eggleston

By Dave Hood

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” ― Ansel Adams

When is a photograph a work of art? Marcel Duchamp said anything can be art. Many people believe art is about form and content. Form referring to the elements of art, such as line, shape, colour. Content referring to the artist’s intention or message. Many contemporary artists embrace art as concept—the idea is more important than the work of art. For many, something is art if it embodies beauty or the sublime. Most people would agree that art is sketching, drawing, painting, sculpture, installation, and mixed media. In recent years, the Art world has embraced photography as a medium that people can use to create works of art.

Yet, not all photographs are considered art. Suppose a woman with little training in photography purchases a point –and-shoot camera and then takes snapshots of her children. Is she an artist? Most people who have knowledge of art would disagree. Suppose another woman takes courses at university, studies the masters of photography, learns to use the features of her digital SLR camera, such as shooting in aperture priority and shutter priority,  pre-visualizes her subject, use lighting artistically, then begins taking photographs with the intention of documenting reality. Is she an artist?  Many would argue she is not an artist. Finally, countless untrained people are now taking snapshots with smart phones and then editing them with apps like Instagram. Are these people artists?  Are their photographs works of art? It all depends.

Many people who have studied art would argue the following: The only person who is an artist with a camera is the trained person, either self-taught or formal education, who begins with an idea or concept, then intends to “create art” with by “making photographs” instead of taking snapshots.

This implies that the art of photography is about making photographs—not taking snapshots.

Photography as Art

The photographer can create art from any genre, still life, street photography, documentary, landscape, nude, portrait, using a particular style–point of view, choice of lens, type of lighting, color or black and white.

In the 30s, Edward Weston began seeing landscapes creatively and  captured it with his camera in black and white.  Similarly, Ansel Adams often captured landscapes as abstracts in black and white. The Museum of Modern Art also began collecting photographs at this time.

Throughout the 50s, many photographers began viewing the camera as a tool for creating art. For instance, Arnold Newman composed his subjects artistically within their working environment and then took celebrity portraits of them. One of his famous photographs captures Igor Stranvinsky sitting at the far left of his piano. Robert Frank journeyed across the United states in an old car, capturing the ordinary, banal, prosaic of American life.

In the 1960s, a myriad of photographers followed the footsteps of Robert Frank and began creating “snap shot aesthetics” with their film-based cameras. Photographers such as Gary Winogrand, Vivien Maier, Diane Arbus, Steven Shore, Elliot Erwitt, Lee Friedlander, and many others began taking candid photographs of everyday life. Subjects included gas stations, billbards, people completing daily rountines, such as smoking a cigarette, waiting for a bus, reading a newspaper. For the viewer, these images seemed spontaneous, random, accidental. But the art world saw art, and began referring to these images as “snap shot aesthetics,”  which meant that the photographer intentionally captured everyday life with artistic flare, often with an off-centred focal point.

In the 60s, the Art world began recognizing photography as another medium that could create art. The art world began recognizing “snapshot aesthetics” as art.  Galleries started putting on exhibitions of a photographer’s body of work, such as the photographs of William Eggleston and Steven Shore and Gary Winogrand. Helmut Newton captured the viewers attention, creating erotica with images of female nude models.Irving Penn created art with his camera by organizing and then taking photographs of still life, including cigarette butts and food.

At the same time during the late 60s, conceptual art became popular in the art world, which meant that photographers and other artists started using the camera to capture images that embodied ideas. Using the camera to create conceptual art is still very popular today. Several popular photographers have focused on constructing their images by preplanning and then staging the scene. Annie Leibovitz has created art from portraits of famous people using costume, posing, and lighting. Cindy Sherman takes self-portraits using various sets, costumes, hairstyles, poses, and lighting. Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson construct conceptual photographs using lighting, sets, artifacts, icons, models.  Other contemporary photographers have displayed their works as large-format prints. Edward Burtynsky creates art from the effects of man polluting the environment.  Andreas Gursky is known for his large-format images of landscape and architecture.

The contemporary art world has also judged photojournalism and documentary photography to be art. Photojournalism and documentary photographs adorn the walls of most galleries. Steve McCurry (http://stevemccurry.com/   ) who is photojournalist and documentary photographer has captured of war and people in the third world. Documentary photography Martin Parr (  www.martinparr.com/  )  is recognized around the world for his images of people in various social settings, such as travel and beach.  Many photographers complete photography projects that become art. For instance, Lauren Greenfield completed a documentary project called “Thin,” in which she documented women with eating disorders. Her photographs now hang on the walls of  “The Fahey/Klein Gallery.” (www.faheykleingallery.com

Photography is now one of the most popular mediums for creating art. Museums and galleries around the world regularly organize photography exhibitions. For instance, the Museum of Modern Art has put on exhibitions by the likes of photographers Diane Arbus, Andreas Gursky, and Jeff Wall. Photographs now capture the attention of collectors. In 2011, a Andreas Gursky photograph, a large-format print called “Rhein II,” (meaning the Rhine), sold for $4.3 million at Christie’s auction house. Today, you can read stories about photography by art critics in most art magazines. For instance, Canadian Art magazine published a photography special in the winter of 2013. One of the photographer’s identified as a art photographer is Fred Herzog, who captured life on the street in Vancouver during the 50s and 60s. By conducting a Google search, you can also find countless galleries of photography, blogs about photography, and websites of photographers promoting their talents and art photography.

Characteristics of Artistic Photographs

What are the characteristics of an artistic photograph? The photographer can make an artistic photograph planning and capturing it in the studio or with an idea and then capture it  on the street in a spontaneous manner. Study the masters of photography, like Ansel Adams, Arnold Newman, Annie Leibovitz, Henri-Cartier Bresson and many others, and you will learn to understand the characteristics of an artistic photograph. These images are worthy of being judged as art. The artistic photograph includes the following characteristics:

  • Composed with eyes that view the subject creatively, often within a context, using the rule of thirds, leading lines, frame within a frame, and so forth.
  • Embodies some idea or concept or tells a story
  • Expresses multi-layered meaning.
  • Includes the elements of art—line, shape, form, colour, texture, pattern.
  • Captures the subject from a unique perspective.
  • Provokes a reaction in the mind of the viewer.
  • Often makes artistic use of lighting and composition.
  • Constructed or made at the time the image is captured and then edited post-production. For instance, the photographer uses the film darkroom or software to enhance the image.
  • Skillfully composed by someone who is self-taught or trained as a photographer.

You can find art photographs in any genre— from landscape to portrait to still life to documentary. One genre of photography that is easily identifiable as art is the fine art photograph.

Fine Art Photograph

In fine art photography, the photographer uses the image to express his or her vision, communicate an idea, and evoke some emotion, triggering a reaction in the viewer. The photographer can use various styles to make a fine art image, including realism, expressionism, and abstract. The photographer can also use any genre, such as landscape or portrait, to create a fine art photograph. The photographer can plan the short in the studio, or capture in on the street in an unplanned setting. After capturing the image, the photographer can also manipulate in the digital darkroom using various techniques, such as colour saturation, HDR, or black and white. Martin Freeman, in “Digital Photography Master Class,” identified a few of the subjects for fine art photographs, including:

  • Monochrome portrait
  • Monochrome landscape
  • Abstracts of architecture
  • Lighting effects
  • Reflections
  • Urban blur, such as a streetscape or crowd of people
  • Light play, including light trails
  • Nudes
  • Composite, montage, collage

Art Photographs Captured with Smart Phones

Since the birth of the smartphone, such as the iPhone, and emergence of image editing apps like Instagram, millions of people around the world are now capturing awesome images with their phones and then adding special effects. Does this mean these people are artists? Are their photographs works of art? Duchamp would say they are. The art world would argue that they are not. Only trained photographers can create art. And yet, many photographers are self-taught.

If the person has an understanding of what is art, knowledge of composition, can see creatively using the elements of art, is able to skillfully capture an interesting image that embodies a concept or idea, such as love, and then can enhance this image with an app such as Instagram or in the digital darkroom, this person is creating art. The type of camera is irrelevant. These photographers are no different than the children who create art by drawing in grade school or the masters of photography such as Friedlander, William Shore, Gary Winogrand, and many others who embraced “Snap shot aesthetics” with cameras that are not as powerful as the smart phone or many point and shoots today.

Though the type of camera is irrelevant when it comes to creating art, any serious photographer knows that that if he or she must use a SLR Digital Camera with advanced features and various types of lens takes better photographs than the point and shoot or smart phone. Using a SLR digital camera and various lens, such as the wide-angle lens, a serious photographer can capture the full range of photographs available, such as wide-angle perspective or shallow depth of field or selective focus. As well, the serious photographer will use the digital darkroom, such as Lightroom or Photoshop, with far more special effects tools to edit and enhance these images.

Furthermore, a serious photographer is aware that in order to compete with other like minded artists, become recognized by the public and art world, sell photographs, have an opportunity to put on exhibitions, he or she must take photographs with a full-frame digital SLR camera and various lens, not a smart phone or point-and- shoot camera.

The Photographer as An Artist

Not all photographs are art. The clichéd photograph is never art. Michael Freeman, author of “The Photographer’s Mind,” writes that a clichéd photograph is “any subject or style that becomes so popular and so reproducible that it is taken up by many photographers.” In other words, the image loses its authenticity and originality because of so many people taking the same type of shot of the same subject.

The photographer who takes a snapshot, without intention of capturing an idea, is not an artist. Often the novel photographer just points the camera at the subject and then presses the shutter. There is no preparation or pre-visualization, composition, or framing. And if he or she takes a photograph that embraces the attributes of art, the work is an accident.

Like the painter or installation artist, the photographer is an artist when he or she “intends” to create art with his or her camera and not a snapshot. The photographer has a vision of what he or she desires to capture and then intends to make this image with his camera and digital darkroom software. Before taking the image, the photographer pre-visualizes the photograph or plans how he or she intends to capture the image with lighting, lens, and point of view.

The photographer becomes an artist when he or she embraces the medium of photography and then masters the use of the camera, just like an artist learns how to paint or draw or sculpt. He or she has developed skill, acquired knowledge, and expertise. The photographer learns to use the technical controls of the camera, such as how to use shutter priority, aperture priority, as well as how to use wide-angle, macro, telephoto lens, and then uses his expertise to capture a photograph that is art. To do this, the photographer must be able to see creatively using the elements of art, contrast, horizon line, leading lines, perspective, and point of focus. The photographer must also compose the image, arrange the elements in the viewfinder and have a point of focus before pressing the shutter button. The photographer also learns to use light creatively, for instance, creating high key or low key images. The photographer develops a particular style.

The photographer becomes an artist when he or she begins shooting in RAW, capturing a digital negative, and then edits them in the digital darkroom, either Lightroom or Photoshop, with the intention of creating art and not a snap shot. The photographer can use this software to create black and white, split tone, as well as add special effects of HDR, colour saturation, colour desaturated, colour filters, cross-processed, and more.

The photographer creates art when he or she makes artistic photographs that embody a concept or idea. In other words, the photographer makes a photograph that is considered conceptual art.

The photographer is an artist when he or she creates a photograph that embodies the characteristics of a good photograph and also captures a story or idea, such as the work of Martin Parr, Steve McCurry, Lauren Greenfield.

The art gallery legitimizes the work of the photographer, and so the photographer becomes an artist when his or her artwork is printed, framed, hung on the walls of galleries and other spaces, and presented and sold to the public.

Final Thoughts

Photography has become a recognized art form. Yet, not all photographs are considered art. For instance, a snapshot is rarely art, unless the artist intends to capture an idea and then searches for it. Often, the person who takes a snapshot has is no training in photography. The person points the camera and presses the shutter without any idea of what he or she desires to capture.

A clichéd photograph is not art—it’s been captured before, and so there is no authenticity or originality.

The average person, who has no formal training, can create an artistic photograph, providing the person has a basic understanding of art, such as the elements of art, form and concept, what makes a good photograph. He or she must also begin with an idea or concept, intend to capture it with his or her camera, and then makes the photograph by editing it in the digital darkroom or smart phone app, and then present this digital image to the public, such as by printing, framing, and hanging the photograph on the wall like a painting. But this does n’t mean that the art establishment will recognize the average person’s photography as art. Furthermore the revolution of digital cameras and smart phones, with the capability of taking photographs, are two reasons why many aspiring and established artists are finding it difficult to sell their services and art work to the public. Everyone believes they are artists with their cameras.

The trained photographer can also create art photographs. He or she “makes” a photograph with the intention of creating art and not a snapshot. The trained photographer begins with an idea or concept and then makes a photograph, first taking the shot and then editing it in the digital darkroom. This image embodies the idea or concept and expresses the characteristics of a good photograph. In other words, the photographer makes a photograph that is considered conceptual art.

The public also judges which types of photographs are worthy of being called “art.” If they like the image, they will purchase the photographer’s work and then adorn their walls with the framed photographs.

The art establishment plays a significant role in determining what types of photographs are art. The galleries judge the photographer and his work as art and then put on exhibitions for the works by serious photographers.  But this does n’t mean that ordinary people cannot create art with their cameras.

The famous photographer, Ansel Adams, who captured landscapes once said, “You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”

The art of photography is about making photographs, not taking snapshots or clichéd photographs.

Additional Reading
For additional information on photography as art, read the following:

  • The Art of Photography by Bruce Barnbaum
  • The Photographer’s Mind by Michael Freeman
  • The Photographer’s Vision by Michael Freeman
  • The Art of Black and White Photography by Torsten Andreas Hoffman
  • The Art of the Photograph by Art Wolfe and Rob Sheppard
  • How to Read a Photograph: Lessons from Master Photographers by Ian Jeffrey
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About Dave Hood

Lover of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction. Professional photographer and writer. Without the arts, life would be rather mundane, like a walk down the same old path on a dull day.
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