Art, or not
Much of what we read about photography is really centered around gear and technique. That, however, is only part of the story.
Certainly, everyone is excited about the latest gadget and needs to understand and integrate how exactly to use their equipment, but an even bigger part of creating an image which wows and has a lasting duration is via the individual's vision and the execution of that vision.
Another factor that clouds this entire area is the ubiquitous nature of digital cameras. Historically, few were willing to trek around with an 8 x 10 wooden camera or, in street photography, Leicas. Since they were unique, it was assumed that they must be artists. Additionally, their images were some of the few images that anyone experienced. By sheer scarcity, they had to be artists and the images had to be art.
Now, everyone has a digital camera and, by its very nature, we can't all be artists, similarly, our images can't all be art. Actually, there's nothing wrong with that, but what is art, or not, is somewhat elusive.
So how is art defined?
By their very nature, cameras, and lens document reality. Different combinations may produce variations of reality and at some point, the result may become art, or not.
These combinations might expand or compress the image through various focal lengths. They might stop action or blur it, through shutter speeds. The image may have heightened contrast or be soft with saturated colors depending on the light source. All of these variations may produce a more or less pleasing image, either purposely or accidentally.
But that doesn't necessarily answer whether the image is art, or not.
Historical photography eras
It may be helpful to understand some of the major stages, historically, of photography, at least with respect to landscape photography.
The large format, 4 x 5 and 8 x 10, or Ansel Adams era produced primarily, black and white images which exhibited an almost total depth of field, or near to far sharp focus. Because the image was processed in a darkroom, the photographer was allowed a certain amount of latitude to manipulate the image through dodging, burning and cropping to produce an image which expressed the photographer's artistic vision. That, however, was essentially the limit of their post-processing options.
I recall reading that Ansel Adams, when he processed an image of Lone Pine, California (I believe it was Winter Sunrise), actually burned and removed an “L” on the hillside which was put there by the recent graduating high school class. He manipulated the image to produce his vision of the image through post-processing.
The second era is what I call the Fuji Velvia or Galen Rowell era. Fuji Velvia was the most common slide or transparency film used by outdoor photographers and was rated at 50 ISO. In order to overexpose the film and supersaturate the image, most landscape photographers changed their camera's ISO setting to 64. It was, however, a “what you see is what you get” (WYSISYG) concept and the only artistic manipulation, outside of the variations discussed above (lens etc), was the ISO alteration. With respect to printing an image, you really only had the ability to crop the image, everything else was theoretically “set in stone”.
The modern or digital era is completely different. From an artistic point of view, you are no longer limited to WYSIWYG. You also no longer have restricted post-processing capabilities.
Capturing an image, in digital photography, is really a process of ensuring you have the maximum amount of digital information available. This is accomplished via the technique of “exposing to the right”. Additionally, the post-processing of images is virtually unlimited through editing software such as PhotoShop and a myriad of other offerings. In fact, you can even manipulate an image through the use of two or more combined images. All this is to state that digital photography is completely different than the Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell eras.
Most photographers, however, even with digitals capabilities, don't really get into “exposing to the right”, or taking duplicate images with different settings, or get involved in post-processing beyond minimal manipulations. Many, in fact, rely on jpegs, which is essentially an automatic, in-camera post-processing option.
Three stages of photography and art
What I've alluded to so far are the three stages of photography, whether art or not, as being “vision”, “capturing” and “post-processing”. The various historical eras, detailed above, limited or expanded these three stages.
Regardless, to be true art, it must have something that carries it beyond pure documentation.
We may define then, art as, a vision that is in-depth and is actually pre-visualisation. This is beyond casual seeing or the “lucky shot”. If we casually see a person and quickly snap a picture – that is documentation.
It is a capturing that utilizes the various attributes and limitations of photo gear, of light and composition to achieve the pre-conceived vision. These are the techniques and craft elements of photography.
And finally, it is fine-tuning our pre-visualized image through thoughtful and artistic post-processing.
Even so, it may result in bad art. Good art will entail a certain amount of talent or artistic ability.
So, even though everyone has a camera, not everyone is an artist and not all images are art. There is still an element of scarcity. But, it is achievable.
Recognizing photographic art
To expand your horizons, it is helpful to actually see photographic art. I believe some of the best examples are on the pages of a magazine entitled “LensWork“.
What LensWork does is stretches the limits of photography through passionate photographers who have that special something that makes their work true art.
Particularly as landscape photographers, we tend to capture the iconic images. The same way everyone else captures the iconic images – Yosemite, Zion, Yellowstone, etc.
By seeing what true artists see and capture on the pages of LensWork, we're challenged to capture our images maybe a little differently. And that's good.
A few examples of what I believe are some of my favorite representations of artistic quality in photography, and which motivates me to continue to stretch my vision, are as follows:
In the August 2017 release of LensWork, Cheryl Medow, a UCLA graduate with a BFA, shared her images of birds which she described as “The art of birds, revealed through an altered reality.” When you review these images, available for sale at PDNB Gallery, recognize that Cheryl is merging a long lens image of wildlife with essentially an otherwise stand-alone landscape image. The final image is a combination of these two images which could never be documented in real life.
One more example:
In the same August 2017 issue, Michael Rich, a retired college economics professor with a passion for photography shared his “Veratrum” series. Commonly called, “Corn Lily” it is easy to see why these images go way beyond documentation into the arena of true art. Michael's work can be viewed on his website here – enjoy.
Art has one quality that sets it above all other images – it has an enduring quality that truly surpasses time.
You have all the tools, and history has even expanded your options. Recognize photographic art by studying excellent examples and begin visualizing your own creations.