I want to have a discussion about art -- specifically about the way some of us sometimes subconsciously prioritize or, “rank,” the different forms of art. We literally make a judgement on how artistic a piece of art is by its media.
Speaking as a photographer, my intention is not only to increase the reader’s personal opinion of photography as an art form equal to others, but to express my opinion as to why it does not already hold that same standing in the society.
How I propose to do that is by helping you narrow the definition of art itself, the way that I see it. It exists in many forms, but its most important aspect is that it evokes emotion from the people who experience it.
The great works of art that came early were fine sculptures and pottery and paintings. The oldest ones that still exist hold a financial value and respect-level naturally reserved for ancient, beautiful things.
Putting aside the concept of age value, let me say that I understand the true masters of art whose very names adorn photography industry lingo (AKA the Rembrandt lighting technique) were the giants whose very shoulders anyone who calls themselves an artist stands on sometimes.
I liked to draw as a child, and I like to think I was good. I will tell you this much;I am much worse now that adult life has left me out of practice. Much like riding a bicycle takes practice, so does artistry.
I was never able to paint, despite adoring and worshipping the great masters. Ultimately, something about my personality drew me to to photography. Photography requires cooperation between the left and right sides of the brain, and your creative bits and your tech-savvy bits need to do a secret ritual dance at the right moment to take a good picture.
I won’t bore you with the technical details of photography, but I will say I still haven’t “mastered” them in the slightest, and I am a 34-year old man with a photography merit badge from his adolescent Boy Scout era. I’ve been deep in the media from a young age, and although I realized before long it could be a very profitable art form, I only very recently pinpointed why it is perceived by some as a lesser art.
Although a painting or sculpture requires the meticulous strokes and chips, and countless repeats of each with minute variation, the technique of photography couldn’t be more different.
Starting small to literally see the big picture takes a talented painter a very long time. A camera needs a simple push-of-the-button. Of course, we all know I am over simplifying, but the discipline required to finish a expansive fresco is mind-boggling, and quite frankly, far out of my reach.
But keeping in mind the definition of art (that it evokes emotion), I think that if you could measure the joy, tears and utter awe capable of being evoked by any art, you would find that nothing can elicit the extreme emotional response a photograph can from a human (the very life form responsible for art).
Photography gives you the true opportunity to capture the very essence of life in an instant. How well the photographer captures that moment defines the mastery of their art, no matter what genre of photographer--street, journalism, art, weddings. It’s all real and at your fingertips. You have the power to strengthen photography’s art street-cred by pursuing its mastery just as the great painters and sculptors did with their art.
But therein lies the rub. Because the rapid development of photography technology has made it consistently easier to enter the fray, the world is getting oversaturated with poor quality images, and the innovative work is getting lost in the chaos.
Our noses are all in our phones and laptops. We cruise through pixels on a screen with the swipe of a finger. Many of the population has forsaken physical photo prints altogether, with the exception of some ancestral photos kept out of nostalgia. I wonder if our children will have printed pictures of us when we are gone?
A 27-year old artist noticed a trend in popular photography and created Insta Repeat, an Instagram account that reveals the mass cloning and repetition running rampant on the internet among photography.
Photographers are replicating trending photos at a incredible pace. This is not art.
And I think that phenomenon is a big part of why other art is seen as higher art forms, even if subconsciously, by society. It doesn’t matter how long it takes some of us to conceptualize, plan and execute a shoot, its still just pixels on an SD card, created with the push of a button to some people.
Thanks to mass mediocrity and taking trend-following to an extreme (as bi-product of social media?), sheeple photographers are flooding our internet-centric world with images that do not strive to break the mold. I realize I have been guilty of this before.
I beseech you, photographers, strive to step out of your comfort zones and innovate as much as you can, even in the face of criticism. I myself am struggling with the most effective way to accomplish this with my own artistry. I myself am guilty of sacrificing my art for other priorities.
For those of us who make our living with our photography--portrait and wedding photographers for example--I know you get a handful of Pinterest picture requests and I get it. Many of us do, and it is the price of doing business in a saturated market when your demand is not yet high enough to put down the Pinterest, take your client’s hand, look in their eyes and ask them to trust you.
But that trust needs to come with the skills to back it up. If you refuse when your clients want pictures that look like the lovely, but common low-hanging fruit on the Pinterest tree, you better have enough skills to bring it and create something that captures their essence, or you are not furthering the value of our art form either.
That being said, Pinterest is full of amazing photos, along with some not-so-amazing photos, so it's only natural that people who want their pictures taken see some they like and enjoy the idea of re-creating them. As a portrait photographer you owe it to your clients to make them happy, so if they do have some cool photos they found on Pinterest, consider collaborating with them to find a way to make them fit their character, and not seem completely replicated.
Other art forms have not been immune to the flow of trends through time, but it has never been so simple to create content, versus art. I say, create both--especially if you are a professional photographer. Strike a balance.
Let me make myself clear, it's not about your niche.
If your photography can capture the emotion of a nurse and sailor in a celebratory embrace upon the announcement of the end of a world war, you are helping our cause.
If your photography can reveal the last breath of a dying Vietnamese soldier or the bravery of a young man standing in the path of an oncoming tank, you might be helping our cause.
If your photography comes from your mind’s eye and can bring tears to the eyes of a bride reliving her magic day through your pictures, you are helping our cause.
If you are not bending light to your will to realize a vision in your head, you might not be helping our cause.
If you are not trying to step outside of your comfort zone at least once in a while, and you consider yourself an artist, you are not helping the cause of photography as an art form.
If you stand on the shoulders of giants for too long, you can topple off. Wouldn’t you rather become gigantic? I know if I needed a photographer to capture my essence, I would prefer they press the shutter button with big, giant fingers.
This is a portrait I took of my father.
All my life, we have heated our family home with firewood. My father, who was a master plasterer during his days of hard labor providing for my family, has always genuinely resembled a lumberjack. This is his natural state: Plaid, boots, blue jeans.
I could not count the days I have pulled up to my family home to find him chopping giant rounds of oak by hand to use as fuel to heat our home. He could have afforded to buy pre-split wood, but he was frugal.
He also enjoyed the work. And difficult work it was. I have done plenty of it myself, but I could never keep up with my old man. My mom would bring him out a mason jar full of juice on ice to trick him into taking a break. My father was a man of discipline. I really wanted to capture his spirit in a photograph.
My father had been battling an illness, which was taking a heavy toll on him. I decided I wanted to take a proper portrait of my father–and I wanted to recreate a moment in my father's legacy by setting the stage. So out back we went, to the woodpile.
I buried an axe in a nearby wood round. Its handle was worn from years of him swinging it to split the very wood that I carefully planted around the frame. I handed him a mason jar full of juice to sip on as I set up my light stands and location strobes. I added a gold reflector opposing the strobe to add a spritz of warmth to the frame. The sun was at his back, creating some nice separation from the background.
Always a positive man, a smile came easy to my dad, although I could tell he was feeling a little awkward about the theatrics for the briefest of moments. We joked a little, and talked. Precious, rare communication between us silent types.
I wanted to isolate my subject, so I shot the photo with a shallow depth of field, and straight-out-of-camera I was very pleased with the result.
The shot turned out exactly how I wanted. My dad was also pleased, but when I handed my mother the framed print, she began crying. The picture showed my father in his element; a hard-working man with un-erring ethics and a heart of gold.
Sometimes photographing for free is the most rewarding of all.
P.S. This was also an important lesson to me about the power and value of a physical, gallery-quality print. It is one thing to swipe through photos on a screen and enjoy them, but it's a whole different story when a picture can evoke powerful emotions as you hold it in your hand, or walk by it every day as it hangs on your wall.