Photography as Art

ScotiabankApril and May are the traditional kickoff months for photography festivals in this area.  Many photographers, themes and collections are on display.  So many, in fact, that viewing all of their work is impossible, and isolating favourities can be challenging.

In a recent excursion, I participated in a discussion of photography as art.  The premise was that in order to be noticed, you can’t just be a photographer – you need to be an artist.  You need to give your photographs a distinctive look, a distinctive emotional connection to the viewer.  This means going beyond just documenting a subject – it means creating a work of art.  And this isn’t new – all successful photographers have realized and operated on this basis since the days of pinhole cameras.

This leaves me wondering.  If photography must be art to be successful, is there a point where a photograph is no longer a photograph?  And where is that line?  The answer isn’t obvious.  Here’s why…

What-is-PhotographyPhotography means to “write with light” either to a chemical or digital medium.  A camera captures an image of something in front of it.  Light enters the lens and causes a reaction in the chemical emulsion of the film or in the camera sensor.

Here’s where the debate begins.  The technical limitations of cameras referred to in my last post always mean that the image will never be exactly as it appeared to our eyes.  It is also two-dimensional, gallantly reproduced on a flat surface, whereas our world is three dimensional.  Let’s ignore the growing popularity of 3D cameras, ok?  The point is that the image is something other than an accurate representation of what we saw.  It has been “altered” by the very act of capturing it.  So, can we really call the result a “photo-graph”?

OilandWater_20170228_0001-1Art is defined as “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects“.  Any enthusiast or pro photographer would be creating art, at minimum as an outlet for personal expression.  Even those who work exclusively on contract for others would be doing so, in that they have been selected and will be paid for their talents.

In all cases, at all levels, images are captured by photographers who have a specific vision for the result.  They select the scene, place themselves in position, wait for (or introduce) the right light and frame the shot in a very specific way.  You see where I’m going?  It can be therefore be argued that the very act of capture by a photographer with any skill also disqualifies the result as a “photo-graph”.

But these are semantic debates.  Even if you accept that “photography” includes camera limitations and the creative capture decisions of the photographer, there’s a bigger issue.

Adobe FiltersToday, we have many more options with which to create photographic art.  Wholesale changes to a captured image can be made both in camera and after.

Once in the camera, darkroom or on the computer, the possibilities seem endless.  Edits can lighten or darken, remove distractions, enhance key elements, change colours, add special effects, even blend two (or even hundreds) of images into a final product.  Frankly, in the extreme, you can even create an image from nothing – no photographs required.

By example, a colleague from school, Joe Meawasige, created a wonderful series called Elements, depicting Earth, Water, Fire and Air.  The series is a combination of creative photographic studio work and post-processing retouching and graphics, showcasing human interaction with the elements of our world.  Both beautiful and thought-provoking.Joe Meawasige

At the opposite end of the spectrum is this year’s recipient of the Scotia Bank Contact Photography Festival prize, Suzy Lake.   Suzy is a highly acclaimed photographer, last year winning the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts.

ImPositions-SuzyLakeSuzy addresses women’s issues and particularly aging, most often through self-portraits. In one series, called ImPositions, the subject is bound, hand and foot, and simply moves her body as a single entity into different vertical positions.   Individual portraits as well as printed contact sheets emerge from this series.

Are these photographs?  Is this art?  Clearly the initial images were produced in camera.  But in both image examples above, post-processing decisions played a critical role in conveying the photographer’s vision.  By the definition of skill and imagination, the above work is art.  But I personally don’t believe these end products are also photographs.  The fundamental nature of the images was changed when new elements or arrangements were introduced after capture.

Adobe Adjustment LayersEven as I write the paragraph above, I’m struck by the contradictions it raises.  Isn’t a simple conversion to black and white a fundamental change to a captured photograph?  Aren’t the darkroom contrast adjustments applied by greats such as Ansel Adams “disqualifying”?  Why are some Photoshop edits considered “enhancements” while others are “creative”?

Each photographer fulfills their artistic vision in the way that is meaningful for them.  I recognize and applaud that a photographic workflow can now include pre-shot staging, capture decisions and extensive post-production creativity.  I personally rely most strongly, but not exclusively, on the first two.  I do have a definite boundary in the type of editing I will do after capture.  I don’t feel comfortable otherwise.BrookfieldPlace_20161204_0033-Edit

A friend recently wrote an article on photography as art for our camera club, and concluded that photography was not art.  Actually, he was arguing that photography as a craft is not art, but individual images can be.  With skill and imagination applied, and with the requirement to evoke emotion and reaction from the viewer, photography can sometimes be art.  I agree.  Without those elements, photography is taking snapshots.  But the reverse is also true:  go too far into the realms of “skill and imagination”, and the resulting art may no longer be photography.  Not to me at least.

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