Photography is not art!

It’s a cry heard from the mid-1800’s until today, a position taken athwart photography’s path to museums, exhibitions, juried shows, fine print books and all other forms of visual presentation.  Art comes from the person, the cry continues, photography from machines.  How can we consider as art an image that accurately reflects a moment in time not filtered through the higher consciousness of an artist?

Probably not something most of us consider in the modern world but it created quite a stir around the start of the 20th century as photographers began moving from detailed, accurate photographs of reality and into more crafted images representing their opinions about reality.  Just as the Impressionists found their entrance in to the Salon of Paris blocked by the traditional painters of the day, photographers using their craft to interpret the world around them found equally staunch barriers manned by painters and illustrators intent on protecting the battlements of art presentation.

One of the American leaders of this effort to recognize photography as an art form (not a replacement for paintings/drawings but a uniquely different expression) was Alfred Steiglitz.  A man straddling the end of the Victorian era and the start of moderism, Steiglitz took great pains to promote photography as art by creating the Photo-Secession group, publishing finely crafted journals, setting up and managing galleries where photographers could display their work, and making his own photographs as the means to express his philosophy.

As his philosophy developed, Steiglitz sought a way to show how photography could transcend the accurate representation of reality, a way for it to portray and express an emotional content that could be independent of the subject portrayed.  He called this Equivalence and as his means to express it he crafted a series of photographs of clouds he named the Equivalents.  With these compositions he sought to provide a framework for viewers to share the emotional state that pressed him to make the images or to impress upon the images any emotional state elicited by them.  Considered the first major attempt at photographic abstraction, the Equivalents continue as the subject of discussion among artists and critics of photography.

Mamiya 6, 75mm, Kodak TMax film, Red 25 filter


What do the Equivalents mean?  Aside from one man’s attempt to stretch the then-acceptable bounds of fine photography?  Steiglitz would probably say they mean whatever you think they mean, as any abstraction should.  Gaze deeply enough into the image and you can search through your emotional responses as they come out.  Isn’t that what watching clouds is all about?

Or as Freud would say, sometimes it’s just a cigar……

Seeing what’s in front of you

As Impressionism is my favorite form of painting I’ve recently started studying how it came about and why it was controversial at the beginning.  Not surprisingly, it was a result of decisions and actions taken by a few truly creative individuals surrounded by ambitious and power-seeking cliques.  The politics surrounding the start of Impressionism is simply a repeat of any age’s conservative faction pushing down change that threatens their way of thinking and hoped control of the people’s affections.  That’s not the story I find fascinating.  No, it’s the creative approach to portraying visual information that is exciting.

France in the 1800’s was the center of the western art world and the painters there defined how art was to be done.  Their goal was the detailed portrayal of lofty concepts, the manifestation of eternal truths like beauty, justice, and honor using the ancient settings of Egypt, Greece and Rome.  The finest among artists were those capable of rendering exacting details, infinitely shaded tones, heroic forms – all composed to send out a message of romantic greatness intended to elevate the viewer’s sensibility.

This was the traditional form perfected over the centuries as painters aimed for the ideal of impeccable representation of the reality they created on canvas.  It was this precision the painters who would be associated with this new form of expression turned away from, seeking in their work to capture that fleeting, initial perception of a scene, a “first impression” as noted by one writer of the age (they didn’t call themselves Impressionists – it was a name associated with them based on one of Claude Monet’s paintings named Impression:  Sunrise that hung in their first exhibition).

Interestingly, photography was invented in 1839, around thirty years before the first Impressionist exhibition.  I’ve read several French painters were hiring photographers to make images of their models, pictures they could use as reference for their sketches and final paintings.  It was around this time the discussion of whether photographer could be considered art or mere technology was beginning to rage between the two groups of practitioners.  I’m wondering whether this influenced the Impressionists?  Were they turning away from the stylized reality of their painter peers only, or were they also trying to distance themselves from the perceived threat to traditional painting this new means of capturing images represented?

Regardless, they began experimenting with new approaches.  Gone were the togas, sandals and columns found in traditional French paintings.  Now the figures were modern, dressed in contemporary clothes in settings the typical Frenchman would recognize as being local.  No longer were heroic themes portrayed in classic poses or settings.  Now the images were casual, people going about their business or relaxing in a comfortable setting or portraits showing the person as they were.  Fine-haired brushes gave way to palette knives and broad swaths of paint.  Even brush strokes were visible, a rejection of the anonymity pursued by their peers with their finishing varnishes and thin layers of pigments intended to result in smooth surfaces unbroken by the hand of man.

By pursuing the “first impression” these painters reveled in the play of light in a scene and portrayed it as a primary subject, not just a means of illumination.  Forgoing the gradual transition of tones used by their peers, these painters created strong contrasts in their art, putting dark paints adjacent to light paints to form sharp edges and to emphasize color saturation.  They left the details of subjects to their viewer’s own perception, not defining the only content possible for the viewer but allowing the viewer to explore a range of emotions and awareness.

Following these painters the representation of the nature of reality would change forever as subsequent artists pursued visions of the world that hadn’t been explored since the Greek philosophers debated nature over a thousand years prior.  It’s as if western painting prior to then was narrowing down to a point of style, crystallizing into a single form defined as the sole means of artistic expression only to have that seemingly solid agreement shattered into hundreds of alternative avenues that lead us to the array of present art.

As a photographer I appreciate the realism and accuracy of the painters prior to Impressionism, documenting scenes to tell stories intended to raise people out of their stupor.  But documentation can only take you so far.  Putting emotion back into images seemingly brought “art” back to painting, the means by which creative individuals show us a new way to see the reality we live in every day.

How did this get here?

Do you ever wonder what future generations will think of all the art we leave lying around?  By art I mean the various sculpted pieces that dot the urban landscape, sometimes looking like they were dropped there by absentminded giants whose attention turned elsewhere.

Each of these apparently had a sponsor or patron to commission the creation and are the result of a thoughtful process by the artist, moving from contemplation through raw materials and technique to arrive at the finished product and placement.  Perhaps each installation isn’t universally appreciated (or understood) but for the select group involved, there is great meaning and celebration surrounding the achievement.

But will that connection between art and viewer remain?  After the buildings are gone or the parks overgrown, once the plaques are removed or defaced completely and the installation is forgotten by all but the random pedestrian happening upon it, what will the meaning of it be and how will future generations find a connection with it?

If art is our way of expressing some enduring meaning in a dynamic world, and sculpture one of the more permanent forms of that expression, what ongoing effort is required of us to pass that meaning down to subsequent generations distant from the original motivation?


Ilford HP4+ 125 sheet film, 210mm, 1/15 sec., f/45

We have in Omaha an installation of forms called “Sounding Stones” by Leslie Iwai.  The sculpture is not that old, dating from 2004, but is of such a form that it appears well grounded and somewhat timeless.  As an outdoor installation on the grounds of a wooded park, it brought to my mind the original idea here – who will know what these are in a hundred years?  Why are they here?  What do they signify?

As photographers we are able to be a part of the effort to answer these questions.  Our images can be distributed broadly along with the stories necessary to honor the work of an artist so long ago and the interests of patrons interested in seeing a story told.

Are there seven habits of successful photographers?

Rocky Mountain National Park

It was simply the rage back in the early 1990’s, reading Dr. Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Successful People or attending one of his lectures or being a part of one of the many workshops being offered.  The emphasis at that time on win-win-win at any cost, of unlimited ambition, of personal growth at hyperspeed – these were all wearing a lot of people out and they were looking for a way to discover and achieve their personal goals in a manner that didn’t result in short-term burn out.  Dr. Covey promoted some basic principles that would help people put their lives into personal perspective and control their destiny.  Mostly common sense, as even he indicated, but very useful in pushing away the public buzz and guiding you to make decisions that were helpful in the long-term.

These habits can be very effective for photographers, especially as the current time is abuzz with rapidly changing technology, push-the-limits-at-any-cost practitioners, media barrages all around and the ease for just about anyone to enter the craft.  With all respect to Dr. Covey, here are my thoughts on how to apply his habits.

Be Proactive:   Great images rarely show up in your windshield while driving down the road, or wander in front of your camera while strolling down the sidewalk, or come up and nibble on your leg while you are looking elsewhere.  You have to go find them, seek them out, hunt for the story and elements necessary to tell it effectively.  Many people pick up their camera only for “special” events or once in a great while, and then wonder why they don’t have many outstanding images.  You have to go to the image, not the other way around.  Which brings me to the next habit….

Begin with the End in Mind:  Ansel Adams called it pre-visualization, others say compose before putting the camera to your face.  My thinking here begins even before leaving the house.  What image to you want to make today?  What story do you want to tell?  What personal project are you aching to complete?  Get the answers to those questions clear in your mind first, in as much detail possible, and the rest will be just managing technology.

Put First Things First:  Dr. Covey talks a lot about Importance and Urgency, and points out that most people focus on the latter at the expense of the former.  Yet the former is where our passion lies.  Doing the important things first is a matter of planning and prioritizing, of recognizing the value of your time to make your images, of getting to the scene you want to compose and working it until you get the image expected.  Great images are rarely made by photographers rushing around and pointing cameras at subjects and then moving on.  If your craft is important then make sure you act that way.

Think Win-Win:  Most photographers are making images to share – to share the moment, share the subject, share the emotion.  Sharing can mean literally giving away images, selling images to others, licensing image use so a wide audience can appreciate it.  Paradoxically, most photographers I know are somewhat introverted, yet are most pleased when their work interacts with the largest crowd.  Images reflecting your passion will show that, and having shown that, result in value to everyone involved.

Seek first to Understand, then to be Understood:  This is a powerful concept, especially in the modern world of media that seems to exist solely to allow people to vent their frustrations at a high decibel level.  Have you ever looked at a photograph and thought, “wow, they really captured the essence”?  Photographers who take the time to understand why they are making a specific photograph will create images that are easy to understand by others.  It may be a loving gesture, or light that portrays a subject as everyone knows them, or a composition that broadens the viewer’s perspective on a subject.  Rarely do the good ones happen by accident – the photographer set out to include the viewer in the process.

Synergize:   The term as commonly used simply means “together we can do things impossible to us individually.”  Photographers are usually individualistic – it’s very hard for a group to look through a viewfinder.  We should connect with other artists, photographers or not, and see the world in an expanded way.  And then work to combine different visions to create a new perspective.

Sharpen the Saw:  One aspect of photography I appreciate is you can practice the craft with tools that are 100 years old or 1 month old, delivering wonderful images with either.  Great photographs don’t come from expensive, cutting-edge, just-released equipment – they are made by craftsmen who know how to get the most from their tools.  Continual learning, continual practice, continual stretching of abilities; these are the rasps we use to keep sharp whether we are re-creating scenes on wet-plate emulsions or high-speed, low-light digital.

Which of course takes us back to #1 – learn new skills and make time to apply them.

Imagery is a wonderful gift of technology, giving us snippets of time preserved for sharing, remembering, contemplating.  Photographers craft those snippets to maximize the value being preserved.  Great photographers push themselves to get every last bit of meaning into their images, since that moment will be gone by the next, never to return again.

All around us

Tent Caterpillar Nest

The world looks pretty normal most of the time, doesn’t it?  I mean, all the things you see around you appear as you expect – the right size, color, shape, etc. – right?  Ever noticed when you get too far or too close to some normal thing in your world that it suddenly takes on a new appearance, usually an unexpected one?

There’s a whole ‘nother world around us, existing between the macro world we see normally and the micro world we need special equipment to visualize.  Call it the “close-up” world, a place that pops into your view when you get closer than normal.  It’s all around us, we’ve just learned to tune it out.

When is the last time you laid down on a lawn and noticed the grass.  Not the lawn, but the individual blades of grass.  Or the bugs that live down there, going about their daily business of survival.  That which we usually see collectively as something (a lawn) has a new relevance when we see it individually (grass blades).

I saw this tree down by the lake the other day, most of the leaves are gone and tent caterpillars had built nests where the limbs branched.  The setting sun was hitting it just right, where the white nests were glowing against the darker part of the small grove of trees.  Usually I’d just walk by but this time it caught my attention.  Not because of anything artistic but because I had my macro lens and was looking for some “close-up” opportunities.

We see an image like this and it probably evokes thoughts of spider webs, but those are  usually two-dimensional or a most a couple of layers.  This tent, made up of all these tiny strands, is like an apartment complex with layers upon layers.  Apparently this structure helps regulate temperature in the nest as well as serve as a place for the caterpillars to gossip about food sources.  Well, that’s what the Wikipedia entry says so it must be true, right?

I love the way the light plays on the strands, giving contrasts that help the eye see the three-dimensional structure even on a two-dimensional image.  As always, light is everything for images and the sun was working in my favor for about 5 minutes.

Jimmy White, one of my photographer colleagues, also sees this “close-up” world but his environment is almost keyed to making you pay attention to it.  Underwater you can only see a little bit in front of you and the truly interesting things are pretty small.  Follow the link to read an article he recently wrote for his local newspaper discussing the Gulf oil spill and how we should all pay attention to it impact.  He included some of his underwater photos to show what we stand to lose by being apathetic.

Past is present, even in photography

Early photography tried hard to emulate the painter styles of the day, a movement known as Pictorialism.  The grand American landscapes of the era played off the Hudson River school of painting, showing specific areas of bright and dark, using directional lighting in an obvious way to highlight elements with shade and sun.  The soft rendering of detail by the Pictorialists was similar to the methods employed by Impressionists in their desire to capture a more realistic world but with a romantic viewpoint.  The early 20th century response to this attempt to marry photography to painting was a movement to capture highly detailed, virtually unmanipulated images of the world, notably by the Group f/64 whose members included Edward Weston and Ansel Adams.

Since then photography as art has either built on the approach of Weston and Adams or moved into surrealism and modernism with more and more abstract images and techniques.  As the medium moves from film to digital even more perspectives are possible given the added tools of computers and display options.

But, what was old continues to be new again.  I enjoy learning from what has gone before, seeing the world through the eyes of previous artists of all forms and trying to understand why they were seeing in that fashion.  After all, the natural world around us has changed very little over the past 150 years, less so in places we’ve set aside for preservation like parks and preserves.  Just because modern artists vision has moved on doesn’t reduce the effectiveness of how prior artists portrayed their world.

I was looking through some of my images this week and came across a riverside sunset image.  At a glance it reminded me of a Pictorialist photograph – something about the way the light cut across the water and bank, highlighted by the autumn colors contrasted with a blue sky.  After playing around with it a bit in Photoshop to enhance these aspects, I arrived at the following.  It has been a fun project to process an image with a historical bias, seeing an outcome that adheres to rules from the past.

This gives me an additional filter to see the world, adding yet another way to visualize a scene with a final print in mind.  I’m looking forward to the day when this is a reflex, rather than a checklist to keep in mind while strolling through the world!