Monday, May 21, 2012

What is (photographic) art?

An answer to this question has evaded me ever since I first pondered it when my sister started showing her artwork in the 1980s at a Richmond, VA, gallery called "...but is it art?" But then I did some research and think I've got an idea of what it is to me now.

I've been doing a lot of work recently in trying to define "art" for myself and my photography students at the Media University here in Stuttgart. At the beginning of the semester in April we explored the creative process of other art forms, including poetry, theater, visual arts, dance and music. I thought it would be important for us all to be able to compare and contrast the various art forms before we dove head-long into photography.

As it turned out, though, photography is different from the other art forms in that the photograph is always based on reality. Whatever you take a picture of is part of reality. All other art forms start off on a more abstract plane. It is usually not until you are post-processing the images that you can impose any abstraction upon the reality lurking within the pixels. Of course, not all art is of an abstract nature and certainly not all 'art photography' must be abstract. But what is art photography?

Let's try to write a definition and see if that step gets us any further:
1. "If the production of an image serves to express the creative vision of the photographer, then it is art."
I'm a big fan of dreaming up images, of visualizing them. Some of my most satisfying work has derived from the attempt at representing a vision with a photograph. It takes practice to hold on to these visions long enough to realize them, but it is not impossible.

But what about my street photography? Is that not art because the photos are all made spontaneously? If we change the above definition slightly, we can also include street photography:
2. "If the production of an image expresses the creative vision or innate aesthetic disposition of the photographer, then it is art."
We are getting closer to a good working definition here because there are many photographers who create art with their camera while walking down the street as effortlessly as Picasso did with a pen and piece of paper while sitting on the beach. Very much time and practice have gone into developing an individual and artistic sense of proportion, balance and composition before a 'click' can produce a work of art that others would applaud.

For some of the greatest artists, the process is more important than the result. Garry Winogrand claimed, "I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs." And Henri Cartier Bresson once said, "Actually, I'm not all that interested in the subject of photography. Once the picture is in the box, I'm not all that interested in what happens next. Hunters, after all, aren't cooks." 
I can understand these sentiments as a writer who enjoys the process of creating a piece more than editing and polishing and presenting it. I can also understand that as an actor and director who enjoys the rush of adrenaline one gets when a scene is really running well. Furthermore, I can understand it as a musician who has experienced the thrill of getting lost in an improvisation. However, for me photography too seldom allows for improvisation. Winogrand explained his way of keeping fresh: "I learned a long time ago to trust my instincts. When I'm photographing, if I'm at the viewfinder and I know that picture, why take it? I'll do something to change it, which is often the reason why I may tilt the camera or fool around in various ways. You don’t learn anything from repeating what you know, so I keep trying to make uncertain." 

And that is for me a very important aspect of art: transporting the feeling of improvisation and inspiration to the viewer. A photograph or a painting can be aesthetically pleasing, but if it doesn't transmit that feeling of having been created during a moment of inspiration, then it usually doesn't fascinate me. 
3. "Art is that which can be seen in the result of a spark of inspiration, a moment of improvisation and years and years of practice beforehand, during which the artist has developed an individual voice and unique aesthetic disposition."

In order to create great art, you have to have great dreams or visions. You can't just want to take a nice picture; you have to need to make a great one. The choice of words here makes all the difference. If you need to do something, you'll go to great expense and effort to do it. If you make a picture, you will find yourself in more of a creative frame of mind than if you simply frame the action and take it. And if your vision is great, the result will more frequently be something above par.


  1. Great post, Jim, I shared it on the BMP FB page. :D

  2. Thanks, Tiff. It was not an easy one to do, but I had to get it out!

  3. That last photo is amazing!! Great words of wisdom Jim!