This essay discusses photography as an expression of art - artistic photography.
First I should specify how I’m using the words “art” and “photography”. By “art” I mean the “imaginative creation of a visual object intended to generate an emotional response in an audience”. By “photography” I mean “capturing light to create an image”. I leave you to join these 2 definitions together. Whichever way you do this, the key phrases are: “imaginative creation”, “capturing light” and “emotional response”.
Within the meaning of “art”, there are other forms of “imaginative creation” - and I’m thinking specifically of music and literature. When an author writes a novel, it is easy enough to see that a fictional novel can come from the imagination of the author and give rise to an emotional response in the imagination of the reader. In poetry, the poet strives to transfer his emotion as directly as possible to the imagination of the reader. Similar thoughts apply to music.
While my definition of photography doesn’t specify the use of a camera, I’ll assume that we are thinking about traditional photography - i.e using a camera.
I take as a starting point that a large proportion of photographs taken today have a strong element of “reportage”, by which I mean that the photographer captures a more-or-less realistic image of a specific subject. This might be a holiday picture of a cathedral, a pleasing view, the children or some such. Equally, a newspaper photographer may be required to photograph a politician, a building, a queue of people waiting for a train and so on.
In such photography, the subject is all-important. In describing the appearance of the politician or the length of the queue, a picture is genuinely worth a thousand words. The photograph is an extraordinarily efficient way of describing the scene.
However there is more to photography than simply reporting the scene. When our holiday-makers get home and look through their holiday pictures, the pictures will tell the story of the holiday and evoke an emotion. The emotion in play here is a remembered emotion; the holiday snaps remind the viewer of the feeling of awe on first seeing the Grand Canyon or of joy of reuniting with family.
For the news photographer, a series of pictures - or indeed a single image - may tell a story and evoke an emotional response in the reader - pride, joy, horror…
Now we are getting close to my definition of art. We have a “visual object intended to generate an emotional response in an audience”. But we are lacking the “imaginative creation” of that visual object. The image is not created in the imagination of the photographer but is, instead, a visual report of the scene at the time.
Looking in a book about Art Photography recently, I came across some photographs of beautiful sculptures. It struck me that these images met my definitions of both “art” and “photography” - and yet I hesitated to think of the result of “artistic photography”. Why?
The answer lay in the timing of the “imaginative creation”. The sculptures were the “imaginative creation of a visual object” and were artistic but the photography came later and was simply reportage. My emotional response to the images was a connection to the imagination of the sculptor not to the imagination of the photographer.
This is art “before” the photography - in the sense of pre-dating the photography. Stretching this argument a bit, we may look at some fashion photography in a similar way. The “imaginative creation” might be more in the minds of the dress designer and the makeup artist than in the mind of the photographer. Taking this further, if I take a picture of a flower, the “imaginative creation” was in the hands of God or Darwin depending on your beliefs.
Staying with the idea of when the creative process takes place, can it occur after the photography? Certainly. In the production of a magazine, a photographer may send in reportage-like pictures to the picture editor, who sends them on to the design department to create the layouts for the magazine. The “imaginative creation” is then in the minds of the graphics designer(s). Equally, an artist might use a number of photographs to build a collage that is “artistic” in a way that the original photographs were not.
So when looking at or considering “Artistic Photography” we need to be sure that the “imaginative creation” took place at the time of the photography, not before or afterwards.
Post-processing and Graphic Design
In this digital age, the majority of “photographers” employ post-processing software to one degree of another. This may be simply a few adjustments to make the image look “right”. At the other end of the scale, an image might be completely transformed in Photoshop and merged with other photographs and graphics to create something entirely new.
In the case where the image is completely transformed, the result may well still meet my definition of art - “the imaginative creation of a visual object”. However, it may well have moved beyond my definition of photography, “capturing light to create an image”. We are now in the realms of graphic design, where at the far end of the scale, fabulously realistic images can be created with no photographic or other real-world input at all.
It is pointless trying to find a boundary between digital photography and graphic design. One can recognise both ends of the spectrum but the boundary is blurred and undefined. However this does not stop us asking how much of the “imaginative creation” took place at the time of the photography as opposed to later, within the post-processing and graphic design.
The Three Elements
When looking at a photograph, in a gallery perhaps, I find it helpful to think about 3 elements. First, there is the subject itself - the cathedral, the Grand Canyon or a man in the street. This answers the immediate question when looking at any art - what is it?.
Secondly, we have the “narrative”, i.e. what is the photograph intended to tell me. The image of a man in the street might be about the man himself or it might be about “poverty” or “fashion” or “sadness” or “social exclusion”.
And thirdly we have the artistic element of “imaginative creation”. This is easier to recognise than describe. Most of the images we see these days are straightforward records of the subject. Just now and then, we come across an image that stands out - what we see is the creative imagination of the photographer coming through the image and we respond at a deeper level to the image. We suddenly engage with the image - and hence with its creator.
Now, a photograph does not have to have all 3 elements: subject, narrative, art. One sees pleasing photographs that simply report the look of the subject, with no narrative or artistic input. Similarly, one can have purely abstract photography, where the photographer captures a pattern of light without revealing the subject.
It seems reasonable to say that the emotional response to a photograph can come from any of these elements: subject, story, artistic interpretation. We are now at the crux of the matter. If the emotional response in the audience arises solely from the subject (beautiful, horrific, happy, sad…) or the story, this is not artistic photography but effective reportage.
Only when the emotional response is evoked at least in part by the imagination of the photographer can we say that this is artistic photography. This imagination can be expressed in the myriad of ways available - composition, lighting and so on - but there must be a meeting of minds between the photographer and the viewer.
Bringing back the notion of art “before” the photograph, I return to the case of photographing something inherently beautiful (or ugly…). If I take a picture of a beautiful flower, animal or landscape, the “imaginative creation” precedes the photography. It is not then enough just to record the scene. To produce an “artistic” photograph, I have to add my own imagination to the scene and reach through to the audience. I have to get an emotional response from the audience beyond that evoked simply by a competent “reporting” of the scene.
Into the Future
With the mass availability of digital cameras, the world is awash with literally billions of images, with huge numbers being added every minute. Social media is overflowing with the work of a new generation of photographers; everybody is a “photographer” now. It is easy to go to the local beauty spot with the hottest new DSLR and return to upload a pretty postcard image to Flickr, Facebook or elsewhere - and get “likes” from undiscerning contemporaries. But this is not artistic photography.
It is very tempting to look at painting for inspiration of where artistic photography should go. Traditional painting styles gave way to more modern trends such as cubism and surrealism - think Picasso and Dali. Should artistic photography head in such directions? This is very tempting - but for the different starting point of a painting and a photograph. A painter starts with a blank canvas - as does a composer or a writer. So a painting is quite literally only limited by the artist’s imagination.
However, in artistic photography, the “imaginative creation” has to be applied to the real world - whatever is in front of the camera. Any significant modification that takes place on a computer afterwards is graphics art, not photography, even if done by the same person. “Modern art” styles such as cubism and surrealism can be applied - but this is artistic graphics work not artistic photography.
So one might argue that photography offers a limited scope for artistic expression and to a degree that seems to be true. It is harder to express “imaginative creation” when one is constrained to start with a “real” subject. But this is exactly what separates the photographic “artist” from the point-and-shoot “photographer”.