I concluded in my last article that photography is a form of art and we can, therefore, break its rules after we know and understand them. The assertion seems to suggest breaking the rules as an attribute of art. The assertion, rather, was an encouragement to the reader to pick up the camera and to go out there and be creative. Creativity is, in essence, the nature of art. Is photography an art form, then? Let’s begin with the meaning of art.
What is Art?
There is a formal dictionary definition of art as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination…” For me this suggests that art is a subjective visual interpretation (or manipulation) of reality or the abstract in the form, typically, of a painting, drawing or sculpture. The result is usually unique and one of its kind, rendering it rare and “priceless”, especially if the artist is well-known and well-established.
Does Photography Compare?
Controversy continues to rage about whether photography occupies the lofty status of an art form as defined above. Taking a photo does not require the rigor applied in painting, drawing or sculpting, it has been argued. Art requires preparation, a rich imagination and the skill to interpret and or manipulate what is before you in a manner that will be ageless and appealing to the viewer.
Instead, all you do in photography is grab a camera (or smartphone), find a subject, point and shoot; or, as it is often the case, simply snap away at a subject that presents itself. None of the rigor described above, the detractors aver. I have done that. Many of us have done that and often when we do so, the interest is simply to capture the subject, nothing else. And, unlike conventional art, we can repeat the process many times by taking as many pictures as we want, or reproduce a digital copy many times over.
The discussion above, on the face of it, suggests that photography does not qualify as a form of art. Then why do photographers, budding and expert, fuss so much over the quality of a photograph? Why the investment in expensive gear, when a smartphone camera can produce similar results? Let’s look into what is involved in taking a “good” photograph in the next section.
What Does It Take To Produce A Photograph?
Above we defined art as a subjective view or manipulation of the world, expressed on canvas, paper or sculpture as a unique and appealing piece of work to gaze on. The effort taken to produce the piece of art is imagination, focus, interpretation and manipulation. The tools are the canvas, paper, marble, the brush, pencil, paint and chisel. Art is hard and complicated work, is the inference we draw.
Can we say the same of taking a photograph? What is involved in taking a picture, say, of the sun setting? What do you do in the camera to capture the beauty before you? When I see that, the first thing I usually think about is composing the picture for the outcome on the photograph to look as closely as what I see before me and more. My imagination kicks in, with a little “manipulation” of what I include in (or exclude from) the picture to make the product appealing to the viewer.
My wherewithal in the composition of this photograph is my camera and daylight, or what is left of it as the sun approaches the western horizon. The light is my canvas, as it were, upon which to “paint” the scene before me. I manipulate the light to produce the required effect: the texture; the depth of field, the color, and so forth. This entire process requires mental exertion, effort and refinement later in Photoshop.
The Art In The Photograph: Composition
So, the composition of a picture starts with what you see. But two photographers will compose that scene quite differently and perhaps therein lies the art in photography. Each uses composition and light, just as much as a painter would use a canvas and brush to recreate the reality they see to be compelling and unique to each.
The uniqueness renders the photograph a work of art. But that uniqueness connotes something else: the particular skill of the photographer in using the tools at hand; and her/his perspective of the world, especially if the intention is the production of a work of art, and not a commercial product for sale. To do so the photographer is afforded an assortment of tools: various cameras, lenses and films to affect the outcome of an image, including framing, timing and digital enhancement of the picture. S/he puts it time and effort in the production of the photograph.
This is what has enhanced the joy of photography for me. The freedom to simply pick up my point and shoot, or my smartphone, to take a casual picture that I share with friends and family; or to pack a significant gear seeking sceneries to “create” art. There is a certain sense of fulfillment and worth in the latter: the timelessness of freezing the reality before you. The vicissitudes of time may alter the reality before you, but it will remain forever unchanged on the “photo-art” in your digital SLR or any camera.
That is the beauty of photography.
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