Photography in a World of Art

Soft Sunrise (detail)

In the world of art, photography is often sent to sit in the corner. Not everyone is so sure about the photograph as art. Does it count? Should I like it? Is it worth anything? Doesn't everyone take fabulous shots with their iPhone?

Photography doesn't have a long history in the world of art - at least not long compared to painting. But it doesn't take long to see that the camera can be used to create powerful art, just like any other tool in the hands of an artist.

The birth of photography was a result of the work of Louis Daguerre who, after some practice, figured out how to create beautiful impressions on highly polished silver-plated sheets of copper, and his method, the first method of photography, was used for years by many people wanting a visual record of the world around them and of their loved ones. These first photographs, now referred to as daguerrotypes, were commissioned by people who wanted the photographer to accomplish something that artists of the day could not – make an instant two dimensional rendering of a person or a scene.

Louis DaguerreFirst Photograph Ever!

Arguably the most impactful daguerrotypes were those taken of infants and small children just before or just after an untimely death. Families, desperate to save something of the child, would commission this instant picture, and it would have been treasured and shown for many many years.

Since daguerrotypes were invented in the mid 1800’s, cameras have been further developed and used by people the world over to make pictures that they could save. As photography has become widely available, more and more people have taken the position that it has a value only as a literal recording and not as art. Photography is fun, the process is quick, and as cameras improve, the skill required to create a picture is minimal.

And perhaps that’s the sticking point here – anyone can take a picture, so it’s not special. It doesn’t require years of practice, and everyone has a camera, or several, and most photos don’t get printed anyway. But I could argue, anyone can paint a painting; millions get made, and most of those don’t get saved either.

Some of the very first paintings we know about were made in Southern France about 15000 years ago, painted on cave walls with sticks and pigment and preserved only by circumstance. People then used hair and bone to apply pigment to the walls of caves. They may have even used hollowed out bones as tools to refine the process. (Laura Anne Tedesco They used rudimentary tools and skills to make art.

Cave PaintingLascaux, France (15000 years old)

Since then people worldwide have applied colour to surfaces to decorate or to duplicate, and that still happens today. School children spend countless hours applying little more than a stick with loads of pigment to all kinds of surfaces creating ‘art.’ The tools are rudimentary, the artists are not skilled, and we call it art.

So if it isn’t the product; is it the process? Is it is the hours required to produce the work that makes it art. We often hear stories of the ‘great artists’ who spent a lifetime on their masterpieces, suffering for their art. Our children start that way, and each one of them holds the potential to be the next great Michelangelo. If they spend enough hours then they too can develop the great skill required to produce masterful art.

But what happens in these hours of work? There is a process there – the artist uses perspective and imagination to interpret the scene and create a personal version of it. The resulting work may be more vivid, more emotional, more somber, or more simple than the original scene, but the scene has been changed, added to in some way. Even the most revered realist painters, like Millet and Manet, added qualities of softness or emotion consistently (intentionally) across all their work. They added their perspective, imagination and emotion to the scene before them as they painted it.

Shepherdess and Her Flock by Jean Francois Millet

So perhaps the definition of art is that is employs a specific process: the act of using the tools skillfully in concert with perspective, imagination and emotion, to produce a product: a final work that appears as the artist intended. I think this definition is something most would agree on.

And so even with our child artists, it is with fervent adoration that we hold up their art to the light and appreciate the perspective, imagination and emotion in their work, and the simplicity and skill with which their little hands and tiny minds translate the the most complex subject into only circles and sticks. They love what they have done and so do we. But alas there is no adult level of skill there, and so their art is separated from the masterworks by this lack of ability to use their tools well. They soon learn that although they can see that it is a lion in their drawing, those around them will guess it is a dog or other insultingly common creature. Their art has not been understood. For shame! But is that shameful, and should it be?

Vision After the Sermon by Paul Gaugin

Not all art that has been deemed great is easy to understand. When you see the painting “Vision After the Sermon” by Paul Gaugin, it is unlikely that you would understand, without an explanation, that Gaugin was using a simple and rustic painting style on purpose to reflect on his views of Breton culture and religion, and that he was using a style which was intentionally in contrast to the painting style of the day. You would not likely realize that the figure on the bottom right of the canvas is a picture of Gaugin himself, and you might not realize that the closed eyes of this figure was intentional and symbolic. But you would probably be drawn in to look at this picture and you would probably like it on some level. It has appealed to thousands of people over more than 150 years.

Clearly transparency of meaning is not what makes art 'good.' Take the abstract and surrealist artists, Jackson Pollack and Salvador Dali for example. Their paintings may include little or nothing that is true to the objects or people around us.

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

Dali’s figures, like the melting clocks in “The Persistence of Memory”, are recognizable but challenging, and Pollack’s drip paintings are open to anyone’s interpretation. Skip along to pop artists like Warhol and Banksy and you find that the subjects are familiar, but the meaning is debatable and the tools and the methods they use are not familiar in the world of art. Rather than paintbrushes, stencils, print presses and spray cans abound! These works aren’t about long arduous journeys with a paintbrush, but these works do fit in our agreed upon definition of art. They employ a specific process requiring perspective, imagination and emotion and the final work appears as the artist intended.

Maid in London by Banksygraffiti art

Whether or not a broad audience understands these works is irrelevant. Whether or not it took a long time or a short time is not important. Was there a paintbrush? Who cares! The specific tools matter not. We look, we stare and we share because the work affects us, and that is the power of art. We must accept that the concept of art has now become very broad. In every case there is a person, creating something to see, but there is no consistency of tools or purpose or product. And yet, after all this, do we still balk at the use of a camera to create art? 

White Balloons

Let us reframe our view of the camera as it is employed by an artist. The camera is being used as a tool. It is new – only available for about 1% of the total time people have been making art – and we are at the stick and hollow-bone stage of art photography here; we hardly know what is possible, but we do see the artist employing an artistic process. The artist as photographer is able to control the image by manipulating the perspective, the light, the colour, the tones, the mood and the feel of the shot. 

Graffiti Train

Perhaps the photographer uses a second computer (the camera being the first computer in the case of digital photography) in the process and a program like Photoshop. Here the case is even more strongly made for the work to be considered art. The resulting image is still a merge of of the viewer, the tools and the original subject, but the artist has now made more choices and further controlled the final picture. In "Mist Over the Pasture", I have digitally painted out the telephone pole and wires that stretched across the scene. I felt they were taking away from the old country, rural feel of this old farm house in Brandon Creek, Dingle, Ireland. The image was more pure and evocative without them.

Mist Over the Pasture

The more skilled the photographer, the more skilled the digital artist, the more distinct and compelling the artwork will be. The same parameters one would use to evaluate any other artwork should also apply to photography.

It is true that anyone can take a picture. It is also true that anyone can paint with a paintbrush. Not all work is equal, but it isn’t the tool that determines the outcome, it’s the artist.