With more photography available for consumption online than ever before, what makes some photographs “art” and others just an exercise in technical photography? And should we care?
I could not ask these questions in good conscience without sharing how I started as a photographer. I remember the first time that I picked up a camera. I was ten years old, and I was standing in the driveway of my childhood home. My first intuition was to go crazy and snap away at anything that I “liked.” I embraced photography simply as something that I had fun with and nothing more.
I got my film back a couple weeks later from a local drug store in my hometown. There was no instant gratification of seeing, posting, sharing the images. I carefully perused each 4×6 in my hands as if it were buried treasure that I had just unearthed.
Art School Lingo
Fast forward thirty-one years, and I still get just as excited to photograph as the day I loaded my first roll of film. I no longer go out and photograph as if I were in the Wild West. My camera has become like an appendage of my body and soul. I have been trained in art school lingo. And for better or worse, I have learned exactly what every single button controls on my camera.
If one were to ask me how I photograph these days, I would compare it to a first-person shooter video game with statistics on the screen’s outskirts. I think in F-stops, shutter speed, ISO, and white balance. Then I envision the whole scene to hash out where the best perspective is for lighting and composition. Some may argue that this is the way to go. Others may go cross-eyed to my approach. But for better or worse, this is how I have been trained to see.
When I approach photography from a purely technical standpoint, I am often disappointed with the result. I lose the feeling of pure joy and excitement that I had as a child when I first picked up the camera. If I hesitate for the slightest amount of time, the experience and creative aspect of the image are gone.
Photographing for the Algorithm
In 2021, the Internet is flooded with opinions, tutorials, influencers, and rabbit holes of information. For any photographer new to the game, this can be very daunting or exciting.
One Youtube channel will share a tutorial on exercises in depth of field. Another will share how to make bright shiny things out of ordinary objects, such as Jordi Koaltic does. What happens when everyone gets bored with the latest trends of what is produced in videos like Jordi’s? And more importantly, when they regurgitate these techniques verbatim, what does everyone do with the photographs they produce other than post them onto social media for digital pats on the back? Are these photographs art? Are they simply the latest trend that will come and go just as selective color did in the 80s? Does anyone even look at the images they shoot ten minutes after the edit and the post?
I think many photographers approach the craft with different intents these days. Some photograph to unwind after experiencing long days in a career that sucks their souls from them. Some have dreams of starting their own business to do something creative while making a living. Some wish to achieve status and become famous. But does the intent merit a photograph to be called art? Is it all just a big technical exercise to understand the camera and throw the proverbial spaghetti to the wall to see if it sticks when an image is made? I think many photographers are lying to themselves and trying to feel special when we should all instead make what we like without worrying so much.
Why Do You Photograph?
Before anyone sends people after me with tar and feathers, let me say that all opinions are subjective in what makes an image “art” or just a simple technical exercise. Someone can deem themselves an “artist,” but if their content or style does not speak to someone else, are they still artists?
Often times, it is hard to approach photography with a pure, unfiltered perspective. Unless we live in the most remote area of the world or a cave where we have no access to what is happening around us, someone or something continuously influences us. I believe it is important to acknowledge these influences. Not all of them make “art.” Most images made from how we are influenced can be chalked up as sketches or technical exercises at best, no matter what our intent is for making the image.
But understanding why you make an image, I think, is the most important part of photography. Understanding yourself can help to make your photographs into art instead of just another image that you may or may not look at again in ten minutes after you make it. I suggest to approach making photographs as treasures (as I once learned how to). If we find and seek the value in our work and find what it means to us, we often realize that all of the outside influence does not matter, and all of our images become “art” regardless of what we shoot.