by Joel Wolfson
Photography is the bastard art. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that everyone owns a smartphone and many of those people are under the mistaken impression that they are “excellent” photographers. And photography is used for many purposes besides art so there’s no immediate association of it with art. In contrast if we see someone painting on a canvas the immediate assumption is that person is in an endeavor to create art. We’ve also been brainwashed by decades of advertising from Canon, Nikon, Sony and many others with the message that all you have to do is use their camera, lens or printing paper and your images will “look” professional. This is akin to saying “if you buy a Stradivarius violin you will play like Itzhak Perlman.” And as we know, a top-notch camera doesn’t make you a great photographic artist any more than owning the best brushes, paints and canvas makes you a fine painter.
I sometimes question myself for choosing the bastard art for my artistic expression and full time profession. It can be frustrating at times when the average non-photographer either can’t recognize a great image as being such or if they do, they simply attribute it to the photographer having a fancy camera and Photoshop. I sold my work on the fine art show circuit for years and some of the comments I heard ranged from amusing to insulting. But I developed a thick skin pretty quickly. There were also many rewards. I had numerous visitors to my shows that had great appreciation for art, and of course, many of them purchased my artwork. I figure it’s just my and other photographers’ duty to educate and enlighten the unenlightened when it makes sense to do so. Like anything else in life, we need to choose our battles.
“All you need is a pencil”
When I first started shooting photographs with serious intent in the 1970s people would marvel at the fact that my images were razor sharp, well exposed, and possessed a wide range of tones. They may not have known these terms but would say things like “your pictures are so clear.” Of course these are all merely technical aspects of photography and granted, they may have been more difficult to master with the manual-everything film cameras of several decades ago versus now. However, today, using their smartphones, virtually anyone can capture a properly exposed, in-focus image with the press of a button. To quote Elliott Erwitt in an interview I heard after he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Center of Photography: “All you need is a pencil and piece of paper to write a novel, don’t you?” and then points out to the interviewer “not even with a very good pencil” will that novel become the next War and Peace.
Of course photography as an art form isn’t any different from others in that it is both left and right brained. To be a superb painter or sculptor you must be a master of technique as well as employ creativity. Assuming one is both creative and a master of technique, the other critical ingredient is experience. All of these combined form a synergy that allows a photographic artist to “see” a meaningful image in their mind’s eye within the everyday world, capture it and present it in a form that elicits an emotional response from the viewer. Amassing this experience is part of the journey towards mastery of photography as art.
One of the best compliments I received was from a mentor of mine when he said “Wolfson, you see different.” This really meant something because it signified the next major step in my development as a photographic artist; a recognizable way of communicating through my photographs, distinct from other artists.
What about the billions of photos online?
The number of images created and uploaded to the internet everyday is mind boggling. But I see the proliferation of online images as both lowering the bar and raising it as well. How so? There may be a plethora of mediocre and lousy images out there but there is also access to the most amazing and creative images. I choose to concentrate on those and challenge myself to raise the bar. I love seeing images that I’d never think of myself. Unlike when you’re first learning photography, you don’t have to try to recreate those beautiful images to use them for inspiration and ideas for your own work. Although I chose photography as my medium with no desire to be a painter, I still learned about lighting from Rubens and Rembrandt, and about color from Monet, and gesture from Picasso. In the same way, I can use other photographers’ work as creative inspiration.
“You can’t take a bad picture there”
An expression I’ve heard several times when discussing images from various travel destinations is “you can’t take a bad picture there.” Typically, what people actually mean is that they were taken by the beauty of the place and they have never seen anything like it before. Consequently whatever snapshots they took, no matter how bad they actually were, remind them of this beautiful place. And that is all the traveler seeking to remind themselves of what they enjoyed on their trip, needs.
There are too many elements that go into making true fine art photographs to do it justice in one article. In fact I find even at the end of conducting my multi-day workshops there is always so much more that can be taught and learned. Knowing the technical aspects, direction and quality of light, line, shape, form, texture, color, perspective, rhythm, composition of these, design, focused intent, and presentation are all just scratching the surface of photographic art.
For better or for worse, as photographers, we’re stuck with the bastard art. We might as well focus on the positive aspects of our chosen medium. So the next time someone you know portrays photography as simply pushing the button on a camera, perhaps you can help them “see” it differently!
Joel Wolfson is an internationally published photographer who loves teaching as much as shooting. He shares his 30 years of experience as a working pro with other photographers and enthusiasts by way of his workshops, 1 on 1 training, webinars, articles, blog and speaking engagements. His technical articles have been translated for use in more than 30 countries yet he is best known for his artistic images of nature’s fleeting moments and unexpected views of everyday places around the globe. He is one of the pioneers of digital photography having conducted digital photography seminars for Apple and other corporations starting in the early 90s. His roster of notable clients includes numerous publications and fortune 500 companies. He currently works with great affiliates like Arizona Highways, Topaz Labs, ON1, and Skylum to have more avenues for working with those wanting to pursue their love of photography. His goal is to make learning and improving one’s photography easy, fun and rewarding.