An Illustrated Case of the Misguided Photographer Believing his Work is Art
There is a certain opinionated photography blogger, with a penchant towards outdoor still-life and landscape photography who believes his photographs are works of art. We are all entitled to our own opinions, which is the wonderful thing about free speech. What’s wonderful about free speech is that it also entitles me to write this piece. So please, indulge me.
From my perspective, I find it very difficult to understand how this blogger's work can be considered art? While I admire his ability to photograph images with skill and precision, usually shot as in-camera jpegs, I still don’t see how he can boast his well thought out images as art. And whether his work has hung on gallery walls or not, at the very best, it falls under the definition of decorative arts. I mean, I wouldn’t mind having some of his photographs hanging on the bare walls of my house. It is pretty - in vivid Velvia, no less.
The word “art” is thrown around generically in our collective vocabulary to describe many things - from the pretty to the expressive. What many fail to realize is that pretty or expressive doesn’t necessarily rise up to the standard of being art.
What makes something art is a little more complicated. Indulge me some more, and let me explain it to you anecdotally.
Leonardo Da Vinci is a great artist. But do you know why he is? And why is it that we all know the Mona Lisa (or rather La Gioconda)? Is it any good? We just assume that the Mona Lisa is a work of art, because it was painted by the Maestro himself - which is true - but do you know why it's true?
When I was still an undergraduate studying at Parsons Paris, I had a class that met up every Wednesday night for a full semester at the Louvre Museum. It was a three hour art appreciation class, where we had to sketch the works of the great masters, while discussing each works artistic merit. Some were good, while many were not so good.
One of the works of art in the Louvre was the Mona Lisa. It wasn’t my first time seeing it, having already seen it many years before as a tourist, albeit from twenty feet away. But seeing it for the first time up close, I was unimpressed.
It was later explained to me that the Mona Lisa was a work of art, because it was a reflection of the artist’s virtuosity. It’s one of those thing that you cannot fully appreciate, unless you painted. In the Mona Lisa (as with all his works of art), Leonardo Da Vinci demonstrated or rather showed off his skills in rendering reality on two dimension.
He was able to render transparencies, opaqueness and even textures in the fabrics. He was able to create the illusion of depth with geometric and atmospheric perspective. He was able to create dimension with chiaroscuro (a play of light and dark). And he was able to imbue life into the subject herself - in her gaze and in her smile. It was a masterpiece of artistic showmanship.
In the Mona Lisa, Da Vinci held nothing back. It wasn’t just a carbon copy attempt of real life put in paint and brush. It was something that he created from a blank canvas infused with all his virtuosity, in making La Gioconda transcend from portrait to an extension of him. That’s what makes it special. That’s what makes it art.
That lesson left an indelible impression of what makes an artist, and by inference, what makes a work of art. So it’s perplexing to me when this photography blogger claims his work is art.
But surely this blogger's photographic work rises up to the standard of art? I mean, his photographs does demonstrate his virtuosity in metering exposure and stepping up his lens filter. He is after all a very capable photographer that doesn’t need to shoot in raw, and fiddle in post. From the click of his camera, he can guarantee that the color, contrast, and white balance would all be full of clarity, brightly saturated, and above all vibrant.
And my goodness, he can even shoot hand held at 1/4 of a second, under the Southern California moonlit sky, or rather at the beams of light across his backyard to check for saggital coma flares.
This blogger is truly a proficient photographer. If he wasn’t, his online site wouldn’t be one of the world’s most visited. Still, there really isn’t anything special about his photographic work. And even though he goes to great lengths in his yearly pilgrimage through Route 66 to document his fill of stock photos shot at the magic hour, what he chooses to photograph isn’t at all that unique. Everything he’s photographed can be replicated without significant difficulty.
What he needs to understand is knowing his way around the camera doesn’t automatically make him a virtuoso, nor does it make his work art.
To be fair to this blogger. I too am not an artist. I am a content creator. What I have over him is an education in fine art, and career experience as a designer. So I have a better understanding of what art is.
For a photographer to be an artist, the photographer will have to create something. Photographing something that is already in existence, whether landscape, still life, or even street candid photography is not creating something. It’s documentation.
Creating something requires much more forethought and effort than documentation. It requires planning, designing, and imagination in order to make something that didn’t exist before. Through the combination of creation and virtuosity, the photographer’s work becomes greater than the sum of its parts, making it rise to the standard of art.
I don't think that this photography blogger has ever created anything for a photograph, let alone photographed anything he created, and do it with virtuosity. But to be fair to him, neither have I. However I am clear enough to know I haven't created any works of art in photography. It's actually pretty simple to make that determination. I haven't created anything to photograph; therefore, I haven't made art. Simple, right?
You see, I've seen works of art in photography. It's usually rather elaborate. It's not one of those things that happen with a quick snap. Of the works I've seen, the most memorable piece is by David LaChappelle, titled "Jesus is my Homeboy." I remember absolutely loving it, when I first saw it many years ago. Though now being more mature, I find the connection to Leonardo Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" to be rather unoriginal.
In recent years, I've moved on to Gregory Crewdson. And believe me, his photographs didn't just happen overnight (in the figurative sense, though literally, it was taken overnight). I especially love the surreal in his hyperrealistic photographs of Middle America. There's always something just not quite right, that makes you take a second longer look at details of his work.
So once you've seen art in photography, you will never mistaken photographic documentation as art. Unfortunately, I don't have permission to post the aforementioned work on my site. They're not mine. But please, take my word for it. Art in photography are not landscapes and outdoor still-life. It's something created and infused with the artist's virtuosity.
Please remember that. If not, you're going to be just as misguided as that popular photography blogger.