During a Dorset Arts Week exhibition a few years ago, I had a chap enter the gallery and individually inspect all 40 of my images on display. I watched with interest as he spent nearly 45 minutes scrutinising every detail from no more than 4 inches away. Finally, he walked up to me and said, “ Of course it’s not art, is it!” before scurrying away, never to be seen again. I have to admit to feeling stunned, slapped in the face and deflated, not least because I had no opportunity to put my point of view over. I felt indignant, harshly treated and hurt. The course of time has softened that hurt and I now realise his view is as subjective as any other. I am thankful to say the experience was one I have since learned to build on.
More than an operator
A friend recently confided that he was doubting aspects of his photography. We have talked before, and on more than one occasion he has questioned his own artistic nature even though he’s an accomplished and fairly prolific landscape photographer. We have been on many a shoot together and during our mutterings we have often touched on the bigger picture as to whether indeed photography is art at all. After his recent airing of self-doubt, I was pleased afterwards that I had prodded his thought process enough to battle against his doubt and to consider HIS role as more than a mere camera operator in the creation process of making his images.
So what defines an artist?
Surely the artistry is in the creative process of making the image and not in the medium itself. Is Pam Ayres’ poetic style considered to be any less of an art than William Wordsworth’s? The art of sculpture is not defined by the tools the sculptor uses. A painter uses brushes and paints and nobody questions if he or she is an artist. An orchestra full of musicians creates beautiful harmony and no one could doubt they are artists as music is one of the arts. So why does there seem to be this general inability to recognise photography as an art?
Is art all in the mind?
Let’s look at the photography medium and the choices a photographer has when making an image. Many factors have to be considered: composition, lens choice, depth of field, implementing and the controlling of exposure … I could go on. But all these choices have to be made to suit the mind’s eye of the creator behind the lens. Ultimately, the art is in the subjectivity and mindset of the image maker and his or her ability to produce their masterpiece (just as in painting). So, rather than debating whether photography is an art… maybe a better question to ask is this … is the photographer an artist?
To be different
I often watch programmes on the BBC (Blue Planet, Frozen Planet and so on) and am always awed by the sheer beauty of the imagery. You could argue those wonderful places have a natural beauty and the photographer is merely recording it – but does that not denigrate the ability of the videographer/photographer and his ability to make the images? If 10 photographers, or 10 painters for that matter, were sitting side by side, would they not all produce different imagery? Would their experience and resulting artistry not all be different?
Beneath the surface
Hosting photography workshops can be an interesting experience at times. Watching people grow in their approach to their photography can be rewarding, especially over the course of time, as is the case of my friend above. Of course, I also see the opposite transpire and many a participant will fall at the first hurdle. Self-doubt is a common theme for all practising photographers; it’s generally lurking beneath the surface and ready to pounce at any moment. A natural reaction is to look out at other photographers; after all they always seem to get it right. I am sorry to say, this can only impact further on one’s self-doubt and loss of confidence. The digital age of cameras does not help; we get constant updates and technical advances seemingly on a daily basis as manufacturers want you to believe you need their latest product. Add to that the magazines and social media sites promoting the egotistical ‘pro’ way of doing things and it’s no wonder even the most proficient and accomplished photographer will lose faith in their abilities. As a result, it is very easy for all these influences to fudge your judgements and personal exploration. Any loss of a faith will ultimately leave you stagnant, rudderless and the growth will stop.
So how do we stop this happening?
Take a look at where your motivation is, be yourself and explore your own path, as if you were the first and only person ever to own or use a camera. You don’t need to have answers, just an inner ability to believe in yourself and nobody else. The photograph is a creative process that can only be visualised and then made by you. Yes, the competence and proficient use of the camera skills can be essential; the techniques and compositional guidelines may help too, but ultimately your final image is your creation and nobody else’s. If you like it and savoured the process of making it then you have succeeded!
The next time I am boldly told, “ Of course it’s not art, is it!” …
My instant reply will be, “Maybe or maybe not … but either way, I am the artist!”
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