Can You Make Art?

By Roger (29 May 2014)

Many (most?) photographers get a little kick out of learning the technology in today's cameras. We like the “secret” world of setting apertures, shutter speeds, and ISOs. We get a thrill from figuring out all the buttons and make a big show of putting the camera on “Program” when we hand the camera to a non-photographer to allow them a chance to take a snap with our “professional” camera. There is a tiny bit of justification for this snobbery because we have learned more about the camera than the vast majority of people who take photos. We're proud of that accomplishment. “Real photography” is more than just point and shoot, right?

But what happens after we have a working knowledge of the buttons and all their functions? We can get a good exposure, and we can freeze the action or show motion. We've learned the rule of thirds and can discuss the merits of my camera versus yours. If you can look at a good photograph and figure out a likely camera setting to duplicate the work, you're still less than halfway “there.”

Proper exposure doesn't mean a photograph is interesting. The correct ISO can't put emotion in the photograph. And you need more than a proper shutter speed setting to tell a story with your photos.

This is the time when you face the internal fear that all your work and learning was a waste of time. Your photos don't evoke any emotions in you or your viewers. They look more like properly exposed captures of nothingness. Good photographs are more than a combination of technical settings.

You are facing one of the most confusing challenges for photographers: ART. You've heard of this beast, and you want to sally forth and tame ART to your commands, since you're sure this victory will bring meaning and creativity to your photographs. But – SPOILER ALERT – there is no definitive recipe to create ART!

A major part of the problem is the definition, itself. Art has a different meaning for everyone. Oh, sure, you can find some art reviewers out there who use all the proper fancy words and wax eloquently on this or that artist, but do you feel the same when you see the work? We have all seen works from people who were labeled as artists, and we didn't see any justification for that nice label. At the same time, you can't say that, just because you don't like something, it isn't art. Don't let the critics fool you into thinking they know more than you, but don't be so arrogant to ignore the fact they may know more than you.

See why this is confusing? One paragraph into trying to explain why the definition of art is ambiguous, and I've already wrapped myself up into knots. So, if we stipulate that we can't all agree on a single, precise definition of art, how do we ensure our own photographs are more art-sy and less snapshot-ty? How do you learn what art is?

The first thing to consider is whether you even care. When I'm taking snapshots, in the backyard, of the grandkids playing in the sprinklers, I'm not thinking of an artistic pursuit. This is a capture-the-moment photo. Why complicate things by trying to make it art?

Another similar approach: don't worry about it. Since you will never please everyone and the definition of art is all over the place, concentrate on doing your best work, every time, and leave it there. Make photos that please you. If there are themes you like, or trends in your work you've noticed and want to continue, explore all the different angles and approaches to that work.

I believe in a more proactive approach. For those who want more, I recommend education. Start with a library or used book store for some art books. We have a great used books store near us, and, since art books aren't in high demand, the books are inexpensive. Your reading will reveal contradictions and differences because the experts don't agree, either.

Objects in triplicate, a recurring artistic theme.  Is this artistic?  Boston, Ma.

Objects in triplicate, a recurring artistic theme.  Is this artistic?  Boston, Ma.

Don't limit yourself to just photography books. Books of classic paintings, sketching, sculpture, and critical essays on works of art will give you inspiration and help you understand the deeper concepts of composition, color, poses, etc. You can find much of this information on the internet, but I like to have it on my bookshelves for frequent referral and review to help it sink into the brain.

When you visit museums and art shows – and you should – give the displayed work more than a cursory glance. What do you like? Why do you like it? Was the artist's message clear and well-executed? Is this an idea or approach you want to pursue in your photography?

You can pursue these ideas and experiments in your personal projects. Some of these projects may never see the light of day, but they give you a chance to work through themes you want to expand on or new techniques. They can allow you to build up a body of work. After working over time, or completing it, you can choose to let others see and comment on it or just put the photos together on a wall at your house or delete them.

I'm still working my Civil War sesquicentennial project.  I love the artillery photos.  New Market, Va.

I'm still working my Civil War sesquicentennial project.  I love the artillery photos.  New Market, Va.

Many (most?) photographers won't expend the effort to go beyond the basics. That's alright, too. Your photos will be different than the rest if you go where they won't. The more you understand about traditional definitions, concepts, and expressions of art, the easier it will be for you to form your personal definition of your art and it's expression in your photographs. Remember, there is no single definition of art, so you have free reign to create your art, your way.

Also, keep in mind that your well-thought out definition will not guarantee acceptance. Whenever you try to be more creative and bring your photographs beyond the realm of the snapshot into a form of art, you expose yourself to criticism and rejection. But, if your goal is to build a body of work that expresses your point of view – your art – you have to accept that everyone may not see it as worthwhile or art.

It is confusing to define art, but you can make the decision for yourself how you'll define and express yours. Ask other photographers about their “art,” and you'll get different answers from them all. Some of them will be serious, considered responses, and I hope your answer is, too.