An Essay on Photography

I wrote the short essay on photography in 2001. I reprint it here in original form.

The vast majority of photographs made (including family snapshots languishing in long unopened albums) are documents, or records, of people, places, things and events.  In fact, including all photographic negatives, prints and now digital files ever created, the number of “art (be it low- or high-)” photographs made is absolutely miniscule.  So, trivially, photography is predominantly a documentary medium.  But there is a healthy population of people who seek something else from photography, either as photographers themselves, or as admirers or owners of photography as a visual art.

Photography is art, or at the very least, craft.  My father used to paraphrase the following statement, attributed to St. Francis of Assisi:

He who works with his hands is a laborer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands, his head, and his heart is an artist.

By this definition nearly everyone who has made a print in a darkroom, or framed a photograph from last summer’s vacation, or thought about an alternative exposure setting, is a photographic artist.  And I can live with that.  So the product of such an artist is art, by definition.  But to this supply-side interpretation of art add the demand side: art is in the eye of the beholder, and the viewer defines art.  If people look at certain photographs and see art, then it is art.  And I can live with that, too.

While initially deemed a mere pretender, photography begun to be recognized as art about a century ago, thanks to people like Alfred Stieglitz, who in 1902 formed the Photo-Secession group, photographers committed to establishing the artistic merits of the medium.  Presently there is no doubt that photography is a legitimate artistic endeavor,  and people earn their livelihood from making art photographs, even though many rely upon the documentary aspects of the medium—portraiture, weddings and annual reports—to pay the rent.  The sale of Ansel Adams original prints (and who hasn’t ever owned one of those huge 2×3 foot Yosemite posters?), for large sums has helped establish photography as high, expensive, art.

Having seen many exhibits of photographs during my life, most by famous photographers, many  photographs owned and exhibited by museums and galleries offer much documentary, and historical, value.  Early daguerreotypes, for example, are valued more these days, perhaps, for their historical content than pure compositional or aesthetic aspects.  But museums and galleries also display the best photographic art, by those recognized as the Masters.  Life magazine used to, and the National Geographic journal continues to, present photographs monthly, albeit on pretty standard paper, that while primarily documentary and photojournalistic in intent and nature, are often magnificent art.  While many major photographers established their careers with Life magazine, the photographers of the National Geographic maintain and promote the highest standards of the craft.

Even in its most primitive state as document of record, a photograph is an abstraction.  More than painting, photography maps a 3-dimensional and ever changing world into a 2-dimensional, static image, stored on some appropriate medium.  The classical black and white image takes the abstraction one step further by removing all color from a colorful reality.  Shunned by purists, color photography compared to black and white is more realistic, more mundane, less abstract, less artistic.  Manipulation of the black and white image in the darkroom allows the photographer to create an even greater abstraction, dodging shadow detail and burning in highlights, increasing contrast or toning the print.  But all this abstraction and manipulation has as its motivation an artistic expression.  Ansel Adams is on record admitting to severe manipulation of Moonrise over Hernandez, and a comparison of the original negative and most prints reveals the extent of his efforts to create a mood and feeling in the viewer that could only ever have been pre-visualized in the minutes it took to make the exposure on the roof of his car off the road outside Espanola, New Mexico.

While the abstract nature of photographs surely helps when claiming photographs as art, the intent of the photographer is, I believe, the defining element.  Returning to the quote from St. Francis, an artist uses hands, head and heart to create art.  Use of hands and head is essential to craft, and photography beyond snap-shooting is undeniably a craft.  While nearly all modern cameras that use roll film, and digital cameras, provide the photographer with a plethora of automated functions, they also provide considerable control over exposure, focal length and focus, giving the user more creative options than ever before.  Mastering the camera as a tool requires time and a concerted effort, and is rewarded when the photographer is able to capture the moment, or determine the exposure quickly and efficiently.  But why this photograph?  Why that composition?  The photographer’s heart can be found in the eye.  If the photographer views the image as documentary, then it will likely turn out to be such, with little regard to art.  That is, if the primary intention is creating a record of a person, or event, then art and emotion, even composition, become secondary. Alternately, producing artistic images very often involves subjects as they are found in their natural state and position, and framing, angle, and scope are defining choices for the photographer.  Subjects are chosen and framed to accentuate lines, shapes, textures, colors, and—with people—feeling and emotion.

Since photography nearly always uses found objects as subjects, other than in studio photography and still life, the choice of framing the image in viewfinder is pivotal.  And it is here, as well as in other technical aspects of exposure, that the photographer’s “vision” is manifest.