art and photography

A question that has exercised photographers, painters, galleries, collectors and (above all) critics since the days of Daguerre and Talbot is this: is photography art? Or possibly even Art (with a capital A)? Or even if photography is not automatically art, can it be used to create art/Art?

Shoes and temple, Bir

This is a collaboration. Roger shot it on 44x66mm Ilford HP5 Plus with his Alpa 12 WA and Zeiss Biogon 38/4.5. Frances printed it at 11x14 inch (on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone), selenium toned it and then hand coloured it (with Spot Pens). The plain picture is moderately interesting but the brightly coloured flip-flops much better convey the exoticism, warmth and indeed humour of Tibetan culture. Is it art? Don't know -- but it hangs on our walls.

A rather more important question about Art and Photography is this: who cares?

After all, you don't have to define art. Besides, there are many different 'arts'. Decorative art. Applied art. Fine art. Many of the distinctions are fairly recent, as is the split between Art and Craft: it was probably only in the 18th century that many people (apart from a few artists and intellectuals) regarded artists as anything particularly different from skilled craftsmen.

 

 

 

A Bright Future Awaits You On The Colony Planets

This is a completely different kind of 'fine art' -- much more modern and hard-edged. This scene in Beijing reminded Frances very much of the movie 'Blade Runner', from which the title is taken. Perhaps less comfortable to live with than the temple picture above, it is thought-provoking and still, in its own strange way, attractive. She shot it on Kodak Tri-X using her Voigtlander Bessa-T with a 35/2.5 Color-Skopar and printed it on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

Devotees of Fine Art will argue that true art is more than a mere representation or (for non-representational art) a mere abstraction or distillation. It must force the person who is looking at it to bring something to the picture: their own experience, understanding and so forth. Well, yes. But even the most appalling kitsch has this quality too. And who can deny that the Lascaux cave paintings are Art?

Another distinction that tends to evaporate when examined too closely is the difference between an attractive photograph and a photograph of an attractive subject. It is true that the former can be made of almost anything: the subject does not need to be attractive. It is also true that it is quite easy to take dull pictures of attractive subjects: far easier, in fact, than taking a picture that 'does justice to' the subject. So? All this shows is that some photographers are better than others.

 

For our purposes, there are probably two good definitions or art (or possibly Art).

The first is pictures that you want to live with (whether on the wall or in an album)

The second is pictures that other people want to live with -- preferably yours. We'll come back to both of these after we have looked at the other great shibboleth of modern Art, the Body of Work.

body of work

One thing that is often held out as distinguishing the 'photographic artist' from the mere photographer is the existence of a 'body of work', a collection of pictures united by a particular vision, theme or technique. But the mere fact that the unifying factor may be vision, theme or technique reveals this as hollow too. To be brutal, a 'body of work' may be no more than a lot of variations on the same picture.

 

Tankard and charger

Roger shot a series of pewter pictures in the mid-1990s that have proved our most successful 'Fine Art' prints for sale. At the time we didn't have a 5x7 inch camera (we have since acquired three!) so this was shot on 4x5 inch with a Linhof Technikardan and either a 210/5.6 Rodenstock Apo-Sironar or an elderly Schneider 210/5.6 Symmar. Film stock was Ilford FP4 Plus developed in Paterson Universal and contact printed on Centennial printing-out paper (POP) toned in home-compounded platinum toner.

He keeps meaning to shoot more of these pictures on 5x7 inch but the problem is that there are two kinds of artists: those who go back to the same thing again and again, and those who want to move on. He falls in the latter group.

 

 

 

There must however be some degree of intention in art. After all, almost anyone can produce the occasional very attractive picture by luck, or by being in the right place at the right time. We do not see, however, that intention necessitates a 'body of work'.

This is where, in our opinion, photography tends to differ from other media. What, after all, is the photographer's intention? Take out the snapshots (and he's a miserable soul if he never shoots these) and the mere record shots, and you are left with a single intention: to make the best possible picture out of the subject in front of his camera.

For some photographers, the choice of subject may be very limited: they may shoot just landscapes, or just portraits, or just nudes. Others -- let's be honest, the majority of amateurs -- are so diffuse that it's hard to see any underlying unity. But to a large extent, we are sure, this is mainly because they don't shoot enough pictures. Of anything.

Evening, Prague

Yes, it's so saccharine it's downright syrupy: a real camera-club special. We are almost ashamed of liking it. But we do. It does capture a peaceful time in beautiful surroundings. Many would regard this a 'Real Art' -- Hitler, for example, was particularly fond of sweet, representational paintings. But even if you don't like it, have you any real right to condemn it as 'not art'? Roger shot it with his Leica M4-P and 35/1.4 Summilux on some of the last of his Fujichrome RF/RFP ISO 50.

shoot more

A simple remedy for this is to shoot more. Make an effort to explore your subject matter -- and your techniques. Take a look, for example, at the Miami Beach Art Deco pictures in the Gallery. These represent some three or four hours' shooting time. And yet, there's enough material here for a modest exhibition. Other examples include the still life gallery or the hand colouring gallery.

Now take a look at what unifies each of these galleries. The Art Deco pictures are a mixture of subject matter and technique/equipment; there are two kinds of still life, graphic and narrative; and hand colouring is principally a matter of technique, though the two hand coloured web pages are divided by subject.

 

 

mix and match versus themes

If you want to sell your pictures as Fine Art, and still more if you want an exhibition, a theme is all but essential. Or if not a single theme, then at least, not a jumble of unrelated pictures.

This is something that was brought home to us quite forcefully at Arles, when we were on the Leica stand doing print critiques. Even there, at the premier gathering of fine art photographers in all the world, we saw a surprising number of diffuse portfolios. There will be a brief free module on print critiques, based largely on our experiences there.

Re-enactor, VE Day, Wenceslaus Square, Prague

Roger shot this on the same trip to Prague as the picture above, but he would be greatly disinclined to present the two in the same portfolio or exhibition. The style is completely different -- amd we have plenty of other shots taken on VE day which hang together better with this picture than they would with the river scene.

That doesn't mean, though, that he shouldn't have shot the river scene. To limit yourself artificially in the name of Art must surely make you less of an artist. Limiting yourself deliberately is one thing; limiting yourself because you feel you ought to do so is quite another. This was the M4-P and RF/RFP again, but this time with the 90/2 Summicron.

stock photography

For selling pictures as stock, via a picture library, themes are not necessarily as important. There are certainly advantages in a theme, as described in fotolibra.com but if you look at the rest of fotolibra.com you'll see that in many ways, the best pictures from a wide range of photographers are competing with one another: the library provides the theme, more or less automatically.

pictures you want to live with

Something we've never understood is photographers who don't have photographs on their walls. After all, if you don't have that sort of faith in photography, why should anyone else? The majority of the pictures on our walls are our own, and we try to change them from time to time (though we do it far less than we intend), but around a fifth to a quarter are from other photographers or indeed from artists in other media: we have paintings, collages, decoupages and more.

mix and match (again)

From the above statement you can see that for our own collection, we cheerfully mix all and everything. There are only two kinds of pictures we don't care to have on our walls. The first kind is what we call 'public art': pictures that we may like very much, but wouldn't necessarily want to see every day. Some are too big; some are too dramatic or simply unsettling (how would you like to live with Picasso's Guernica?); and some just wouldn't fit in with the rest of the house. It's all very well to mock this as the classic suburban criterion, "It won't match the furniture," but unless you can afford a gallery of your own, this is a legitimate concern. You're the one who has to live with it, after all.

Waterfall, Julian Alps, Slovenia

This is very much in the American style of Fine Art: a dramatic black and white picture of wilderness or (more usually) pseudo-wilderness. After all, by definition a wilderness doesn't have signposted trails, unlike Yosemite National Park.

The usual approach to such pictures involves large format cameras and the Zone System; Roger used an old Nikon F, fitted with a 200/3 Vivitar Series 1 that was nearly as old, plus a Soviet-era 2.8x orange filter , shooting on Ilford HP5 Plus developed in Ilford DD-X. Frances printed it on Ilform Multigrade Warmtone.

 

 

The other kind of pictures we don't want on our walls are ones we just don't like, no matter how famous the photographer. Thus, although there are many Ansel Adams pictures we would love to have on our walls (if we could afford them) there is plenty of his work we wouldn't give house-room, especially some of his 1950s Hasselblad shots which were sometimes grotesquely over-enlarged. Likewise, we'd not be interested in the majority of portraits by Karsh of Ottawa, especially his colour work: unless we find the person interesting, we rarely find the portrait interesting. We've even seen some truly rotten original Rodchenko prints. Quite honestly, if we were given such pictures, we would sell them.

acquiring pictures

Obviously your own pictures aren't a great problem: you shoot them and print them yourself. And if you can afford to buy pictures, we would heartily encourage you to do so. But we'd also encourage swapping pictures with fellow photographers whose work you admire. It needn't be anything very formal. Next time they particularly admire a picture of yours, make a copy and give it to them. Then, if the occasion arises, mention that you've always wanted this picture or that of theirs.

 

 

Galvanized bucket, Atelier de Buissonier, Moncontour

Claim responsibility for lucky accidents (or at least, successful experiments) as well as for deliberate Art. Roger wondered how his Dreamagon soft-focus lens would work on his then-new Nikon D70. He deliberately turned the sensitivity up as far as it would go (ISO 1600) for maximum noise, hoping to emulate the grain of the old Ferrania 1000D/650T films, of which he was very fond. And indeed the experiment was successful.

pictures other people want to live with

This is perhaps the most important part of Fine Art (or any other art, for that matter): other people who want your pictures.

The first thing is, de gustibus non disputandum est: for non-Latinists, there's no point in arguing about personal taste. This is also summed up in the memorable phrase that dey gustibus ain't what dey used to be. You might love Martin Parr but hate Steiglitz; or love Fenton but hate Hamilton. Other people are going to be as varied in their reactions to your pictures. We never cease to be amazed at which pictures of ours elicit cries of rapture -- pictures we may have thought were quite ordinary -- while others, of which we may be particularly proud, are dismissed with a mere glance ad "That's nice."<

 

Three tankards

Part of the same series, obviously, as the tankard and charger, above; the technical information is the same. But if you sell your work, charge realistically for it: this would be a couple of hundred pounds. If you don't charge realistically, better to give it away.

 

 

Of course it's best when people rave about your favourite pictures, but once again, this is an argument in favour of a theme. A further advantage of a theme is that the viewer learns to see more like the artist. If you have explored a theme thoroughly, because it really interested you, it should be possible for someone else who is looking at the set of pictures to catch some of your enthusiasm, and pick the image(s) from a set that they think best capture the central idea. You can learn a lot from what they choose too.

 

 

picture quality

We are increasingly convinced of the importance of technical skill in photography. Yes, if you are a towering genius, you can get away with a lot. But the less you tower, the better your pictures need to be from a technical point of view. And if you are not a genius at all, but merely very talented, they had better be technically unexceptionable.

Over the years we have seen a depressing number of Photographic Artists who say, in effect, "I am an Artist! I have no need of mere technique!" From long and bitter experience, we would say that most who take this line are no-hopers who are artistically as well as technically incompetent, often because they are too lazy or too stupid to put in the effort needed to improve at anything.

Old Swiss Army Knife

Technical quality is not an absolute: you can use whatever tools, techniques, etc., that you believe to be appropriate. Roger shot this with his Nikon D70 and the same Dreamagon as the galvanized bucket, above, but working at the minimum aperture (f/11) for a sharper image. It's still soft, but it's a muzzy, hazy, romantic memory sort of softness. Colours were slightly desaturated in Adobe Photoshop to create a nostalgic tonality. We're still not sure about the slightly pinky background, though.

the painted word

The Painted Word is the title of a marvellous book by Tom Wolfe, about the way in which modern art is often more concerned with talking a good picture than with creating one.

This tendency first surfaced in the late 18th century. It was not enough to paint: one needed to start (or failing that, belong to) a Movement. Literature arguably provides the earliest example: the Romantic Movement, in which Goethe was a prime mover. Painting rapidly followed, and soon there was a taste for Romantic or Gothic (or worse still, Romantick and Gothick) genre landscapes of windswept ruins.

Since then, more and more Movements have sprung forth. Their names often sound more descriptive than they are. Impressionism and Modernism, for example, might mean almost anything, though Pointillisme is a fair description of paintings made up of dots. Others are more confusing: the Fauves, the Vorticists. Then we have Pop Art, Op Art and Conceptual Art. And what on earth is post-modernism?

 

Broken treasures II

The idea came from Frances: things that were broken, but too well-loved to throw away. The ratty old silver-plated cup, the silver worn through in places, was won in the 1930s by Roger's grandfather, killed in World War Two; the jet beads belonged to Frances's great-grandmother; the broken lorgnette is Frances's; the books date from 1602 and 1624 respectively; and so forth. The camera was almost certainly our 4x5 inch Linhof Technikardan, probably with the old 210/5.6 Schneider Symmar.

Roger shot the original in a very literal style on transparency film, and one of our readers said it moved her to tears. Frances shot it on Ilford FP4 then printed it on hand-coated watercolour paper, the aleatoriness of the coating reflecting the cracked, worn, broken nature of the subject. ('Aleatory' is a good word to impress the critics).

the bottom line

If you want to be taken seriously in Fine Art circles, it is as well to have at least a nodding acquaintance with the arcane and precious vocabulary of modern art, but be warned. It can actually become quite interesting, especially if you go in with the intention of demolishing pretension. The one thing you don't want to say is, "I like it, and that's all that matters," though for some reason it is perfectly all right to say the same thing in a slightly different way: "I take photographs for myself, of course."

Either statement, though, is ultimately a lie. If it were true, why would you show anyone your pictures? And besides -- how sure are you that you want to be taken seriously anyway?

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© 2006 Roger W. Hicks