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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

In The Eye Of The Beholder

Photography As Art • Everything Old Is New Again

Labels: Tech Tips

Art Vs. State Of The Art. Lepp offers two floral images—one is scanned film with soft effects and one is tack-sharp from edge to edge, front to back—as fodder for the discussion of nature photography as art. ABOVE: A California poppy photographed in 1998 with a Canon film camera and EF 100mm macro lens on Kodak E100S Ektachrome film. BELOW RIGHT: A rain-spattered tulip, photographed in May 2014 with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and Canon EF 180mm macro lens on a tripod, 23 captures at different focus points and composited in Zerene Stacker software to render the flower sharp from front to back.

Photography As Art

Q Toward the end of a recent seminar, you were emphasizing the importance of tack-sharp focus in an entire image (from the center to all the corners, from foreground to distance). I think I heard you say, almost as an aside, that you can leave the edges blurred, or selectively blur a part of an image if you want to do so, but "that is art"—and by implication, not photography, or not the photography you do and teach. Do you draw a distinction between photography done "as art" from the nature and landscape photography you do?
L. Rankin
At A Seminar

A I sometimes poke fun at the notion that photography can be called "art" only if it's technically deficient—that is, out of focus, devoid of color, lacking any compelling or even recognizable subject, design or compositional integrity, or created with outdated and limited media (that is, film). If your logical sense resists the notion that only bad or technically outdated photography has artistic value, just do a little research about what's being exhibited in art museums, being reviewed in serious publications, and being taught in some college and university art departments these days. So, when an unmoving subject, such as a flower, is portrayed with blurred edges, is it (a) an indication of the photographer's lack of skill or inadequate equipment, (b) an attempt at capture to achieve creative interpretation of the flower, (c) a digitally altered sharp image intentionally blurred to create a softer and presumably more interpretive image, or (d) a digitally altered blurred image intentionally rendered even more blurry to disguise the lack of technique (i.e., save it in Photoshop)? Which of these is art? Is art the more or the less manipulated image? Does it make a difference if the result is a 60x60 print on the photographer's gallery wall or an 8x10 matted print on an art museum wall? Is it art if the photographer looks like an artist, or refers to his/her work as, well...art?

Actually, the concept of art is very inclusive and invites participation by creator and viewer at every level of our experience. Most simple definitions of art use the terms "skill" and "emotional response." That is, the creation of the work is deliberate, and viewers feel something when they see it. As anyone who has been in my classes will know, I value technical skill and feel that it empowers photographers by giving them the tools to realize their photographic (okay, artistic) visions leading, when successful, to the viewer's intense response to an understanding of that vision, be it beauty, humor, folly, tenderness, grief, science or horror.

That said, I don't undertake photography with the idea that I'm creating art, and I've never been much concerned with the idea of being an artist. I have a vision and I'm compelled by my nature, my training and my habit to turn that vision into something that others can share. My primary objective as a photographer is to convey a subject to viewers in a way they've never seen it before. Applying this criterion has always produced my best photography, from my years with Car and Driver Magazine, to nature and wildlife, street photography, outdoor action, portrait photography, and my current obsession with high-magnification macro subjects in the studio. Still, it was easier to achieve the goal of unique perspectives four decades ago when I undertook my professional career, when the field of photography, and I, were younger, the tools of the trade more precious, the opportunities to travel more limited, and access to the market controlled by gatekeepers who, presumably, knew and applied artistic and quality standards.

So, back to the seminar you attended, where I was pushing the idea of sharpness in every dimension of the image. Unlimited depth of field is a technique that speaks to skill: It enables the photographer to convey intense detail and color, and lots of information about the subject. If you've been spending much time in art museums lately, and you've actually seen photography there, then you know that tack-sharpness is also a style that should generate at least one emotional response: Surprise! But, is it art?


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