Discussing art is kind of a dangerous proposition because it’s subjective, and you are bound to step on someone’s toes. I think it’s important to talk about art, and I think, even if someone might be offended, it is beneficial to have some understanding of what it is–to define it–and how it relates to photography and to you, the photographer.
Most photographs are not art, just like most people who have a paintbrush in their hands are not artists. Most people who sing aren’t recording artists. Not all people who whittle are wood-carvers. Not all people who draw letters are calligraphers. You get the idea. Just because something is similar to art, does not make it art. There is something that separates actual art from facsimile “art” that’s really not art at all.
Before jumping too deep into this, I want to clarify that it is perfectly fine that most photographs are not art. There are many different purposes for the photograph, and art is just one of them. There is nothing wrong with pictures that aren’t art, as they have their place, just as photographs as art also have their place. Just because one uses a camera doesn’t mean that person must be or should be an artist. You may have little to no interest in art at all, but you love to photograph, and there is nothing wrong with that whatsoever.
Webster defines art as “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination.” Oxford defines it as “the expression of human creative skill and imagination.” Both of these explanations are similar and describe the two critical components for determining if something is or is not art: skill and imagination. If something is created skillfully but not imaginatively, it’s not art. If something is created imaginatively but not skillfully, it’s not art. It must be both skillfully and imaginatively completed in order to be considered art.
People have different levels of skill and creativity. You might be very skillful but only marginally creative. You can be highly creative but only marginally skillful. Either way, you can still create art, and you can work to improve your shortcomings. You can become more proficient and increase your creativity with practice. Obviously the place you want to be if you wish to be an artist photographer is very skillful and highly creative. That’s a life-long process, and there are no easy one-size-fits-all instant answers. Just continue to work hard and be persistent.
Aside from knowing how to use your camera gear to achieve your desired results, and having imagination enough to know what you want the results to be in the first place, I think that there are a few more aspects to art that should be talked about. Look again at what Webster said of art, paying particular attention to the phrase, “conscious use of…” in the definition. You have to know what it is that you are creating. You have to be able to define it. You should be able to explain it to some extent. If you can’t, it’s not likely art that you’re creating.
I used to show my photographs to people and they’d say, “Oh, that looks nice!” Or, “What a pretty picture!” Then one day someone asked, “What does this picture mean? What is its purpose?” I had no answer because I had never thought of that before. I really didn’t know what to say, and it was kind of embarrassing. I realized that I needed to have an answer for all of my photographs–I needed to know the purpose and meaning of each–but the answer needed to be made prior to exposure, not after. If I’m trying to make it up after the fact it will typically translate as artificial and weak.
If a photograph is art, the photographer should be able to give a clear and concise explanation of the image. It doesn’t necessarily have to be profound. It doesn’t necessarily have to be obvious to the viewer. But the photographer should know clearly in their mind why they created the image and what the meaning of it is. And it’s okay if the viewer doesn’t see it the same way that you see it, it only matters that you know the purpose.
I believe that if something is art it should convey something to the viewer. It might be a strong and obvious message, it might be a subtle concept, it might be an emotion–there should be some kind of nonverbal communication, whether clear or vague. The photographer must decide what it is that the picture will convey, and then make decisions prior to exposure that will most strongly speak it.
The Oxford explanation of art uses the word “expression” which can be defined as making one’s thoughts and feelings known. When you are an artist photographer, that’s exactly what you are doing. You are expressing your thoughts and/or feelings to others through your pictures. You are giving the viewer a glimpse of yourself through your photographs. Art is self expression. How you do this is entirely up to you. What glimpses you give of yourself is entirely up to you. You have to make those decisions, then skillfully and imaginatively create something from it.
Not everyone will appreciate your art. Not everyone will get it. In fact, if you are truly expressing yourself, you should expect criticism. People have opinions that are different than yours. People have experiences that are different than yours. People see the world through different eyes than yours. Strangers will look at something that you think is great and they’ll think it’s terrible. That’s completely okay, and you may not realize it, but you do the exact same thing. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
If you are an artist photographer, you have to expect that criticism will come. Take it for what it’s worth, and, most likely, it’s not worth much. Listen to people who you trust, and take their criticism to heart. They mean well with what they say, and they’re just trying to help you. For everyone else, give the criticism a listen, but don’t put much stock into it, and don’t let it bother you. If you’re not getting any criticism at all, it’s most likely because you are not creating art, and you are not expressing yourself through your photographs enough.
Not everyone is an artist photographer, and not every artist photographer is always creating art. Photography as art happens when someone consciously expresses themselves in a masterful and creative fashion. It happens when the photographer communicates thoughts or emotions through pictures. I’m constantly striving to be an artist photographer. Sometimes I think I’ve succeeded, other times I feel like I’ve fallen short. But I keep at it, never giving up, always striving ahead.
The takeaway that I’d like to most impart is that you and I should continuously be working towards becoming more skilled with our gear and we should daily be practicing creativity. Constantly take baby steps to become a better and more artistic photographer. Even if things are slow developing or mistakes happen, don’t give up but instead keep moving forward. Be persistent. Tomorrow’s photographs can be better than today’s.