Fine-Art Photography Really a Fine Art?:
Other Heretic Meanderings
copyright 2009 by Jerry Buley, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved
The fine arts are
not about truth. Instead, they are
about the ability to engender the full range of human emotion through
the manipulation of the elements of their art form. This can only
happen when the artist is allowed to take liberty with the truth.
The painter paints what is not there. The sculptor makes the form
more perfect than it actually was. We even have a word for it in
writing. It's called "fiction." And the fiction reader,
without even being asked, jumps immediately into the willing
suspension of disbelief.
arts are not about truth."
originated as a method for preserving with some fidelity what happened
at the time the photograph was taken. Probably cave drawings were
completed for the same reason. While painters, the artistic
descendents of those early cave dwellers, today are allowed
to go beyond the truth, photographers, in large measure are not.
When the fiction
writer makes us cry, we do not ask whether the story was true.
When the painter paints a beautiful landscape, we do not question whether
it really exists. Yet, many of us have heard the question asked in
photography galleries around the world, "Has that picture been photoshopped?"
question may say something about the photo-editing competence of the
photographer, it also points to the commonly held assumption that
photographers can only tell the truth.
The short answer
to the question in the gallery is, "of course it has." It is my
estimate that fifty percent of all fine-art photographers today will
admit to manipulating their images in a photo editor. The other
fifty percent lie. The reason they lie is that photography is held
to the standard of truth telling. As an aside here, I
wandered into a gallery dedicated to the classic photography masters in
Carmel, California a few years ago and was amused when the clerk told me
the none of these masters had manipulated their pictures after the snap
of the shutter. What I didn't tell the clerk was that Ansel Adams,
one of their primary examples in the gallery, even published books about
how he manipulated his pictures in his darkroom, often for months,
until he got a print with which he was satisfied. Though
contemporary photo-editing programs have more options than Adams had,
much of what these programs do have direct corollaries with what Adams
did in his dark room. The idea
that photographers do not manipulate their images is absurd. Yet,
it is pervasive in galleries across the U.S. because photographers want
photographers will tell you they edit their pictures on a
computer. The other 50% lie."
buyers to think that the photographer did all of his magic before
clicking the shutter. He pointed the camera at the right subject in
the right way, used the right filters, f/stop, and shutter spead,
clickered the shutter and perfection appeared.
A gallery owner in
Sedona recently showed me a CD given to him by another
photographer. He implied that this photographer never manipulated
his images. As the gallery owner put it, the photographer didn't
have to do any thing to the image to "correct it." Though with
strong disbelief riding my shoulders, I took the CD home. The
pictures were gorgeous. The photographer had a good eye for
composition and color. In one picture it was apparent he had taken
several leaves of different sizes and had stacked them with the
largest on the bottom and smallest on top. Clearly, manipulation
prior to clicking the shutter was okay. On another, he used
a flash to highlight the underside of several tall cacti.
Photographers are allowed to do anything they want before the shutter
release, but nothing after. How much sense does that make?
photographer manipulate his photographs in Photoshop. I cannot
tell you for sure. Though, the colors in several were a little
"over the top" in several of his pictures, even if he was using film.
If he did use Photoshop, then it says a lot about his competency,
because incompetent use of Photoshop is usually quite visible. It
is what often is behind the question "Has the picture been Photoshopped?"
But, all of this is beside the point.
The major point
here the gallery owner was making is that there is no need to load a
picture into Photoshop unless it has to be "corrected." That is,
something is wrong with it. The implication is that if you were a
good photographer you would not have to use Photoshop.
saying that while any other fine artist is allowed "correct" his/her
work (before it is sold, of course), a photographer is not?
I do not know a painter who does not "correct" her/his work,
or at least attempt it. A
fine artist always reserves that right. Mary Dove, a fantastic sedona artist,
says she never throws a piece away. She always finds ways to
correct her mistakes, even with water colors. Writers, write and
rewrite endings for their books, often changing them drastically to get
the emotional effect they want. I demand that same "right" as a
fine-art photographer. *
artist always reserves the right to "correct" her/his work.
I once had my
one my works critiqued at a critique event. The critic, was a painter and taught art history
among other art related classes at a local community college. The
critic was impressed by the fact that I waited for just the right moment
to catch a bird flying in a part of the frame that made the picture
perfectly balanced. He was mildly shocked when I told him that I
had put the bird into the picture using Adobe Photoshop. Yet, as a painter
I am sure he would not think twice about doing so in one of his
photographers attempt to go to the extreme in truth telling. They
are the ones who take pictures in a drug house of people shooting up, of
girls prostituting themselves, of the terribly dirty conditions, and so
on. I would call what they do photojournalism, not fine art because the focus is
on truth telling. Though I would not deign to expel
these photographers from the fine arts, I wonder whether they are
preventing others who give preference to beauty over truth, from
We have all gone into photography
galleries where they are many gorgeous photographs, and walked from image to image marveling at the beauty of what
we are seeing. But, other than perhaps surprise and awe, what did we feel?
Fine-art photography has to be more than about beauty.
|Fine-art photography has to
be more than about surprise and awe.
Writers have long had an edge
on fine-art photography. We have all read poems and sections of novels that
have caused us to feel strong emotions. Hemingway, noted as one of our
best writers, was once challenged to write a novel in 6 words, His
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
Your mind struggles at hearing
these words. It asks questions, attempts to solve the puzzle. So much
complexity in just six short words.
artists have attempted to dissuade me from even trying."
As a writer, though I am not a
Hemmingway, I know I can create very brief short stories/poems that have
varying degrees of emotional content for emotions ranging from humor to
grief. I know that when I pair my images with text such as this,
what I feel is greater than what either artistic modality could have
produced on its own. There is a synergy of meaning as I read the
text and view the image.
It has been a trial all along
the way. Many artists have attempted to dissuade me from even trying.
After all, they say, if an image good, it is strong enough to stand by
itself. Of course, that is true. But so what? What if I take that strong
image and put it with an equally strong body of text pertaining to that
image? Of course, it may change what a person thinks about the picture.
But, again, so what?
Some have argued that
photography is a visual art and that as such it should not be stained by
text. The purists in this school of thought tend toward
abstraction in photography and would prefer not to even title their
pictures except as "# 2," perhaps. The
"meaning" of such photographic art, they say, is acquired through experience and
education. Thus, a given piece will have more meaning for someone
who has been educated than for someone who as not. Basically, it
is as if to say, "if you don't understand this, you haven't been
educated enough." Of course, by this theory opera is not a pure
fine art since it combines instrumental music and voice singing
(usually) some form of text.
Another argument people
have used against
melding image and text is that it may cause someone to
feel strong negative emotions. Though the goal of any fine artist is to
engender an emotional response, the specific response is unpredictable. The meaning for any bit of text or image, is in the mind of the beholder.
Meanings are in people not in words and not in pictures. If my work
is meaningful to my viewers, if it provokes feelings, prods thought, pushes biases, I say "hooray." I must
be doing something right. At the same time, I am not personally interested in
duplicating Maplethorp's challenges to society. Though, I believe
our society, to survive has, to allow for that.
The meaning for any bit of text or image, is in the mind of the
As many artists who have
argued against the blending of text and image, just as many have been
quite positive. I take from this controversy that I must be doing something
right. Ultimately, the real measure of any idea in art, is the observer.
If people like my merging of text and image well enough, they will buy
them. If they donít, they wonít.
Most of us make a decision
about a piece of art in the first few seconds we are observing It.
The average time viewers will spend with a given photograph in a gallery is
less than 10 seconds. If I can
double or triple that, I will have succeeded. I want my viewers to
form an emotional tie to my images. I want them to be thinking
about my images hours, even days following their visit to the gallery.
to see people looking back and forth between the text and the image,
contemplating the meanings developing in their brains as each wraps
around the other. The mind questions, probes, answers, and posits, and
then begins again. You look, you read, and you move to another level of
understanding. The emotions you feel may be positive or negative. They
may be humorous or even sad. But they are all very real.
At least some of the
debate about fine-art photography has to do with the words we use to
categorize photography. Go
here for an
article I have written on that topic.