Photography for art’s sake

Some inspirational photography thinkers and a lot of reflection helped me discover my photographic motivation to make art – here’s the story.

Why do you take photographs? Without knowing the answer to this question – and not a superficial answer like “because I enjoy it”, but the reasons that underlie that enjoyment – it’s impossible to progress creatively. In fact, without understanding your motivation, your creativity is likely to dry up entirely, and you’ll end up in a hole of boredom that’s difficult to get out of. I’ve been in that kind of hole with my photography for some time – I’ve still been taking photographs, but not with much enthusiasm or creative direction. In the past few months, however, I’ve been inspired to contemplate that question of why in more depth. This process has crystallised my current motivation in my mind, helping me to take my photography in a direction that isn’t exactly new, but is more intentional. As this kind of reflection is something that all photographers will go through from time to time, I thought I’d share the thought process and my influences that have helped me find my direction.

All in the name of art

The conclusion of my contemplation is that I take photographs to make art. That might not sound like a revelation – after all, photographs are generally considered to be a form of art, so on one level, it seems like a self-fulfilling goal. Yet we all know that not all photographs – particularly given the number of photographs being taken these days –are generally considered to be art, so there must be a point on the huge spectrum of photographs that separates photographs that are art from photographs that are not. Exactly where this point lies is a matter for endless discussion. But contemplating this issue with the help of some inspirational photographic thinkers has helped me to define where I think that point lies, and therefore to focus my efforts in a specific direction.

Photographers as artists

The trigger that got my rusty creative cogs moving was a retweet by a photographic friend of a blog post by Canadian photographer David duChemin about the importance of creative vision over photography gear. The post resonated with me – I explored the rest of duChemin’s blog, and watched some episodes of his “sometimes weekly podcast” Vision is Better (“Gear is good, but vision is better”). All of it resonated with me. At the heart of everything that duChemin does is the idea that photography should be primarily about your creative vision, and that your creative choices should be directed by that vision. I don’t agree with everything duChemin says or all of his creative choices, but his philosophy triggered a shift in my perspective to focus more on the art in photography.

This shift encouraged me to return to some books by Michael Freeman that I’ve had for some time, but have sat largely unread. These included The Photographer’s Eye, which I cannot recommend highly enough for anyone with an interest in creating photography as visual art. The book looks in detail at the visual elements of a photograph, aspects of composition, and the use of these to fulfil your intent. From this, and also Freeman’s The Photographer’s Mind, I gained two insights into my photographic motivation.

The Photographer's Eye

The Photographer’s Eye by Michael Freeman is an invaluable resource to anyone interested in making photography as visual art.

First, I realised that the aspect of photography I love is exactly the same as the aspect of all art that I’ve always loved – the visual design of the final image. This has its basis in the earliest of my artistic passions, which was graphic design. I have always considered graphic design – essentially the arrangement of lines, shapes and colours – to be the most fundamental form of art. For me, strong visual design in itself is enough for an image to work (think Mondrian’s compositions in red, yellow and blue). But even if an image is intended to evoke a deeper response than aesthetic pleasure or convey a specific concept or message, the visual design remains essential if the image is to be effective.

Second, Freeman discusses the idea of ‘process’ – the nuts and bolts of creating visual design – and forced me to address a misconception that I’ve never really acknowledged but has silently directed my approach to photography since I began. Subconsciously, I’ve always equated photographic skill with the ability to capture the desired image with one shot. However, Freeman talks about the idea of sketch images, and this concept made me realise that photography is like any other art. As a painter, I wouldn’t expect to produce a finished piece with one attempt on the canvas – I would make sketches of the composition, perform studies to finalise the details, and there may be several attempts at the final painting, or at least changes as I worked. Why should the way of working in photography be fundamentally different?

The decisive moment

Reading duChemin and Freeman had got the ideas about photography as art rolling in my mind, but my epiphany came during a family holiday to Greece. Most of the photographs I took with my DSLR on this holiday were of staircases, for an ongoing project, rather than of my family or the scenery. That’s not to say I didn’t take any holiday snaps, but I used my phone for those, like anyone else would. This is typical of any family event or social gathering – I don’t generally have my DSLR with me, and even if I do, I don’t feel comfortable using it. I don’t like taking pictures to document events in my life. That fact has sat uncomfortably with me ever since I considered myself to be a ‘photographer’ – surely I can’t be photographer if there are times when I don’t like using my ‘proper’ camera.

Sketch image of a staircase taken in Greece

An unprocessed sketch image of a staircase, made in Greece – not a normal holiday snap.

My mistake has been to consider photography as a single entity, to assume that all photographers document their own lives and create family albums. But in the context of the ideas in my head from duChemin and Freeman, my willingness to point my camera at stairs but not at my family made me realise that, for me at least, taking pictures for the family album is an activity that is entirely unrelated to what I think of as ‘photography’ – the pursuit of art. This separation instantly freed my mind and crystallised my motivation.

A new journey

The process I’ve talked about has taken about 6 months, and I’d been stumbling in the dark with my photographic motivation for at least as long before that. It’s felt like a journey, but in reality, that’s just been the planning for a much longer adventure. Now I feel ready to set off and discover what art I am making and can make, and how my idea of art and how I make it will change along the way. I hope you’ll join me.

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Use your photography website for creative insight

Having a photography website can sometimes feel like shouting into the abyss, but it’s not all about likes and shares – it’s a valuable creative tool for developing your skills.

These days, anyone can create a photography website in just a couple of clicks. For us amateur photographers, doing so feels like a fantastic way of getting our photographs out there for people to see, a chance to effectively exhibit our work publicly that wasn’t possible just a few years back. And it feels great to publish your pictures for the whole world to see – until, that is, you realise that every other photographer is doing the same and the Internet is rammed with photography portfolios intended to capture the attention of that same world. It soon becomes clear that you’re shouting into something of an abyss, and the best most of us can hope for is some clicks from family, friends and acquaintances when we share on social media, and maybe some spread to their wider network. So is there any point in having a website?

If the only reason for having a site is to try and get recognition of your pictures through likes and shares, then for anyone who doesn’t make a living out of photography, you could reasonably argue that the answer is no. The response you’ll get doesn’t necessarily reflect the amount of time you put in, and external gains for an amateur photographer via an online portfolio are likely to be minimal. Personal gains, however, are a different matter. Having a website is not only about displaying your photographs, but also involves processes of collating, assessing and reflecting on your photographs. For this reason, a website can be a valuable tool to any photographer who wants to develop their craft, regardless of whether it gets much attention.

An artistic tool

I’m coming at this idea off the back of several months without touching my website. Last year, I revamped it so it was more user-friendly and provided a better showcase for my images. But in the process, I became focused on trying to provide something for an audience, and quickly felt that I could not provide anything to anyone that countless other sites don’t already provide infinitely better than I ever could. My blinkered approach meant I couldn’t see any point, and I left the site stagnant. But I’d completely lost site of the value the website provides to myself.

In the past couple of weeks, I discovered the blog of David duChemin, a “world and humanitarian photographer”. His whole ethos is that photography is not about the cameras or about churning out “eye candy” photographs, but about having a creative vision and making images with “soul”, images that are “about” something. He comes at photography as an art – which, of course, it is – and he advocates development of the craft through introspection to identify what you are trying to achieve and how to achieve it. This introspection is a process for which I think a website can have real value as a tool for any photographer looking to develop that craft.

The value of reflection

In a recent post, deChumin writes about the importance of studying the work of other photographers to develop your own: “Only studying photographs will make you better at photograph-making…It’s no good just revering old dead guys, and too few dead gals, who make beautiful images. If you want to really revere them – study their photographs. Learn why they work. Learn to read an image so you know how others will read them, so you can better make images that people have a chance at reading one way or another. Learn what visual elements and devices you find compelling so you yourself can make images that scratch your creative itch.”

The same is true about your own photographs. One important part — perhaps even the most important part — of developing your own style and artistry, and of growing as a photographer, is studying and reflecting on your own photographs. As duChemin says about studying other’s images, by identifying what exactly you like about the images you’re happy with and what you don’t like about images that don’t work for you, you learn what you’re aiming for. That information filters into your ‘game head’, and next time you’re looking through the viewfinder, you have a better understanding of what you want to see and how to create it. A website is a fantastic medium for this kind of introspection.

By collating and reflecting on my images through my website, I’ve realised my tendency to prefer images with strong lines (see below)

Collating, judging, learning

Assuming your website is public and likely to receive some traffic, the idea that people will see your work online and judge you as a photographer is enough to throw the quality of your work into sharp relief and help you see it through others’ eyes. Not necessarily its absolute quality, because you’re not comparing it with other peoples’ images, but its relative quality. Are you happy for a given image to appear online and represent you as a photographer to anyone that looks? If so, why? If not, why not? Answering those questions teaches you something immediately.

Producing the central elements of most photography sites — galleries and slide shows — is another helpful process. It encourages you to collate photos into collections, helping you to form a structured body of work. The process also helps further in deciding which images you really rate — in a slide show, any images that you’re not quite happy with will jump out, and that’s a trigger to look at the image more closely to understand why you don’t think it works. Conversely, the chances are you won’t upload any photos you don’t like, so galleries and slideshows juxtapose the ones you do, making it easier to spot common themes and elements that make an image work for you. What’s more, this process is infinitely easier than it ever was or could be with prints — it’s all done on screen, so there’s no need for a large area where you can spread out prints, and you can easily include one photo in multiple collections. Even better, if you use a platform such as WordPress, it doesn’t cost anything.

Another useful tool on a website is a blog. There’s nothing better for clarifying your thoughts than writing them down, so blogging about your photographs can help you understand your thoughts about them. It will also serve as a record for yourself, so if you write about a particular technique you used for a specific photo, you can go back and remind yourself. Blogs — originally known as weblogs — was conceived as an online diaries, and approaching it in this was is probably better than trying to write for an audience. Write for your own benefit, and if others are interested or it helps them, that’s a bonus.

I first understood these inward-facing benefits of having a website when I did a 365 project a few years ago. The way I approached it, I took a photograph every day of the year, and wrote a blog post for each about how I took it, why I took it, what I liked about it and what I didn’t. This process forced me to reflect on every photograph, whether I liked it or not. I also started to see patterns emerge and themes repeating themselves, giving me insight into my motivations that I wouldn’t have got if I hadn’t blogged about the pictures.

Insights

From collating photographs on my website and writing about them, I’ve learnt that I favour images with strong lines, and put more emphasis on composition than anything else. Many of my favourite images are dominated by geometric shapes and patterns, which reflect the graphic design mentality with which I originally approached much of my wider art. I also like to isolate a specific subject from a distance, small in the frame, with the surroundings focusing attention and giving a wider context. I’ve also learned that I have patterns in the way I process images, certain looks that I like, and that some subjects work better with those looks than others.

This knowledge is now all in my mind when I’m shooting, and informs the way I approach taking an image, from choosing my composition to thinking about how I’ll process the file to give the final image. Reflecting in this way has even changed my whole approach to some extent, and I’m more likely to use a wide focal length now than I was a couple of years ago, because this makes for the strong diagonals that I love. The insight also enables me to see where I’d like to improve — for example, I put so much emphasis on composition that I don’t always pay enough attention to the use of light, so I can use this information to improve. If I’d just filed my photographs on my hard drive and not looked at them again, I wouldn’t have been able to direct my work in the same way and wouldn’t have improved at all. That’s not to say I’ve arrived at an artistic destination that I’m happy with — it’s a continual learning process that my website will continue to help.

Another recurring motif I’ve noticed while collating images for my website is the isolation of a small subject in the context of their surroundings.

Develop your own photography

Of course, if you get traffic to your website, people like and share your work, and you get feedback, that’s fantastic, and it provides even greater motivation to continue. But as an amateur, if you make these aspects the main goal of your website, you might well be disappointed. Amongst the noise online, you’re unlikely to get a huge response without a huge amount of work, and the disappointment can kill your motivation. If you instead treat your website as a tool to develop your own photography, it’ll give you a lot more satisfaction, and it could help you develop your photography so you’re more likely to create work that attracts attention.

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