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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25 March: Colour Pencils

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25 March: Colour Pencils
25 March: Colour Pencils

This was a photo I meant to take on Day 76, but got side tracked by pens instead of pencils! Since then, I’ve had other ideas for photos, but today I wanted something quick so went back to this idea.

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7 March: Paints

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7 March: Paints
7 March: Paints

After my art-themed photo yesterday, I was inspired. I love oil paints more than I can describe, and so this photo is one of my favourites – looking at the paint around the necks and the pigment stains on the tube labels, it conjures up the smells and the feel of painting.

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6 March: A Painter’s Tools

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6 March: A Painter’s Tools
6 March: A Painter's Tools

Once upon a time, I was a painter. I still consider myself to be, but haven’t actually done any for years. I’ve still got all of my artists’ materials though, and this includes many, many paintbrushes. These are all stored in a wooden box, and it occurred to me that a picture of the brushes, some of which are well used and stained, in this box would make a cool photo.

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