At the intersection of the bridge and I

I think I finally answered one of the questions that has been bugging me about photography for some time now, namely that of, "is photography an art? And if not, what is it?" I have long wondered about this. I mean, obviously photography can be an art, but it also is not always one. And in those cases then, what is it? The obvious answer that always seemed to make the most sense was, a craft. So photography is either an art or a craft, but which is it mainly, or perhaps most important to my curious wonderings, was when is it one or the other.

 

I do not know quite why this question has nagged me so much. Perhaps it is because by better understanding the distinction, I can better understand my own pursuits of photography, or better guide where those pursuits are leading. Perhaps it is because I see the word "artist" so often misused to the point that any meaning it once had has become so diluted that now it just seems a label that photographers use to better sell their work. Perhaps it is because the word "craft" best describes how some photography is done, yet we shy away from using it because it seems somehow less than calling your work art.

 

So here goes:

 

The way I have come to see it; art is about the process, craft is about the product. An artist works on a very personal level, mainly dealing with that slender point where they (and all their collective knowledge, experience and temperament) and some place, time, person or thing intersect. For example, when I am photographing at this bridge, I am not necessarily photographing the bridge, I am photographing some point between me and this bridge. I am seeing it through the only eyes I can, mine. It is a process of realization and exploration. It is the sum of all that I am, and how it interacts with this place that I am, and that process just happens to produce photographs. Put another way, the photographer artist does not need a camera in hand to do what they do. They are involved in the artistic process of photography whether they are currently using a camera or not.

 

To contrast that with photographic craft, those crafters are the imagemakers. They are the ones whose focus is on designing and building photographs. The emphasis lies with the finished product, rather than the process that it took to get there.

 

I don't think one approach is better than the other, they are merely two different ways of going about the business of photography. But I do think there are several key differences between the two that are worth pointing out.

 

The artist works personally. The satisfaction they get comes from within, or rather that interaction with a place, moment or object. They generally do not seek nor need accolades. That is why artists generally are not the ones calling themselves artists. Usually it is the photographer craftsmen who feel the need to do that. More on that in a minute. But working on such a personal level has its shortcomings. What an artist produces is not always very well understood by others. Their work carries much less universal appeal, because, well if it did, then it would not be a personal process of exploration but rather a universal one. Also artists tend to fall victim to producing imagery that is not as strong as the process that created it, yet rely on the conviction of their experiences to lend their photos value. In this way, photographer artists lose sight of the fact that the value in what they do is in the process and not the product.

 

The imagemaker, aka craftsman photographer, generally excels at the technical aspects of their craft. Their images are generally bold and beautiful. They tend to carry lots of universal appeal because they speak in universal concepts. This tends to make the imagemaker much more commercially successful. But their work tends to lack the complexity of the artistic approach. It must, because the more complex, the more artistic, the less universally appealing it becomes, the less successful the product.

 

There is also the difference in how the two operate. The artist, once he has discovered his vision and grown comfortable working in it, can take that anywhere, it becomes omnipresent. Day, night, rain, sun. Far from home or right in their own backyard. That process is applicable wherever they are. They just do not always have the technical abilities to realize what they are experiencing. The craftman excels when the conditions are "just right". They have a select list of materials they prefer to work with (i.e. sunset, sunrise, blooming flowers, models with a specific look, happy children, whatever this happens to be, and it can be anything), and when those conditions are just right, they produce top notch images. But the imagemaker tends to struggle when the conditions are not just right. If the sky clouds up before sunset, if their model looks different than what they expected, if the background behind those flowers is distracting, they will often come home with few, if any shots, that they are happy with.

 

It is mildly amusing because there is a certain amount of strife that exists between the two camps, largely due to the fact that each side sees in the other something that they wish they possessed. The craftsman can accuse the artist of "making excuses" for poor photographs by calling them "artistic". The artist looks down on the imagemaker for producing work that is all "fluff" and not deep, moving or complex. Yet, the truth is, those photographers who succeed the most are those that have learned to balance the two to some degree and incorporate both the artist and the imagemaker into what they do. The artist needs the imagemaker's ability to produce high quality photographs if they hope to adequately convey the experiences of their process to an audience, any audience. It does not matter how profound that process was, if the images it produces leave viewers confused, scratching their heads or worse. The imagemaker needs the artist's ability to look within, to infuse their imagery with a bit of themselves, to make it personal, because those images that resonate the strongest tend to be made in just such a manner.

 

In fact, most photography does include both aspects. It is actually quite difficult to be solely one or the other. And some photographers are so well balanced that it is hard to distinguish if they are more craftsman or artist, Ansel Adams is a prime example. He had heavy inclinations towards both, so much so that whether he was one or the other became situational. Another good comparison would be a photographer such as Peter Lik to an Abelardo Morell. One is an imagemaker with strong artistic tendencies, the other an artist with an incredibly refined ability to produce images.

 

It may sound odd, but when I finally hashed out this concept, I was quite relieved. I know some could care less about having an answer to this question. I am guessing most of them are imagemakers. And that is fine, such answers are not important to their craft, and they are all that much more lucky because of that. None of these crazy thoughts confusing their process. But I consider myself fairly strongly an artist, and so these answers are very important to shedding light on the process for me, for illuminating not just what lies ahead but all around me. The better I understand myself, the better I understand what it is that I do with a camera, or how I do it, the better I become at it.

 

Anyway, I hope this proves enlightening for some of you too. I also hope that I did a sufficient job explaining my belief in the two camps that it does not seem one is better than the other. I do not think so, they each have their strengths and shortcomings. Which is what I am getting at, by better understanding which you are, and understanding what your shortcomings are as being that, you are better able to address them.

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Uploaded on December 15, 2009