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.

  • Nick Nieto 5y

    Beautiful image as always Zeb. I've spent a great deal of time wondering about the same question what does it mean. I have found a great deal of satisfaction with your definitions and ideas on art and craft. I believe people are a balance of each Artist and craftsmen though that balance may be quite different for different people but it is how your personal balance is made up that determines the way you do Photography. I truly beleive you must persue both sides in order to truly master your work as a photographer.

    Whag a great way to get people to think about photography and what it means to them. Thank you Zeb.
  • Rob Scumaci 5y

    Very well stated Sheldon:

    "A photographer who has a deeply emotional experience when confronted with the beauty of the world around them, then takes a picture of the inside of their lenscap has not communicated anything to the viewer."
  • Noël Zia Lee 5y

    Thanks for this essay, Zeb, and this wonderful portrait. And thanks to everyone else for the great comments. I have the feeling I'll be visiting this particular page often as I try to figure out what it means to me personally.
  • Karl 5y

    Great shot! Love the sense of ownership in the position of the seated figure (you?). Nicely done.
  • David Hogan 5y

    cool shot, love the star trails. You were sitting there a while.
  • Dan Bolton 5y

    I started reading this conversation about 24 hours ago. Over that time I've progressed on my opinion from "Talky, talkey, look at all the pretty words", to a slightly different opinion.

    I think about anything humans do as a progression, not just one side or another, but as a process. Sometimes the progression is exceedingly slow or quick, the duration finite or infinite, the outcome successful or abysmal. My point applies not just to photography, but to everything we do as humans. Think about everything we do in our lives now, everything we've done and no longer do, and everything we've never done but are going to do. Can anyone remember music lessons, or do you currently play a musical instrument expertly? Are you then a musician, or a composer/rock star? Have you made dinner lately? Are you a cook, or a chef? Driven a car? Homicidal maniac, or a raving lunatic?

    Not everything we do will garner us the recognition we so richly deserve, or maybe it will. I can remember many times that I've been blindly obsessed with what I'm doing at the time I'm doing it. Nothing else was important. Now I look back and wonder why I wasted my time because I've got this whole new bag. Just another progression along another path. Artist, or craftsman? YES. Husband,sportsman, collector, athelete, intellectual(idiot savant), handyman, photographer, human, yes. Who knows how long this path is? I don't. Photography could last the rest of my life with success shrouded in obscurity, or the opposite. The parts for my particle accelerator may come in and then this whole conversation will be mute.

    Enjoy what you are doing now, take a few risks artistically, try some different techniques, put on an exhibition, support anyone you know that does any of these things too.

    Zeb, are you still there? Do some of those photos/ with jokes attached.
  • margaret mendel 5y

    I found this shot very compelling!!! Dramatic and powerful!!! And your comments certainly gave me some interesting things to consider!!!
  • krateboy 5y

    Brilliant!!!
  • Blue Mitchell 5y

    Essay book for sure Zeb!! If you need some coaxing and help with that project (here's me acting like you were planning on it) let me know.

    Talk about confusing, I went to a college where this exact dialog was constantly infused into my life for three years...it's even in the name Oregon College of ART & CRAFT. Before I started attending school there I always considered myself a photographer (or at least I wanted to call myself one). The problem I found with labeling myself a photographer in the "real world" was most people were quick to assume I was a professional commercial photographer....so the debate for me has been primarily a language and understanding issue, not a personal one. For clarity in conversation I've turned to calling myself an artist which sends people down a more appropriate path of understanding.

    Now I wonder, should I be telling people I'm a craftsman? No, probably not (I haven't really built anything). I really would like to avoid calling myself anything, much like I don't like labeling my photographic creations. You suggest that these distinctions are a personal one and completely subjective...and I agree. I think though the definition of craft is part of the problem, mostly because it has two appropriate definitions for this dialog...one being technical proficiency and the other being 'made by hand'. I assume you're using the technical definition, however when I hear the word I go straight to the other....which then becomes a slippery slope when talking about photography. How many photographers consider their process as hand made? Because the photographer has so many tools, be it a home made pinhole camera to the professional digital, the debate could be opened up even more. Furthermore, is it called art only if it's conceptually strong? Or do we consider just a pretty picture to be art (which is really derived from 'artificial' but that's a whole different topic)...anyway, I'm making less of a point and posing more questions for debate.

    You state that art is about the process, craft is about the product. Which sums it up pretty good, and I agree...and disagree (how 'bout them apples). Applied to myself and like minded photog's, craft is actually the creation process and art is the final product (at least in my eyes, can't speak for others), and the concept is the full package from inception to finish (if ever). However when I apply it to other types of photographers I come back to your statement. I realize you're not subscribing to this two camp idea as a black and white notion, but I must suggest that there are either more camps, or none at all.

    What am I? Artist, Photographer, Craftsman? I think maybe an Artisan – but that would just sound conceited.

    Thanks for the thought bubble once again Zeb and a wonderful selfie too!

    (P.S. please excuse my abuse of parens')
  • Oliver Ogden 5y

    Back der in Commerce City, Colorado, I done worked at a dog track.
    The gent who managed the print shop before me had taken to filling the barren walls with prints of famous works and quotes pertaining to art. One quote that resonates with me and comes to mind when this debate comes up goes something like this (sorry I dont know who said this):

    the worker uses his body
    the craftsman uses his body and mind
    the artist uses his body, mind and soul

    Pertaining to photography, as many folks have pointed out, one can be all three. And it takes all three.

    Lugging equipment around: Worker
    Implementing formulas to calculate exposure/composition: Craftsman
    Breaking rules to accommodate personal vision: Artist

    Just a thought, gotta go!
  • sue.h 5y

    Fantastic image - how could i have missed it?!
    I'm afraid I have to return at some other point to give the words the proper attention they deserve, but don't worry, return I shall :)
  • 5gypsykings 5y

    I always love your photos and what you have to say so inspiring. So shouldn't it be about the passion of the act and how complete it makes you feel... not how you got it, that you know all the technical aspects, if you used post process to get final outcome.

    I think about art as the love put into it....
  • Tim Gallivan 5y

    I've been meaning to come back to this and weigh in, because, as you know, it pleases me greatly to have somebody out there starting these dialogues. And you're lucky to have an audience that's willing to engage.

    I started out disagreeing with your argument, as it seemed far too dichotomous. And that seemed odd coming from someone so comfortable with abstractions (in thought and imagery). But, of course, by the end I was mostly agreeing with the argument as it became less of an either/or and more a question of degree. But the conclusion is still a little too tidy for me somehow.

    I agree that all photographers are some combination of imagemaker and artist. Where it gets tricky for me is that this argument seems to suggest some sort of sliding scale between two. Let's use a black-to-white gradient as the representation of that scale, with white as pure imagemaker and black as pure artist. According to the argument, as I understand it, if you're Ansel Adams, you're at 50% gray. But most of us are on one side or the other of 50%, making us either more of an artist or more of an imagemaker. I think that's a fine way of describing intent, impulses, persuasions or whatever you want to call it. But I would argue that it really is the end result that matters most. Regardless of the process or intent, it boils down to the strange alchemy that occurs between the photographer and subject. Your title sums it up perfectly. Either it works or it doesn't. And the whole thing is entirely subjective.

    So, for the most part, I agree with what you're saying. I simply dislike the academic approach of a 2-camp categorization, though it's difficult to have this discussion without it. I like Oliver Ogden's quote. The soul of the work is what sets it apart, and how are you going to measure and categorize that?
  • Zeb Andrews 5y

    Thanks for the input Tim. I agree with your conclusion, that this is all too tidy. It is. There has to be wiggle room in there, and there is no way an air tight definition could be constructed, because as you conclude, it is all subjective.

    I do have to argue one point though, which is the end result matters most. Perhaps it is my lack of being able to explain this properly, or at least that is it partially. But I think whether you put emphasis on the end result lending value to the whole process is what makes one more of an imagemaker as opposed to an artist. I should put "s around those terms. Don't worry, I too bristle at the use of titles to neatly define us, but sometimes for the sake of communication they are necessary. But back to that end result. There are some photographers who care not a whit about the end result, for them it is all about the process. I have a friend who carried his camera around for an entire year without ever loading it with film, solely because he liked how the camera taught him to see the world and he thought pictures distracted from that. For him, it was about the process.

    Also, I come back to 's comment regarding the artist who has a deep emotional response to a landscape then takes a photo of the inside of his lens cap accidentally. He has not produced a result, but he has still been affected by the process, probably even more so than he would have been by the image had he successfully recorded it. The other side of this is those photographers who do weigh the success of the day on whether or not they bring home "hero" images. To them, success and failure is highly dependent upon whether or not their end result meets their expectations. There has to be some sort of way to define this difference in approach.

    I have experienced both. There have been days I have made the three hour round trip to the beach and ended up not taking a single image, or at least a single image that I liked, yet I came away with something. More than just enjoying the trip, I learned and grew as a photographer because of those experiences, all without making a single successful image. Same with trips to the bridge, I can walk around it for a couple of hours and learn a lot about photography and myself as a photographer and not need to make a single picture to do so. The end result does not factor into the equation at these times at all.

    And then of course there are those amazing moments, sunsets, sunrises, icy gorges, quirky expressions on customers' faces, etc, where I itch to see the negatives and successful images do heighten the overall experience. So I admit, that the end result can and sometimes will play a factor, but to say it is always dependent upon it I think overlooks those photographers who glean most or all of their satisfaction from the doing of photography, not necessarily what ends up done.
  • Tim Gallivan 5y

    I do understand what you're saying. I can see that my comment drifted at the end toward an art vs. craft thought process, rather than artist vs. craftsman. And that pretty much the entire point of your argument is the intent, impulses, persuasions or whatever you want to call it. In which case I think my conclusion could still work if you change a few words: The soul of the photographer is what sets him/her apart ... That sounds horribly corny, but you get the point. I appreciate your response. It certainly helps me understand the original essay in a new light.

    And I can certainly relate in my own experience. I've had plenty of trips where I brought back nothing I liked. But it was never time wasted. Sometimes the doing is the thing. And your friend's story was a great read. I completely understand where he's coming from. Flickr can be an odd force. And I'll be the first to admit that it has affected my approach. And it certainly affects what I decide to share. But at least I'm aware of it, and try not to let it have too much say in what I do.

    I just went back and read Sheldon's comment. It would have been easier to just say "ditto" :)
  • Zeb Andrews 5y

    But I am glad you didn't just say "ditto". Thanks for contributing Tim. The collection of responses to what I originally wrote makes the whole discussion much more valuable. After all, this is all mainly me trying to sort my way through this as well, rather than me declaring how something necessarily is. So I appreciate all the fellow "travelers".
  • sue.h 5y

    I'm so glad I came back to read this properly.
    This is when I really love flickr! (as opposed to "wow - great photo")

    It would seem, looking at all of the discussion here, that indeed there is no black and white answer. I think it's incredibly valuable to have all the contemplation and discussion and still be OK with arriving back at "well it's not easy to clearly separate or define these things, but we've had a fine time thinking and talking about it all" :)
    Thinking is good.

    I started writing several more things but then I would read back and realise someone had already said it better so I'm not going to repeat things that have already been stated so eloquently!!
    Thank you Zeb - this place is infinitely richer because of your presence.
  • ON THE MOON STUDIO 5y

    You don't know if it's art till you've seen the photo. Then it's your decision and only yours.
  • b craw 5y

    Boy, what lucid and thoughtful reflection on photography and its potential(s) as art. I find it disappointing that all too often we feel the need to justify or apologize for, directly or indirectly, this most natural extension of intellectual curosity: dialog. Many see something of a killjoy in this sort of thing, often implying that it is antithetical to a more organic art process; a process built of immediacy, intuition, and the like--a more romanticized notion resonating in popular consciousness. I believe that if you are so inclined, to engage in intellectual scrutiny is but one means of processing perception, not fundamentally dissimilar to more automatic perceptive responses (which I might argue are actually not automatic but I won't). That said, most artists agree that it is entirely possible to over think work. Enough from me on that; a bit peripheral to much of the thread.

    My more primary point is that much of the problem in this particular discussion is in semantical difference; in simply believing words have different meanings. And this wouldn't be so problematic were we simply addressing the meaning of two words, art and craft. [by the way, distinguishing meaning between art and craft is a time honored point of contention and sore feelings] To build an argument in any direction necessitates the use of many terms that are similarly poorly resolved as to meaning themselves e.g. creative, expressive, and the like. Many are only understood as vague cultural stereotypes. So one slippage built upon another and so on cannot render a stable surface for anything resembling a logical resolution. But I mean no disrespect to those offering their opinions. Again, such lucidity. And, it should also be mentioned (and forgive me if I am repeating anything stated previously) that art may, based on the arc of its history, always favor a mutable definition. Myself and many other artists are generally uncomfortable with the prospect of being pegged; we like movement. I think it fair to extend this trending in opinion to the larger issue of defining what art (or craft) is.
  • Zeb Andrews 5y

    All very well said. Thanks for adding on.
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Uploaded on December 15, 2009
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