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Photography is easy. Art is hard.

rdeloe

Well-known member
Thanks for sharing this article Olaf.

A few things Michael Gordon wrote in his piece really resonated with me.

"Painters don’t keep buying and trying different brushes, oils or easels in order to improve their art or craft. They just keep painting, developing their craft and their art simultaneously."
  • I've had that exact same thought when I find myself wasting time browsing for bits and pieces of camera equipment to replace perfectly good gear I already have. The cure for GAS is work. When I'm working intensively on a project, any desire to look at shopping sites disappears.
"I decided to specialize in my own environment and habitat (self-imposed constraints can prove artistically liberating). Travel photography is fun and exciting but my best and most important work would more likely come from the places and subjects that were easily accessible, that I knew intimately and loved deeply."
  • I am fortunate to live near some messy forests and wetlands that I absolutely love and care about. It's not the only place I make photographs, but it's at hand and I know it and love it. As a result, I've been making photographs there for 25 years. I can always find something else as the seasons change, the light changes, or I get a new project idea. Having a specific project is a strong motivator to look for new ways of seeing in familiar places. A case in point is the post I just made in Olaf's "How it was shot" thread: https://www.getdpi.com/forum/index....he-story-behind-your-image.69341/#post-827590
"Photography is Easy. Art is Hard"
  • This is almost the opening line from a course I teach each year. Photography really is easy in this digital age. In the example I posted in the "How it was shot" thread, everything that was hard related to the art side: What did I want to say? How did I want to affect the viewer emotionally? Was it possible to balance the scientific message and the artistic perspective? All of the technical skills I brought to bear to make the photograph and process the RAF in Lightroom can be learned by almost anyone who is willing to make a modest investment. If I need to learn something new to solve a new photographic problem, the resources are at my fingertips. I actually think this is a very healthy development for photography. There was a time when artistically weak photographs that displayed some technical mastery could pass muster. Personally, I think that day has passed. If a photograph meant to be artistic fails as art, I don't care about the clever photographic trick or virtuoso technical skill that was used to make it.
"I prefer breadth over depth as both a maker and consumer of art. In music I prefer full length albums over singles (even better if thematic or conceptual); in photography I prefer themed books or exhibitions over hit singles like Instagram."
  • Projects are essential in my way of working. My work is aimless when I don't have a project. Wandering around with a camera snapping pictures of things that catch my eye is nearly always a waste of time. It's not that I can't make perfectly good photographs this way. The problem is I usually don't value them because they're not going to be part of a project, and if they're not part of a project, I know they're just going to slide into my catalogue and disappear. I also think we're fast approaching the point where the iconic individual photograph doesn't have a chance. We're at sea in an ocean of images. The next iconic individual picture I make is just going to enter that sea of images and disappear. However, there's strength in numbers. Photographs that are part of a project have a better chance of gaining an audience.
Rob de Loë
 

olafphoto

Administrator
Staff member
Thanks for sharing this article Olaf.

A few things Michael Gordon wrote in his piece really resonated with me.

"Painters don’t keep buying and trying different brushes, oils or easels in order to improve their art or craft. They just keep painting, developing their craft and their art simultaneously."
  • I've had that exact same thought when I find myself wasting time browsing for bits and pieces of camera equipment to replace perfectly good gear I already have. The cure for GAS is work. When I'm working intensively on a project, any desire to look at shopping sites disappears.
"I decided to specialize in my own environment and habitat (self-imposed constraints can prove artistically liberating). Travel photography is fun and exciting but my best and most important work would more likely come from the places and subjects that were easily accessible, that I knew intimately and loved deeply."
  • I am fortunate to live near some messy forests and wetlands that I absolutely love and care about. It's not the only place I make photographs, but it's at hand and I know it and love it. As a result, I've been making photographs there for 25 years. I can always find something else as the seasons change, the light changes, or I get a new project idea. Having a specific project is a strong motivator to look for new ways of seeing in familiar places. A case in point is the post I just made in Olaf's "How it was shot" thread: https://www.getdpi.com/forum/index....he-story-behind-your-image.69341/#post-827590
"Photography is Easy. Art is Hard"
  • This is almost the opening line from a course I teach each year. Photography really is easy in this digital age. In the example I posted in the "How it was shot" thread, everything that was hard related to the art side: What did I want to say? How did I want to affect the viewer emotionally? Was it possible to balance the scientific message and the artistic perspective? All of the technical skills I brought to bear to make the photograph and process the RAF in Lightroom can be learned by almost anyone who is willing to make a modest investment. If I need to learn something new to solve a new photographic problem, the resources are at my fingertips. I actually think this is a very healthy development for photography. There was a time when artistically weak photographs that displayed some technical mastery could pass muster. Personally, I think that day has passed. If a photograph meant to be artistic fails as art, I don't care about the clever photographic trick or virtuoso technical skill that was used to make it.
"I prefer breadth over depth as both a maker and consumer of art. In music I prefer full length albums over singles (even better if thematic or conceptual); in photography I prefer themed books or exhibitions over hit singles like Instagram."
  • Projects are essential in my way of working. My work is aimless when I don't have a project. Wandering around with a camera snapping pictures of things that catch my eye is nearly always a waste of time. It's not that I can't make perfectly good photographs this way. The problem is I usually don't value them because they're not going to be part of a project, and if they're not part of a project, I know they're just going to slide into my catalogue and disappear. I also think we're fast approaching the point where the iconic individual photograph doesn't have a chance. We're at sea in an ocean of images. The next iconic individual picture I make is just going to enter that sea of images and disappear. However, there's strength in numbers. Photographs that are part of a project have a better chance of gaining an audience.
Rob de Loë
All great points! Thank you for participating in this conversation. Michael is one of my favourite writers and I am always looking for his next article.
 

Shashin

Well-known member
Actually, I know professional painters. They do care about their brushes and paints. If you understand a process, then you should understand the tools and materials. I doubt anyone here is ready to give up their gear for an iPhone.

However, there is a difference between art and craft. Craft focuses on the process and skill. Art focuses on the expression.

The difficulty in discussing art is that it assume a particular outcome. However, if you look at the history of art, the outcomes are always changing. The interesting thing is they seldom repeat. One one paints like Rembrandt anymore. Art exists in time and culture. It is iterative.
 

rdeloe

Well-known member
Actually, I know professional painters. They do care about their brushes and paints. If you understand a process, then you should understand the tools and materials. I doubt anyone here is ready to give up their gear for an iPhone.
No doubt. People who are serious about their work understand their tools and materials. This is as true for artists as it is for craftspeople.

My humble point was simply that photography does seem to have a large number of people who spend more time buying, playing with, and selling cameras and lenses than they do making photographs and developing their art; and that in my experience we don't see this as much among painters. I'd be very surprised if someone could point me to a forum for painters that remotely resembles photography gear-focused sites like GetDPI, DPReview, and FredMiranda! I expect painters have strong preferences for Winsor & Newton brushes versus Raphael Paris Classic brushes, and might argue about their respective merits when they get together. But a painting web site with a "Winsor & Newton" sub-forum and a "Raphael Paris Classic" sub-forum, like photographers have "Sony", "Fuji", "Canon", etc. sub-forums, and raging debates over the merits of one system over another? I'm astonished if that exists.

P.S. I am absolutely delighted to be having a conversation with people about photography and art, rather than whether Sony cameras are better than Fuji cameras!
 

Shashin

Well-known member
I think we basically have a sampling problem. There are not photography art forums, but photography gear forums. People come here because of the gear. This really biases the perception. But artists seldom discuss gear. And while there can be some interesting gear choices, it tends to be pretty mainstream. For example, here are what some VII photographers have in their bag: What’s in your bag? VII photographers show us their gear

But the art thing is really difficult to discuss. It tends to simply express, for example, my preference. But that is just one answer among many, none no more valid than another. I was lucky enough to have a formal education in photography, although I had a very technical one (I got a BS, not a BA or a BFA). But I did take applied photography for my electives. This was the interesting thing about my applied photography peers, we never discussed equipment beyond sharing that certain equipment was available to us. In crit, I saw work ranging from 16mm sub-miniature (Minox) to 8x10. This also included work from swing-lens panoramic cameras and other oddities. Never once did I here a comment about technical quality related to a particular format. All that was important was the qualities of the image presented. The 8x10 was not considered superior to the 16mm on technical grounds, but purely on its merits. And this was a really creative way to work. You simply could experiment with the process and technology. A strong image would be recognized as long as it was strong--the "accidents" of the process (resolution, grain, sharpness, contrast, etc) were simply taken as inherent qualities that were neither good or bad, but simply the character of the process. Your competency was recognized by your skill, not your gear.

But the gear also reflects an important element of the art. Photography is about seeing (a little more complex than that as the photographic process also modifies our visual perception of the world and as photographers we need to understand that modification, but lets let the simple statement stand). The biggest change I made to my photography that had the largest impact was to shoot full frame (the original meaning of the term, to frame in the camera and not crop in post, not what it means today, a 35mm sensor). That single choice forced me to engage with my subject and really pay attention to everything in the frame. I think most people starting out in photography focus on placing an object inside the frame; shooting full frame made me think about how the subject intersects with that frame. The frame became less of a container and more of a cutter--if that makes sense.

This led to a bunch of important choices. The aspect ratio of the format is a primary consideration for me. And medium-format gave a huge selection--my preference was 6x6 and 6x12. I also preferred viewfinder/rangefinder cameras. These choices really helped me develop my image making. The help me define what space was and how space is perceived. (My biggest grip about digital is the lack of formats, but I found a work around.)

And I think, for me, where the art is is in controlling the perception of the world. And this is really in how the final image creates the illusion of a selected reality. For example, I know that focal length/angle of view can be important in creating the feeling of space and depth (apparent perspective). But I also know I can position the camera in such a way to eliminate linear perspective and flatten the depth in the scene (and you can even mix that in a singe image where one part has little or no linear perspective and the other has a lot). I also know I can control the apparent perspective in my book design by changing the image size. By making an image small, I can create an illusion of more depth for the viewer or I can do the opposite by making a double-page spread. This combination of how I position the camera and the control over the image presentation means I can take a single camera and lens combination and produce a body of work that does not look like it came from one camera and lens--or at least it does not look repetitive.

And as photographers, we really don't discuss how we manipulate the perception of our work. I think partly is because we really don't understand it on a conscious level and do it intuitively. It is our "look" or "style." Partly because we are never really given the tools with which to talk about it. Resolution is so much easier to talk about because it is so simple, but resolution is not as important to the perception of an image as it is made out to be. And my experience in my undergraduate degree would suggest resolution has nothing to do with a successful image.
 

rdeloe

Well-known member
Will, thanks for taking the time to put these thoughts in writing. This is why I come back.

I think we basically have a sampling problem. There are not photography art forums, but photography gear forums. People come here because of the gear. This really biases the perception. But artists seldom discuss gear. And while there can be some interesting gear choices, it tends to be pretty mainstream. For example, here are what some VII photographers have in their bag: What’s in your bag? VII photographers show us their gear
In general, I think you're right that artists seldom discuss their gear. I would only qualify by adding that sometimes the gear other artists use isn't that interesting, so there's not much to discuss. If the art we had in common was charcoal drawings, we'd rapidly exhaust the possible gear debates. Photography, in contrast, has such an enormous amount of gear to discuss.

There's another wrinkle that I believe explains the prevalence of gear forums versus photography-as-art forums. If you're making charcoal drawings, chances are very good that you're an artist, or you're trying to be one. However, huge numbers of people use cameras and have no ambition to be artists. Indeed, many people have cameras and don't have particular ambitions to be photographers; I think of them as people who like cameras rather than people who like photography. There's no judgement implied hear. Taking pleasure in owning nice cameras and lenses is a perfectly fine thing to do. Nonetheless, the result is a high diversity among people who descirbe themselves as photographers (leaving aside the much larger number who take pictures every day with their phones but wouldn't call themselves photographers).

But the art thing is really difficult to discuss. It tends to simply express, for example, my preference. But that is just one answer among many, none no more valid than another.
Absolutely yes (to the idea that art is difficult to discuss). In photography circles, the conversation seems to veer between two poles: generalities rooted in what people like, and conversations among the MFA set in International Art English.

As an aside, this is most of the reason why I don't put pictures up for "constructive criticism" in photography critique forums. Almost without exception, the critique rarely goes beyond "Nice capture", and when it does, it tends to involve people giving you technical instructions ("You should have lit her with a rim light", or "Dial back saturation").

In crit, I saw work ranging from 16mm sub-miniature (Minox) to 8x10. This also included work from swing-lens panoramic cameras and other oddities. Never once did I here a comment about technical quality related to a particular format. All that was important was the qualities of the image presented. ... A strong image would be recognized as long as it was strong--the "accidents" of the process (resolution, grain, sharpness, contrast, etc) were simply taken as inherent qualities that were neither good or bad, but simply the character of the process. Your competency was recognized by your skill, not your gear.
That sounds incredibly refreshing.

Alas, building on my previous point, in my experience, there are few people writing about photography who can articulate what they think a strong image is. This is all of a piece with your point about art, and explains why the vast majority of books on photography are about f-stops and Photoshop.

The frustrating thing is that the language and ideas we need exists. Connections to the deep understanding that exists in other visual arts are rare. Worse, photographers have invented a language of composition (rule of thirds, etc.) that is quite disconnected from the much more robust and mature understanding in painting. To the extent that I have any useful knowledge about composition, it comes from reading books for painters, not books on composition by photographers.

But the gear also reflects an important element of the art. Photography is about seeing (a little more complex than that as the photographic process also modifies our visual perception of the world and as photographers we need to understand that modification, but lets let the simple statement stand). The biggest change I made to my photography that had the largest impact was to shoot full frame (the original meaning of the term, to frame in the camera and not crop in post, not what it means today, a 35mm sensor). That single choice forced me to engage with my subject and really pay attention to everything in the frame. I think most people starting out in photography focus on placing an object inside the frame; shooting full frame made me think about how the subject intersects with that frame. The frame became less of a container and more of a cutter--if that makes sense.

This led to a bunch of important choices. The aspect ratio of the format is a primary consideration for me. And medium-format gave a huge selection--my preference was 6x6 and 6x12. I also preferred viewfinder/rangefinder cameras. These choices really helped me develop my image making. The help me define what space was and how space is perceived. (My biggest grip about digital is the lack of formats, but I found a work around.)
This makes perfect sense to me, and gets at a topic I think receives insufficient attention in photography circles. Namely, what it is that is distinctive to photography relative to other visual arts. In my view, progress towards strengthening photography as an art form has to begin with a good understanding of photography's distinctive "thing". For me, in simplistic terms, it's that our starting point is the real. Perspective, lens choice, framing ... all these things are part of how we decide to represent that real.

And as photographers, we really don't discuss how we manipulate the perception of our work. I think partly is because we really don't understand it on a conscious level and do it intuitively. It is our "look" or "style." Partly because we are never really given the tools with which to talk about it. Resolution is so much easier to talk about because it is so simple, but resolution is not as important to the perception of an image as it is made out to be. And my experience in my undergraduate degree would suggest resolution has nothing to do with a successful image.
It's not that the tools don't exist; as I said above, they certainly do. Rather, it's vastly easier to write about resolution and dynamic range.

Here's a case where the exception proves the rule: photographer David DuChemin wrote a book he titled, Photographically Speaking, wherein he offers the "language of photography". I use it in my teaching because it's accessibly written and spends more time on the topics we're discussing here than almost anything else I've found for students. However, David freely admits in his writing that he's making it all up, rather than offering a window into the "language" that exists in other arts.

Cheers, Rob
 

olafphoto

Administrator
Staff member
Will, thanks for taking the time to put these thoughts in writing. This is why I come back.



In general, I think you're right that artists seldom discuss their gear. I would only qualify by adding that sometimes the gear other artists use isn't that interesting, so there's not much to discuss. If the art we had in common was charcoal drawings, we'd rapidly exhaust the possible gear debates. Photography, in contrast, has such an enormous amount of gear to discuss.

There's another wrinkle that I believe explains the prevalence of gear forums versus photography-as-art forums. If you're making charcoal drawings, chances are very good that you're an artist, or you're trying to be one. However, huge numbers of people use cameras and have no ambition to be artists. Indeed, many people have cameras and don't have particular ambitions to be photographers; I think of them as people who like cameras rather than people who like photography. There's no judgement implied hear. Taking pleasure in owning nice cameras and lenses is a perfectly fine thing to do. Nonetheless, the result is a high diversity among people who descirbe themselves as photographers (leaving aside the much larger number who take pictures every day with their phones but wouldn't call themselves photographers).



Absolutely yes (to the idea that art is difficult to discuss). In photography circles, the conversation seems to veer between two poles: generalities rooted in what people like, and conversations among the MFA set in International Art English.

As an aside, this is most of the reason why I don't put pictures up for "constructive criticism" in photography critique forums. Almost without exception, the critique rarely goes beyond "Nice capture", and when it does, it tends to involve people giving you technical instructions ("You should have lit her with a rim light", or "Dial back saturation").



That sounds incredibly refreshing.

Alas, building on my previous point, in my experience, there are few people writing about photography who can articulate what they think a strong image is. This is all of a piece with your point about art, and explains why the vast majority of books on photography are about f-stops and Photoshop.

The frustrating thing is that the language and ideas we need exists. Connections to the deep understanding that exists in other visual arts are rare. Worse, photographers have invented a language of composition (rule of thirds, etc.) that is quite disconnected from the much more robust and mature understanding in painting. To the extent that I have any useful knowledge about composition, it comes from reading books for painters, not books on composition by photographers.



This makes perfect sense to me, and gets at a topic I think receives insufficient attention in photography circles. Namely, what it is that is distinctive to photography relative to other visual arts. In my view, progress towards strengthening photography as an art form has to begin with a good understanding of photography's distinctive "thing". For me, in simplistic terms, it's that our starting point is the real. Perspective, lens choice, framing ... all these things are part of how we decide to represent that real.



It's not that the tools don't exist; as I said above, they certainly do. Rather, it's vastly easier to write about resolution and dynamic range.

Here's a case where the exception proves the rule: photographer David DuChemin wrote a book he titled, Photographically Speaking, wherein he offers the "language of photography". I use it in my teaching because it's accessibly written and spends more time on the topics we're discussing here than almost anything else I've found for students. However, David freely admits in his writing that he's making it all up, rather than offering a window into the "language" that exists in other arts.

Cheers, Rob
One of the best books about seeing I have ever read was "The Art of Photography" By Bruce Barnbaum. Highly recommended! The way he writes about seeing, composition, visual language is truly inspiring and thought-provoking. In my view, he is one of the best writers who tackle such topics.
 

rdeloe

Well-known member
One of the best books about seeing I have ever read was "The Art of Photography" By Bruce Barnbaum. Highly recommended! The way he writes about seeing, composition, visual language is truly inspiring and thought-provoking. In my view, he is one of the best writers who tackle such topics.
I like Bruce's writing, and his photography. His book, The Essence of Photography, is one of the ones I bought to loan to students.
 

rdeloe

Well-known member
Apparently this notion that "Photography is Easy. Art is Hard" has been around for a while.

If you have a NY Times subscription, there's a superb piece on Albrecht Dürer that explores a remarkable self-portrait he painted in the year 1500. The article is excellent and worth reading. It really does explore the painting.

One of the comments from a reader took me to the Project Gutenberg site, where Durer's book, On the Just Shaping of Letters, can be found. Apparently Dürer was also a master of geometry, in addition to being a masterful painter. Here's the opening paragraph. He's writing to his friend and patron Wilibald.

Does the first sentence strike a chord for photographers? ;)

In our Germany, most excellent Wilibald, are to be found at the present day many young men of a happy talent for the Art Pictorial, who without any artistic training whatever, but taught only by their daily exercise of it, have run riot like an unpruned tree, so that unhesitatingly and without compunction they turn out their works, purely according to their own judgment. But when great and ingenious artists behold their so inept performances, not undeservedly do they ridicule the blindness of such men; since sane judgment abhors nothing so much as a picture perpetrated with no technical knowledge, although with plenty of care and diligence. Now the sole reason why painters of this sort are not aware of their own error is that they have not learnt Geometry, without which no one can either be or become an absolute artist; but the blame for this should be laid upon their masters, who themselves are ignorant of this art. Since this is in very truth the foundation of the whole graphic art, it seems to me a good thing to set down for studious beginners a few rudiments, in which I might, as it were, furnish them with a handle for using the compass and the rule, and thence, by seeing Truth itself before their eyes, they might become not only zealous of the arts, but even arrive at a great and true understanding of them.​
 
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