Yes, Photography Is an Art (A mini-rant)

Well, yes, of course it is. Even if people looking at your photos keep saying things like, “Wow! You must have a really good camera!" or "No wonder you charge so much if you buy a camera like that, because, you know, my nephew has a cheaper one that takes really good pictures and so . . . .” And so go pound sand, okay?

That shtuff gets old fast. Look, photographers don't "take pictures," they make photographs, something no camera in the world can do without being in the hands of a competent photographer.* The best damn carpentry tools won't build you a house if they aren't in the hands of a skilled carpenter. Nor will a $60K medium format camera turn a snapshot into a wall hanger.

It’s a truism that a snapshot is of something, while a photograph is about something. Truisms, of course, are often true. A photograph requires creative immersion in our world, not a cutesy pose among BFFs but a moment revealing how friendship binds and enriches us, makes us better. What any photograph is about depends on the photographer’s art, rising from a drive to uncover something new or to see something in a new way. Like most arts, the photographer’s requires creative discipline to see what others don’t or to respond as others haven’t. It depends further on understanding that what we photograph in our three-dimensional world must lend itself to being rendered into two dimensions. It depends, finally, on understanding that the light we capture in an instant of time—and physically it is nothing but light—must be distilled into an image enabling people not there in that instant to hear in the image the sounds we heard when making it, smell the smells, feel the wind, the heat or the cold, aridity or humidity, and so to experience the fullness of what the photographer attempts to evoke.** 

The camera, so often regarded as somehow the center of photography, in fact arrives rather late on the scene. Most photographers thoroughly visualize their photographs before turning to their camera to adjust framing,  settings, and so on. Such visualization, also called photographic seeing, involves more than just the visual. It requires, in the words of Henri Cartier-Bressson, “putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis.” Interesting that Cartier-Bresson, among the greatest 20th century photographers, does not mention the camera as necessary to seeing photographically.

The head, eyes, and heart on the same axis at the same time. When this happens,, a  photograph always tells at least two stories, first about what the photographer saw and second about why the photographer chose to make the photo in that one way, and no other. What the photographer saw and why the photographer made the photo in a certain way: So, okay, the camera may matter, but the photographer matters much, much more.

* Just to be clear, I’m making no claim to such competence on my part but write in support of those entitled to do so.

** A reminder that I am a landscape photographer. Those working in other genres may understand things differently.

(2/2021 rev.)

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