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The Art of Photography

June 25th, 2010

I am an artist and a photographer. My work is posted on various art and photography websites for sale and has been for several years. Day after day, I log into these websites to see how many visitors I’ve had, to read new comments, and check on sales. My work attracts a lot of visitors which always delights me, and I adore it when my work has moved someone enough to comment, yet I’m invariably disheartened and frustrated that all this attention results in no sales.

One of the websites where my work lives offers continual member-sponsored contests designed to help artists get their work seen. I enter them even though it seems this particular artist community holds a certain prejudice toward photographs, evidenced by entry rules that state “NO PHOTOS”, “paintings only”, “all mediums accepted and photographs”, and “all media including photography“. (The last two suggesting photographs are not art or something of an afterthought.)

Another of these websites offers artists an opportunity to be a featured artist. I submitted my application over a year ago which to date hasn’t been acknowledged, and it saddens me to say that every artist that is featured is a painter, not a photographer.

Truth is, I’m not only frustrated but angry as well, and I’ve been silent on this for far too long! There needs to be a shift in perception on what is constituted as art and where photography stands in the art world.

The generally perceived wisdom, it seems, is that photography is easy and painting is hard or more skillful. Consequently, the thinking is that culturally painting is generally more valued than photography, even though there are a lot of bad paintings with little or no value. The same can be said about some photography, but the notion that photography is easy and not as skillful as painting is simply wrong thinking. To think that this is so is to invalidate world-renowned photographers like Ansel Adams, Annie Leibovitz, and Dorthea Lange whose works hang in places like the Guggenheim, and who in general, made more money as photographic artists than painters and didn’t have to die to become wealthy or noticed. The only true difference between painting and photography is that one is in a different medium than the other.

I use digital photography to capture something amazing that I see and for raw material for my art. To capture what I see is often a lengthy process because of technical limitations. The limitations of digital cameras are due to the state of the technology, which is in its infancy, and not to the skill of the photographer. These technological challenges are particularly evident in outdoor shots taken in bright sunlight. Moreover, certain corrections for perspective, lighting, color, tonal range, and composition might have to be made, which I make on my computer in Adobe Photoshop. On average, I think I spend 40 hours (5 eight-hour days) or more per picture. Making corrections like these requires learned skills and talents, which in essence is no different than skills and talents needed to create a painting masterpiece.

To me, art is the expression of ones self and how it is portrayed by the artist regardless of medium. On one hand, I’m happy to share my love of the visual world through simple photographs (notwithstanding subjective alterations or enhancements). On the other, some of my art I create to look like paintings not only because I like the overall effect, but because I’m concerned about the term “photo” and its’ often negative or cheap connotations. I hate that I sold out to that idea, but I felt I had to in order to be competitive (not that it has helped sales). Now that I have, I find, in attempting to submit my photo paintings to various contests, rules such as, “must not be digitally altered in any way” and “no photographs or digitally altered art”.

This is preposterous! Throughout history new materials and techniques have evolved at different times and in different parts of the world. Artists have progressively had an increasing range of options to choose from. Up until the last 140 years there was only paint to be used. Much of what was attempted in the past was to reproduce reality as much as possible. There is, in fact, a debate whether Da Vinci and Michelangelo used concave mirrors to create their paintings, wherein the real life image wishing to be painted stands outside, while its image projects onto the canvas. Devices like the camera obscura (from the sixteenth century onwards) and the camera lucida (early to mid nineteenth century) were employed by the likes of Caneletto and Vermeer to help them achieve that faithful reproduction objective. The old master's for the most part were just taking snapshots of reality using the tools available to them at the time. Had Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caneletto, or Vermeer had access to digital photography, I’m sure they would have used it, as all were creative visionaries.

But it’s not the tool that makes the art. In the creative process, it’s the responsibility of the artist to do the best they can in terms of materials, knowledge, and techniques. This means using any means that will help them produce better work, including computer software.

I understand that it is frustrating to all you painters that you had to learn and practice to get it right and then along come artists that can do what you do (perhaps even better) with a click of a button. But keep in mind that photography, good photography, is an art form that is learned and practiced to get right too, and to correct, enhance, or alter that photography requires even more learning and practice.

According to Weston Naef, senior curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum, photography underlies almost all the visual culture of the 20th century. He states that at his museum the exhibit recognizes once and for all that photography is no longer a stepchild of the art world. So please painters, get off your high horses and accept that photography is an important part of society. Painting is no better than photography and beauty is, after all, in the eyes of the beholder. Granted, not all photography is art, but then not all paintings are either.