Don’t be an Idiot

| May 8, 2011

“Great photographers are a combination of wizard and idiot savant. They do what they do without truly understanding how, then make up a lot of convoluted theory to cover up their own ignorance of who and what they really are. Because of the self-doubt that nags photographers, photography’s power as an art goes on being misperceived.” –Owen Edwards

Almost since the first photographic image was made, artists choosing to work in the medium of photography faced an uphill battle for recognition of the legitimacy of their work and its acceptance as a fine art. Photography had been derided as being the product of machines and chemicals rather than the expressive minds of artists, and for offering no more than simple representations of reality, rather than having the freedom to convey nuanced and abstract concepts.

I will spare you the history lesson and evolution of the art through Pictorialism, Group f/64, etc. Just look up the terms for more evidence of the ongoing struggle. Perhaps the strongest articulation of the disconnect can be found in Gore Vidal’s words: “For half a century photography has been the ‘art form’ of the untalented. Obviously some pictures are more satisfactory than others, but where is credit due? To the designer of the camera? To the finger on the button? To the law of averages?”

While such attitudes can be chalked up to misinformation or even elitism on the part of those who practice other forms of art, in reality it is an indication of a profound and, frankly, embarrassing ignorance of the expressive powers of composition, light, color, tone, and creativity, not to mention the effort, time, and skill required to produce an exceptional body of photographic work. To many, there is still no difference between the creation of deliberate and meaningful photographic work vs. making snapshots for the family album.

Perhaps saddest of all is that this profound ignorance is found not only in casual observers but also, and perhaps more so, in photographers! So many are quick to self-impose such lofty titles as “artist,” or “fine-art photographer” without the slightest education in, or understanding of, art. The result of such ignorance is a staggering abundance of cookie-cutter images (same places, same compositions, same processing, etc.), which obscure any hope of identifying the photographer behind them, let alone understanding their intentions, sensibilities, style, motivation, and the emotions they wish to convey.

While the obsessive need to represent objective reality is a boon to some photographic applications (reportage, etc.) it is a complete non-sequitur when it comes to art. To the extent that art relates to reality, it does so in symbolic ways rather than literal ones. The reality of a sandstone wall in a canyon fifty miles from anywhere you’re ever likely to see in person is completely meaningless. The use of its lines, textures, patterns, colors, tones and reflective properties in creating a satisfying visual experience is where photographic art comes in.

At the root of any visual art is a deep understanding of the use of visual elements to evoke emotions and to appeal to elusive perceptions of aesthetics, curiosity, drama, fascination etc. Such an understanding is independent of medium and applies equally to painting, sculpture, cinema, performance, and photography; and yet, so few photographers take the time to fully explore and master it, preferring instead to churn out bumper crops of repetitive renditions and yet-anothers.

When it comes to the artistic value of images and proclamations of self-importance, let me be very blunt: where there is no artist, there is no art. No matter how beautiful or powerful the feats of nature you photograph, if all you do is record them using photographic media without introducing your own sensibilities into the final product, what makes it art?

Your images should provide viewers with an experience they could not have had, and would never have seen or felt, if it were not for your sharing it with them.

Also, by claiming (in one choice of words or another) that your role in your work is limited to transporting your gear and accomplishing a successful exposure, you are further thickening the shroud of ignorance surrounding photography as a form of visual art and providing fodder for those who see it as a simple, easy, and technology-driven pursuit not truly worthy of the reverence reserved to, say, masterful paintings.

More perplexing are the diatribes on technique and “hero stories” so popular with the genre of nature photography. To be blunt yet again, nobody cares how far you hiked, how much your backpack weighed or the effects of giardiasis you suffered from drinking untreated swamp water. Seeing you hanging from a cliff and reading about the hurdles you encountered may get you a high-five from your friends but will do nothing to your credibility as an artist.

Great images should stand on their own and rely on emotion and mystery contained within the frame rather than tools, processes, or bravado. The mere knowledge of the mechanics behind them, not to mention a state of mind different from the emotion conveyed in the image, can be very detrimental to the image as a singular independent creation and experience.

“Photography would have been settled a fine art long ago if we had not, in more ways than one, gone so much into detail. We have always been too proud of the detail of our work and the ordinary detail of our processes.” –Henry Peach Robinson

If you truly do intend on expressing yourself creatively and artistically through your photographic images, take a break from the incessant rush to produce large volumes of repetitive work, no matter how beautiful or impressive. Take the time to gain an understanding of Art: what it is, what it stands for and what it aims to achieve and contribute to the human experience. Invest in becoming an artist first, independent of tools. Learn to see and interpret and apply your own voice in your work.

If you want to see creative photography assume its rightful place in the pantheon of fine arts, don’t be an idiot… not even an idiot savant.

Golden Passage

~~~

My work, including this blog, is dependent on income from photography and writing. If you enjoyed the content on this page, please consider purchasing one of my eBooks or prints, or making a small donation using the link on the right.

Guy

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Rants and Raves, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (47)

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  1. Alister Benn says:

    A really well-written article Guy… you master the art of the rant very well :-) I guess the advent of digital has compounded the issues as well… 1000 images on a CF card are considerably less expensive to produce than 28 rolls of Velvia…

  2. Naz says:

    I enjoyed reading your article and I took some notes for myself. It has made me think and helped me understand better how the “art” of photography should be. I will from now on work on that part while I am still challenging myself with the “mechanics”. Thanks so very much :-)

  3. Andy says:

    A wonderfully written piece Guy. Whilst I’ve been aware of your work for almost as long as I’ve been interested in photography, it’s only recently that I’ve come across your writing, and I find it incredibly honest and liberating.
    So often in landscape photography I’ve felt faintly guilty when I’ve seen other photographers go to great lengths to describe the “purist” approach they have, making images that are faithful representations of what I would have seen had I been there. I’ve never been truly comfortable with it, and know that in my own work I distort reality somewhat. For example, if I use an ultra wide angle lens, then the scene has little to do with how I see it with my eyes, likewise my vision can’t compress distant elements together in the same way a telephoto does. My eyes won’t see the world in the same way that a long (of very fast) exposure will do, so what’s the point in slavishly attempting to record exact reality.
    So it’s been fascinating for me to read your blogs on the subject, defining so much better than I have ever been able to why being an absolute purist and recording the scene exactly as it was may not be the best way to create great photographs.

    Thankyou for that

  4. Maria says:

    Excellent topic, extremely well written.

    I am an amateur, rediscovering photography as a hobby. While I strive to create the artistic images you describe — the ones that stir emotions and a sense of wonder — I fall short of that goal. Instead, I satisfy myself with truthful representations of beautiful things, captured in interesting ways and under good lighting conditions. People like my work and I’m generally happy with a small percentage of what I share with others.

    But you are right: this is NOT art and I am not an artist. (Didn’t really think I was, but who knows what I might think after a certain number of back pats?) Making art is something currently beyond my capabilities. But you can be sure that I’ll remember what you’ve written here every time I go out with my camera. And maybe — just maybe — I’ll try harder to go the next step, to look at and see things differently, to make something that’s more than just a snapshot of reality.

    Thanks for writing this.

  5. The last full paragraph says it all for me, Guy. Great article…..

  6. Ed King says:

    Very nice and well said !

  7. Jean Day says:

    Very well written article and a lot of food for thought. Thanks for bringing a bit more light to this subject.

  8. David Chauvin says:

    Another thought provoking article, Guy. The bit on “hero stories” struck a chord with me. When did we start scoring photography on degree of difficulty?

  9. Dan Baumbach says:

    Wonderful article, Guy. I hope to see an eBook one day with a collection of your essays. Something like Mountain Light.

    The internet has been a great tool in being able to bring ones work before a public, but in the realm of nature photography it seems to be the domain of mostly young men who go for macho captures, technical details and highly saturated same style photos.

    Hopefully this will change with time and greater technical sophistication of the public.

  10. Steve Hancock says:

    This is great and makes me think of your past post:

    Just saying…
    The primary concern of creative photography is the production of photographic art. As such, it is clearly distinguished from other uses of photographic tools. As is the case with all art, photographic art is subject only to the rules and whims the artist chooses to impose upon themselves in the expression of their own message and in accordance with their own style and sensibilities.

  11. Right on and well put! I don’t care how it was shot, what I care about is how you felt. I want to experience the motif that existed between you and your subject. The job is to transport the viewer to the essence of place. I never ask the chef what pots and pans he uses after a great meal, nor do I want to know his process, I simply enjoy the meal. Keep up the great words.

  12. Paul says:

    Thought provoking ‘rant’ :) An arguement well put.

    Effort (or hero stories) should definitely not be the yardstick for the success of an image. Though sometimes it is hard to seperate the experience of getting to a place … the journey as important as the destination so to speak.

    Paul

  13. Rui Silveira says:

    Fabulous piece. I was reading it and identifying myself with every word. Great job.

  14. Matt Anderson says:

    interesting

  15. Harley Goldman says:

    Very well said, Guy. As usual.

    I am with Dan. Looking forward to your essay/photo combo book.

  16. Roberta says:

    Hero stories……reminds me of a time I was photographing elk in rut. There were several other photographers with their National Geographic ‘big’ lenses and decked out safari style vans. I drove up in my little Jeep, with my little lens and went out and did my thing quietly while these guys stood around talking f stop this and lens test that…..having quit for the day because the light was fading.

    I had to walk past these photographers to get back to my car afterwards. Curiosity getting the better of me I inquired about where they sell their work. They didn’t. It was just sport for them……collecting photos like the hunter collects trophies. I didn’t get any of their style trophies but I sure have sold a lot of images from that day.

  17. Doug Roane says:

    An excellent article, Guy – very thoughtful. The only thing I would point out is that, sometimes the story behind a photo, though likely not a factor in drawing a client to it in the first place, can help them connect with a photo even more, and give it a deeper meaning for them. I have had several clients comment on how they enjoy knowing the story behind it (if it’s an interesting story!) as it is something they enjoy passing on to others who see the image they have purchased.

  18. Mark Bailey says:

    Guy-

    I sent a graphic artist friend to my father’s website of astro-photos the other day (www.dcbailey.com). My friend’s response was, “Wow, that is art!” Now my father would neither call himself an artist nor present his photographs as art. What they are is hard sought, superb renditions from ancient photons captured and processed with great technical care. There’s no effort to embellish, only for excellence. Is it art?

    -Mark

  19. David Fantle says:

    Guy, another very well thought-out and written piece. Thanks for your willingness to air opinions such as these and to broaden the discussion from the usual photographic fare.

    While I generally agree with your points regarding the importance of individual artistic interpretation and in the end result rather than the technical details and ‘hype’ , I don’t think you can too easily discount the value of the latter in the commercial aspect of photography. The business of art has always been not only about selling the individual works, but even more about selling the artist him/herself. Creating a larger-than-life persona that conveys to the potential buyer the artist is somehow ‘more special’ than they are (carries a bigger camera, suffers more hardship, risks their life, is more spiritual, environmental, etc.) has been a successful marketing tool for a number of past and present photographers. The theatrics of artists like Dali or Warhol are further examples of this time-tested formula. Since the present marketing of artistic photography has shifted from primarily the selling of framed prints or licensing for publication to marketing to other photographers, some element of techno-babble about exotic gear or processing techniques seems to impress the less advanced or strictly technically-minded set that have flocked to making photographs since cameras became little computers.

    When I have done art festivals or gallery shows, some of the most common questions I have heard (aside from ‘what’re ‘ya shootin’?) are regarding the relationship of an image to ‘reality’. Such questions as ‘did you Photoshop the colors’, or ‘did it really look like that’ suggests that many viewers still feel a strong sense of trust that a photograph is founded in ‘reality’, whatever that is. If a viewer gets the impression that an image has been artificially beautified or made more dramatic, they feel ‘duped’ by the artist, an immediate reduction in the value and validity of the image, as well as a loss of trust in the photographer’s entire body of work. This may indicate that the public still just doesn’t ‘get’ photography as an art form, but it is a factor to consider when deciding how to present and promote your work.

    -Dave

  20. Jim Bullard says:

    Your essay reminds me of the story of how Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling lying on his back on a scaffold when he was sick. Many art history students are in awe upon learning that but in the end it doesn’t matter. What matters is what he produced. The circumstances under which he worked are irrelevant. The real problem is that too many photographers (and other artists) confuse ‘impressive’ with ‘expressive’. Oddly, the “Art” world gives other art forms a pass and recognizes all sorts of impressive work that isn’t really expressive while rejecting photographs of either sort.

  21. Greg Russell says:

    This is a really powerful and insightful essay Guy. As others have said, the last paragraph really drives the thrust of this essay home!

    Cheers,
    Greg

  22. When I first read this post, my first reaction was that I should just kick my gear into the ocean due to my inadequacy as a photographer (I did photograph Mesa Arch this last weekend, after all, and – gasp! – kind of enjoyed it).

    I then thought about it for a day and then reread the post. I had a completely different reaction the second time around – a far less black and white view of this topic. At least for me, the concept of seeking progress, not perfection, applies well in thinking about how to integrate these concepts into my own work. If I can apply some of these concepts to my work over time, I will hopefully make some progress in creating more personal, meaningful, and maybe even artistic work.

    Thank you for continuing to help push my thinking and practices. Even though I do not always agree with your thoughts, I really do appreciate your perspectives and the time you put into sharing them.

  23. Guy Tal says:

    Thank you very much, everyone!

    Andy: you are correct. The camera doesn’t quite “see” the way the human eye does and any attempt to correlate them is inherently subjective. There is nothing “wrong” with pure or straight photography. I do think, though, that there’s a very pervasive misunderstanding of how and why it differs from art. The two disciplines have different goals and uses and therefore should be judged differently.

    Maria: I’m very glad this post contributed in some way to the development of your work. Whether you agree with me or not (see my response to Sarah below, too) I think the very act of questioning and examining one’s goals and methods is always a worthwhile exercise, even if you just end up validating your original course.

    Paul, Doug, and Dave: I agree that stories have their place. In fact, if you read my books you’ll see mention of their importance in various contexts. Still, like images, stories can vary in content, intent, and effect. Choose them carefully. They can do as much harm as good.

    Dan: it’s in the works!

    Mark: that’s an interesting question. I think your father has the right instinct. Art is a contrivance of the human mind. Natural phenomena by themselves, exquisitely beautiful as they may be, are not art in that sense, unless their rendition also reflects an ulterior meaning added by the artist.

    Sarah: for a while now I considered adding the admonition “you don’t have to agree with me” to this blog’s title. Progress is not made by unanimous agreement but rather through the melding of ideas, opinions, beliefs and motivations. I benefit as much from reading dissenting opinions as I do from ones aligned with my own. I’ll just point out an important part of the quote at the top: “They do what they do without truly understanding how, then make up a lot of convoluted theory”. From your description it sounds like you DO know how and why you do what you do, whether it is the learning and practicing of known techniques or breaking new ground.

  24. roteague says:

    I guess art is in the eye of the beholder. Personally, I think Joel Meyerowitz’s work is boring and banal, but many like his work.

  25. Robin Black says:

    Guy, I’ve just finished reading this piece for the third time (and finally gathered thoughts sufficient to comment). I see myself as very much still finding my way as a photographer–and, I hope, as an artist. Essays like this always make me tremendously introspective about what I’m going (and from one writer to another, being able to have that effect on readers is an art form in itself, and one deserving of praise).

    I’m at what feels like a very awkward point in my development as a serious photographer–I’m working hard to build my portfolio, and know from a practical standpoint that I have to include some iconic (overshot, done to death) images in that portfolio. I have fun venturing out to get these “trophy” shots, but find myself feeling a little sheepish and even embarrassed about it sometimes. Does the world really need another pic of Delicate Arch, no matter how dramatic the light? Probably not, but it seems like a necessary evil in what I’m doing now in this phase of my photography.

    Interestingly–and I hope this is a good thing–I find myself enjoying what I do so much more when I’m revisiting a favorite place and simply playing with light and form instead of chasing an iconic view, and those invariably end up being my favorite images because they speak to what I felt and saw when I was there. Reminders, and even admonitions, such as yours keep me thinking about what I’m doing, and why, and that kind of introspection can only help make me a better photographer. Thank you for that.

  26. Guy Tal says:

    Robin, I know what you mean. We all make sacrifices in our work to accommodate the unholy union of art and business. It is good, however, to separate them in your own mind and to consciously strike a workable balance.

  27. Hi Guy,

    After reading this I can not tell whether I agree or disagree with your sentiments, or even how far in between I am! So I’ll reply to one point in your essay.

    For example you write:

    “If someone could have produced an identical image to yours by simply being there at the same time, it also cannot be considered art (as in the product of an artist rather than a craftsman).”

    Then in a comment, you write somewhat the opposite though not acually calling straight photography ‘not art.’:

    “There is nothing “wrong” with pure or straight photography”

    I completely disagree with the first comment, at least when it comes to wide angle lanscapes with a big sky and all those elements that go along with it.

    I think that there is an art to being there at the right time and place to witness elements that arrange themselves in artistic ways. And if you are lucky, experienced and skilled, the art is there simpy for you to capture. And what is captured can be a pure work of art. It is extremely difficult to do. Not in the dramatic dangerous way you comment on above, but on an internal and emotional level.

    And I do believe that a good photographer there with me could make the same photograph, but the art comes in being able to ‘see’ the art to begin with. But for me, nature creates the art and hopefully I can recognise it. Sure, composition and all that can then create the final work of art where a different composition created at the same time and moment would not look ‘artistic’ at all. But many skilled photographers could make photos similar to mine if they were there.

    You do lots of closer views where you have more control over the elements. The canyon photo above is a good example. There is no sky and there is a good deal of latitude in being there with good light. So in many of your photos, you are the master of your domain, able to extract/create art from a stone wall or the like. Perhaps only you could make those images. You make it happen. It is not a case of just witnessing it.

    But as you know, with big landscapes it is a mixture of the eye of the artist and the ability to see art when it happens, compose it and capture it. Often times, a straight photo can be very artistic and it requires little post processing and the result is exactly what I saw with my own eyes, though of course less dynamic range that what my eye saw. For me, when I see a scene where I react on an emaotional level and simply put; “I just like it,” what I have captured IS art and it is my creation. I want to relive that moment the next time I see it. And I hope that my viewers can imagine the feeling of being there too.

    Patrick

  28. Tim Parkin says:

    “If someone could have produced an identical image to yours by simply being there at the same time, it also cannot be considered art (as in the product of an artist rather than a craftsman).”

    Can’t this be said about all photography (and in fact about all art). The democratic nature of it means that anybody can do it.

    Doesn’t this also belittle composition?

    I hope you mean that “If the photograph’s success relies on the location and conditions rather than the intervention of the photograher – it’s not art”

    In which case I agree – the key art of photography is the photographer, not the subject.

  29. Interesting article. The reasons I go out there are my own, and I am lucky enough to come back with what others consider compelling captures. I see my evolution in expressing this as a wonderful journey that hopefully never ends. Over the last few years, I got caught up in the “Edit as well as you can as fast as you can.” The process has some value, an I did create a workflow that has encapsulated that goal. I went to a Vincent Versace editing workshop recently, and I have to say, that my pendulum is starting to swing the other direction now.

    If I remember his words that changed my mind, it was “Your work is the best of you.” It’s what is left behind after you are gone.” Does it not make sense to take your time, put some legitimate effort into it and make it speak the best of you it can? (that last part is more a paraphrase, but it is what I got of what he was saying)

    I totally agree, it truly is time to slow down. I have come a long way down a path I truly hope never ends. I am absolutely in LOVE with the journey I am on. And if I ever get to a point where I think I know it all, just shoot me. :)

    For me, the joy of discovery is why I am a photographer. And more than just discovery of the areas I find and bring back, but discovery in the craft. I am a firm believer in the premise of “Learn to love the work”.

    Thank you very much for echoing the words from Vincent. Very timely in my changes I am experiencing right now as an artist. It just pounds down the nail of the message the universe is giving me.

    Roman

  30. Guy Tal says:

    Patrick, you bring up a good point which Tim caught onto as well. I think Tim’s version does express the sentiment more clearly, though. As I responded above, art is a contrivance of the human mind. Just because something is inherently beautiful by itself does not make it art.

    When it comes to being at the right place at the right time, I agree that it is a combination of luck, experience and skill, all of which can be applied in the creation art in addition to the photographer’s creativity and expressive powers. Art should not be confused with skill or craftsmanship, though.

    I do disagree, though, that nature spontaneously creates art for the random lucky person to capture. Nature can create beauty, drama, grace, etc. which may inspire an artist but by themselves they are just that: beautiful, dramatic, graceful, but not artistic. To become art they should be put in context and reflect the singular mind of an artist.

  31. Guy Tal says:

    Roman, those are very wise words, though I suspect Vincent himself was paraphrasing Federico Fellini’s words: all art is autobiographical.

  32. Guy Tal says:

    Perhaps as a point of clarification for the sentence quoted by Patrick and Tim; it is certainly conceivable that someone may witness a photographer making an image and step in behind them to make an identical copy. My assertion is that if these photographers arrived at the scene separately under similar conditions and made the exact same image, unaware of each other’s work, it is in truth more a documentary record of the scene rather than a creative work of art.
    I think Picasso expressed it best when he said that some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot and others transform a yellow spot into the sun.
    On my recent canyon hike I was accompanied by two photographers, including the talented Dave Fantle who commented above. I guarantee you neither of them came back with the image posted on this page, and both have images in their files from this same hike that I don’t.

  33. I see what you mean. And yes it is amazing how you can take a group of people to a spot and each one will come up with a different interpretation. I guess we can say that art is the result of a conscious intent, though it is possible to unconsciously stumble into creating something that looks good on occasion!

  34. Willie says:

    Hi,
    An interesting article. Thanks for writing it.
    In view of the following from an earlier piece, what if the ‘artist’ decides to impose upon herself/himself rules which state that ‘reality’ is the end result of their new project or vision?

    Would that not contradict the basic thrust of this article?

    Again, thanks for a very interesting read. Keep up the great work.

    Just saying…
    The primary concern of creative photography is the production of photographic art. As such, it is clearly distinguished from other uses of photographic tools. As is the case with all art, photographic art is subject only to the rules and whims the artist chooses to impose upon themselves in the expression of their own message and in accordance with their own style and sensibilities.

  35. The beauty of our individual perceptions is that we do come up with something different at the same location, unless our intent is to do what has been done before because we imagine the image will sell better. This of course stands out glaringly and is one aspect of what Guy so effectively rants against. I agree wholeheartedly that to be better photographers, we must study art. The work of many photographers falls short due to ignorance and thinking that photography is easy if you just emulate other photographers or compare technical notes ad nauseum. Many who claim to be “straight photographers” today have also corrupted what this phrase means. Guy, since when is straight photography not art? It was the straight photographers who originally established photography as an accepted art form in its own right. One side argues that an image is not a photograph if it is manipulated in post-processing. The other side argues that an unmanipulated image is not art. To me it seems either argument is merely a justification by each type of photographer respectively to justify what he or she does and to claim it is somehow superior to what someone else does.

  36. canaan says:

    “While such attitudes can be chalked up to misinformation or even elitism …”

    … or drunkenness, or painful constipation. Every artist needs the photographer’s gift of observation. A composer writes a few notes. Then he observes what he’s written, like a photographer eyes his subject, looking for its potential and its implications. What he observes in what he’s written is the basis for his next step. He does it again, and again, and ends up with an intermezzo or a sonata (or a novel). Theme & variations is looking at the original theme from different angles and picking the good ones.

    I’d be amazed if Gore Vidal doesn’t know the link between observation, discovery, selectivity, and creativity. So the writer’s starting point is internal, the photographer’s external. It seems anti-social to make a big deal out of that distinction. That Vidal quote sounds like a malicious, lying rampage, I’d bet after being dumped by a photographer.

  37. Brian Rueb says:

    Really well said. Having begun with a “traditional” fine art background (my dgrees are in both photography and fine art) I found it crazy that photography was not one of the meidums of choice in most “Art” degree programs, it’s listed in journalism, or it’s own cateogry. It’s funny how when you decide on photography as your art medium of choice, painters and the like almost shun you as not being part of the club. Having done both, I can say that the work and effort that goes into making either can be very similar. It depends on whether one views the walking, climbing, and such as a part of the process of creating.

    Which leads to the only part of the write-up I disagreed with. I think more people than not enjoy what you called the “Hero Stories” However, I think it depends. I know I personally enjoy them. I think it gives me a greater appreciation of an image if I know what went into making it. I’m not sure if that’s only the case because I’m a photographer, and can relate to it more…but I know when I see an image I enjoy, and I’m left with just the image…I feel like I want to know more about how it was created. I get annoyed with the simple, “I took this image while hiking deep in the Rocky Mountains.” I think it’s my own personal craving for a good story that drives, this, but I have to believe a lot of people enjoy the tales that go into the images.

    The article was great though, I really enjoyed the read.

  38. Rodney says:

    “So many are quick to self-impose such lofty titles as “artist,” or “fine-art photographer” without the slightest education in, or understanding of, art”

    The elitism you rail against is surely evident in this statement! Who decides what is Art surely it has to be the audience? Not academia or the educated elite?

    As always your work is inspirational and writing eloquent but I do wonder why the angst?

    Who cares I wonder probably only the Elite you rail against?

    Let the “Art” speak for itself without needing the crutch of educated critics to validate its worth.

  39. Tim says:

    David Chauvin writes: When did we start scoring photography on degree of difficulty?

    Probably about the time someone (Kodak?) started propagating the idea of crouching down to “get an interesting angle”. It starts with that; nobody cares that your knee was up your nose to get the shot, rather, they care what you placed where and how in the frame you brought to reality.

    There is one amendment to this theory, however: the existence of NASA and Hubble demonstrates the existence of a bar above which “hero story” is a contributing factor, and sets the bar very high indeed.

  40. Tim says:

    You’ve raised some interesting points that I’ll have to go ponder at some length.

    In short, you rail against the (glorified) snapshot approach to landscape.

    I see Rodney’s comment, above, as a reaction to that.

    Several folk I know fall into the LF-landscape genre. Last summer I smelled the coffee and wondered, `how come, if they claim their work represents what it felt like to be there, they *all* feel “4×5 portrait, tripod low on the ground, at the beach, rear perspective tilt, velvia RVP”?’.

    I think you’re advocating an idea that, to call oneself an artist, one has to have a “world of landscape” in one’s head, into which one pushes reality, in order to somehow stand apart from the crowd. *In practice*, this is not what happens, even amongst arty-landscape-photographers. Does this mean, if I take a photo of the Black Mount landscape, I have to consider cloning-out “that tree”? One reason so many people make photos of the Buachaille Etive Mòr from beside the River Coupall is that the scene lends itself to a good composition; should I selectively recolour the water pink and sky green because I’m aspiring to be a crazed artist?
    Well, thanks for the ideas – I might try exactly those things now. ;)

  41. Guy Tal says:

    Brian, I see what you mean. Certainly these stories resonate with some more than others and may be more appealing to someone such as you (or me, sometimes) who share a love for the outdoors.
    I still contend that curators, critics and art historians will not base their judgment of your work on such factors. I guess it depends on the audience you are trying to reach.

  42. Guy Tal says:

    Rodney, I disagree. When you order a hamburger off a restaurant menu you don’t expect the waiter to walk in with a live cow and a note from the chef saying “this is exactly how I found it and I did not manipulate a thing”. If your product is a live cow, list it as a live cow, not as a hamburger.

    If something is advertised as art, it should by definition be the product of an artist, not just untouched raw material. This is not to say that it is good art or bad art or anything else of that nature. THOSE are up to the audience.

    And to clarify, I deliberately included “understanding of” in the sentence you quoted. Formal art education is wonderful for those who can afford it and the time investment but many (possibly most) working artists do not have it and it is clearly not a pre-requisite for creativity. Still, there is no excuse for not employing the vast knowledge at our fingertips to learn what it is we’re claiming ourselves to be.

  43. Guy Tal says:

    Tim, I wouldn’t quite go to that extent. What I’m saying is that if you present your work as “art,” it should have involve of your own making. This can be as simple as an original composition or as involved as rearranging or changing the visual elements. It’s not a matter of extent but rather of intent.
    The scenario you describe is very common. A known good composition is recorded identically by many, each proclaiming some kind of ownership over it. Imagine if every pianist who successfully performed a Chopin concerto claimed the score as their own composition?

  44. Rakesh Malik says:

    Great article! As usual :)

    “They do what they do without truly understanding how, then make up a lot of convoluted theory”

    I’ve run into that all over the place, not just in photography. It’s surprising how common this is — and even more, how often it can turn create arguments and disagreements that simply don’t make any sense. (I ran into this on another forum just yesterday.)

    Anyway, I’m also of mixed opinion about the stories behind the shots. I include them, because it gives me something more interesting to write about than the technical stuff when I publish photos.

    One comment I’ve received is that my stories and photos entice readers into wanting to visit the places that I photograph. Another is gratitude for sharing my story with someone who wasn’t able to go. Others were reminded of their own stories. Very rarely does anyone ask about the technical stuff, and even that so far has almost almost invariably been when they see the prints… but even then, I get more questions about where those places than about the technique.

  45. Linnet Long says:

    About your answer to Mark on his father’s “hard sought, superb renditions from ancient photons captured and processed with great technical care”. Your answer: “I think your father has the right instinct. Art is a contrivance of the human mind. Natural phenomena by themselves, exquisitely beautiful as they may be, are not art in that sense, unless their rendition also reflects an ulterior meaning added by the artist.”

    Not sure I really want to be an “artist” if art is just a contrivance of the human mind! I’ve thought of art as the ability to see and portray the existing beauty of natural phenomena – yes, with my own eye and perspective, pointing out beauty/characteristics/marvels that could be easily overlooked. Maybe that’s the “ulterior meaning” of which you speak? Drawing something out, pointing out a fact, a subtlety, a grace? Funny I would use the expression “drawing out” – art isn’t necessarily a contrivance of the mind as in “making something up” – but rather in presenting it in a particular fashion, is it not? One could argue that the natural creation on its own is an art, an expression of the Creator, complete with “ulterior” motives. For example, why do we see in color? Why a million shades of green on a hillside? Why are we so fascinated with mothers and their young? Why is a sunset beautiful? Why do we admire the majesty of an elk or an elephant? Or the intricate details of a flower blossom? What about those “ancient photons” that Mark’s father renders? Is there a message in them from the first artist? Would I not be an artist myself if I were able to “draw something out” in such a way that people would see beyond the technique, see the subject, and say “wow, that’s beautiful!” or “my, that’s amazing!” and marvel at the subject, as I did – rather than at “my” art? Or does my intent of drawing out the subject make it art?
    It seems like trying to make a distinction between art and the beauty it represents, is slightly egotistical – after all, my ‘intent’ wouldn’t mean much if there were not already something to intend :-)…Even very abstract paintings or photographs are usually based on *something*–like light, color, or movement. I understand your point, though, that “thoughtless” photography wouldn’t be art – but I don’t know why a person would bother with serious photography in general unless they already had some ‘intent’ as far as portraying the subject – be it iconic or otherwise. The development of technique “enables” that portrayal… for example, I just purchased your Creative Processing Techniques. Hoping it will give me some insight into how to better “draw” things out.

  46. Jim Crotty says:

    Well said Guy. Very well said. Just recently I was browsing the various works of other photographers at a nearby arts festival, in Bluffton, S.C. While looking at the images of one the better known local nature and landscape photographers I overheard him talking about his photography to a couple of other visitors. He went on and on about how he “absolutely refuses to do any digital alterations and edits” because he “wants to present God’s work as it really is.” How interesting. Admirable, but interesting.

    Also interesting to note that when I teach workshops the most challenging topic or section is that on discovering and developing artistic vision. Not so much because it’s difficult to understand but rather because many photographers just starting-out want to know only the specifics of camera settings, equipment and software, as in “how much and where can I get it.”

    Guided learning through self-discovery is far more challenging than our traditional education system based on repetition and imitation. Perhaps that’s part of the problem with so many photographers who succeed with the craft yet fail with the art ?