Musings on Photography

Art on the Other Side

Posted in art is a verb, the art world by Paul Butzi on November 16, 2008


Some recent email correspondence has had me thinking about my view of art primarily as a process, with the actual objects created as a side effect of that process as being of little interest to me. “Art is a Verb” is my view of art, but it’s by no means the only sensible view, and it leaves unanswered the question of “What happens to our artworks after we’re done?” In my admittedly narrow art world, the goal is to be making art, not worrying about what happens to the byproducts. It’s hard enough for me to focus on one thing at a time, let alone several, and so this gross simplification is something I’ve hit upon to allow myself to focus on what is important to me – making art – and avoid burning a lot of time and energy on things that are relatively unimportant to me, like where I fit in the grand scheme of the greater Art World, or the pantheon of Art History.

But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t thought about art as a spectator sport.

The particular topic raised in this email exchange is primarily about what happens when we come across art that doesn’t meet our expectations as an art consumer (as opposed to an art producer). When some artwork doesn’t meet our expectations, our tendency is to compare it to other art we’ve seen (or heard, or whatever). We let our previous art experience form the basis from which we make judgements about the art we’re viewing right now.

That can be good, or that can be bad. There are a lot of strong trends in the photo world, and I think it’s a mistake to think that they’re all applicable to all photos. Here are some examples of those trends:

  • everything must be in perfect focus. If it’s not, you should have stopped down or used movements to get it all in focus.
  • the photo must have at least some part in focus.
  • the tones in a print must range from maximum black to pure base white.
  • shadows should consist of luminous detail.
  • Highlights must never be blown out; they must always have a hint of detail
  • Images should always be cropped so that the subject is framed perfectly
  • Images should never be cropped. Cropping shows a moral failing on the part of the photographer.
  • Things should be arranged in the frame according to the rule of thirds

I could go on and on. You, if you’ve paid any attention to the voluminous writings on photography that have been cranked out over the past 150 years, could go on and on.

Here’s the thing – all of those, um, norms, are useful much of the time, but not ALL of the time. That is, when we’re making art, it’s often useful to examine the work we’re doing in the light of such norms, because the norms can offer useful feedback about what we’re doing. If we’ve strayed from convention, it’s usually helpful for us to examine if we have good reasons for what we’re doing differently. (and here, I’ll point out that the reason “I want to see what happens” is perhaps one of the best possible reasons for straying far away from norms in artmaking.)

But when we go over to the other side, and we’re looking at someone else’s art, we need to use those norms in a different way. One possible way is to see the deviation from the norm as a defect. Got a lot of photos that have very shallow depth of field? That’s not normal, and so it’s easy to view that as a bad thing. Got a lot of photos which have no maximum black, or no pure base white? Again, it’s easy to see that as a defect. That’s the easy response. We see art that doesn’t match the norms, and we assume that the artist is a nitwit who doesn’t know any better.

A somewhat more difficult but more useful response is to posit that perhaps the artist actually knew what he or she was doing. Take a leap, and assume that the deviation from the norm is a deliberate choice. And that raises the fairly interesting question “why did the artist make this particular decision?” That’s an interesting question because it tends to lead us into some deep contemplation of what the artist was trying to get at when making the work.

Some years ago, I saw a play in which one of the characters is an actor, and not a very good one. This character had to do an audition, and did it in a very bad (but very funny bad) way. And at the end of the audition, he asks how it was, and the director says that he certainly made some ‘brave artistic choices’. The phrase ‘brave artistic choices’ entered our family lexicon as a humorous way to say that we thought that someone’s artistic decisions didn’t work out too well.

But it’s not the case that all brave artistic choices end badly. Some end well. We shouldn’t let our preconceived notions of how photos ‘ought to look’ blind us to work that happens to be different. Those might be just the works we need to examine closely and think hard about, so that they help bump us out of a rut.

5 Responses

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  1. Bryan Willman said, on November 16, 2008 at 8:30 pm

    This is partly about Intent and Technique.

    Consider “max black to paper white” – what that rule is *really* saying is that, unless you Really Really meant to not use the full range of the paper (or monitor) your technique could be better.

    Which is very often true.

    The real problem comes when people “declare” some intent when they’re really trying to cover up bad technique or results, and in fact their photos would be very much better if they solved these technical issues.

  2. Oren Grad said, on November 16, 2008 at 11:10 pm

    As a photographer, you can’t always get what you think you want, especially outside of the studio. If you use a digital camera, you will frequently have no choice but to violate the shadow and/or highlight detail norms. Even with a camera loaded with negative film and with the utmost cleverness in finding a place to stand, the things you’re photographing and the light that is available will frequently not match any particular notion of harmonious composition or rendering.

    So if what you’re about is simply taking pictures that show what some slice of the world looked like when you were there, willy-nilly you will violate lots of rules – unless you’re exceedingly fastidious, in which case you won’t take very many pictures and you’ll end up not showing much of anything.

  3. My Camera World said, on November 17, 2008 at 7:55 am

    I do agree with your premise that, like my views, photography is about making art.

    I was going to say “not truly original art” but on further reflection I wonder how much art is truly original. By that completely made up in the mind. Even painting, sculptures for the most part are based on visible comprehension of objects in our life if not current then from memories.

    I find that the norms do give me a base to find and frame items especially when I am not completely sure or moved about composition.

    It’s when something grabs me that my real creativity takes hold and I go and explore without any thought to what the norms are and just how I feel.

    Art is what you create and most importantly how you relate to your works of art.

    Every judgment comes is arrived with a personal measuring stick. Who says they brought the right one.

    Niels Henriksen

  4. AlunFoto said, on November 19, 2008 at 2:37 am


    I would say that the “trends” you describe are not applicable to the “art” dimension of photography at all, but rather the skills that make up the basis of the “craft” of photography.

    In my opinion, the “art” begins when the photographer can use the tools and skills of the craft to communicate his or her vision.

    On the other hand, I think your list of bullet points on how pictures are evaluated by the audience is quite accurate. I think it reflects the common level of knowledge about photography in the population.

    Most people relate to photos according to their own level of technical skill. Since most people do not aspire to be any more than adequate suppliers to the family’s photo album, they need hard and fast rules to remember at the time they press their own shutter buttons. As this becomes wired in, they start evaluating other people’s pictures by their own standards. Which of course are mostly concerned with thechnique and very little with content.

    So photography as art has a very demanding audience. An audience that know enough about the craft to miss out on the art.


  5. Martin Doonan said, on November 19, 2008 at 7:47 am

    Jostein, I’m not so sure I agree entirely with your argument. I think a lot of the norms, as taught, come from an assumption about what photographs peole are trying to acieve. It focusses very much on the photgraph as document: the postcard/memento mentality. This then leads most to think that is all photography is about.

    Getting to the Art part is about getting past that, thence the mindful breaking of rules. Non-photographers get it. Those pursuing Art get it. Then there is the whole “camera club” crowd who seem to miss the point entirely but I think heavily biased by what they are taught is good photography.

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