|Great photography is simple.
It is merely to discover, collect, arrange, create, anticipate or provoke
exquisite subject matter;
and then to choose, invent, or patiently wait for
that properly illuminating and perfectly enhancing light,
in order to utilize the proper electronic and mechanical equipment,
and the optical and chemical principles and processes,
which will isolate, immobilize, and capture the combination forever
in a visually meaningful and aesthetically interesting way.
It takes only a camera and film.
It is almost as simple as writing, which needs only pen and paper;
as sculpting, which requires only chisel and mallet;
or as orchestra conducting, which demands only a thin stick and an evening coat.
--unknown source, with additions
This is a companion essay to the booklet "Understanding Photography: A Theoretical and Practical Guide to Taking Great Pictures" and it is background material for the essay "A Philosophy of Erotic Visual Art"
I would like to discuss here some elements that I think contribute to the value of many works of visual art, particularly photographs. This is not meant to imply or show that these are the only elements of value nor that they will apply to all art, to all visual art, or even to all photographs, because I think some artists have or could have other ideals and other quests, and because creative artistic ideas could always be thought of that would not fit my perhaps narrow ideas. However, I do think that art (including photography) does involve ideas, techniques, and or insights that can, however well or ill, be articulated in a way to help us evaluate the work. (Sometimes such articulations are even necessary. For example, a work of art that may be quite ingenious for some reason at the time it is created, may appear trite long after the innovations it has engendered become commonplace technique for less original artists. Someone looking at the work without knowing it was the first of its type, may not appreciate it fully without learning of its significance.) Artistic value is not just a matter of pure taste or simple emotional reaction. If there is something good (or bad) about any work of art, I believe that can be pointed out. There may be disagreement and debate, but such disagreement is itself a sign there is something objective to decide. Matters of individual, subjective taste -- such as what flavor ice cream tastes best to someone -- are not matters of debate; people simply state their preferences. The following is an attempt to point out what I think some of the aesthetic elements are involving photography as a visual art, and why.
First of all let me say that I think there can be, and often is, a big creative or artistic difference between good (or beautiful) pictures and pictures of good (or beautiful) subjects. This can be seen in a number of ways. (1) A technically competent photographer or artist can copy a great work of art with such detail that, for all intents and purposes, the copy looks the same as the original. But the original required not only the same technical skill, but the (original) artist's inventiveness, imagination, insight, creativity, etc. as well. The copy is not a great work of art, though it looks just like the original, which is. In a sense the work of art is not then just the final product, but the product along with all that went into creating it; and not nearly as much goes into creating a copy. (2) If a technically competent artist or photographer portrays an attractive scene or person pretty much just as they look at the time, that is almost like copying a previously done portrayal of them. One is simply copying God or nature's portrayal of them. Hence, the portrait is not much more of a work of art than would be a copy of someone else's portrait. In photography, just taking a picture of a person's face is essentially technically little different from copying a picture of them. (3) There are some very interesting works of art of otherwise ugly or plain subjects. (4) There can be bad or mediocre portrayals of otherwise attractive subjects.
I think it is important to consider what an artist "puts into"
or brings to the subject that perhaps another person would not have seen
or thought of. Even in portrait photography, photographers can see people
in different ways. If two technically competent photographers photograph
the same person, the photographs might look very different, and may not
even look like the same person. Styles of photography and what the photographers
themselves see in the person may be very different. As a photographer gets
to know someone better, the photographer often sees that person in a different
way and would photograph them looking quite differently. Or a photographer
might see and be able to capture the same quality even though the person
has changed a great deal in physical appearance over a period of time.
An interesting experience I had one time was when I met a woman I thought
quite attractive and asked her to pose for me. She did; and then after
she took home the portrait I made of her, she called to ask whether I had
worked out of a different location nine years earlier, mentioning the specific
location. I had. She said then that I was the one who had done her engagement
picture when she was 21; I asked her maiden name and looked up her negatives
and it was true. Neither of us had recognized the other (she had changed
a great deal in her hair style and facial structure, and had lost weight).
But she had recognized my portrait of her because twice, nine years apart,
I had photographed her with almost the same "look" or essence
that she liked and liked about herself and that no other photographer ever
had. She figured I must have been the same person who had taken her previous
picture. I have changed techniques considerably in the years and between
her changes and mine the pictures are fairly different (one is even of
her smiling and the other not), except for something about her look --
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