Essays regarding the history and philosophy of photography as an art form

.... by Ed Kunzelman

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Is It Art?

Much discussion has been exhausted over the years as to whether photography should be considered an art form. It was an especially controversial issue in 1930 when the Museum of Modern Art in New York began collecting photography. The Panama-California Exhibition, which opened in 1915, placed photographs – not in the Fine Art building – but alongside telescopes and some new technology of that time.

While the camera is a mechanical device, photographs are created in the mind… no less so than any other art form. Art sees beyond the obvious – a hallmark of creative fine art photography. In the case of this image of a yucca plant, it’s not simply a documentary picture of a plant along the side of a road, but an impression made from deep within the plant. By entirely filling the frame with the subject, the photograph focuses solely on the inner workings of the yucca. Context is ignored. Rendering it in black and white also eliminates the distraction of color, allowing the viewer to focus on lines and patterns which are the essence of the plant.

 

Looking at this photograph, I can get lost following the web of lines as if they were a tangled up bunch of human nerves. Technically speaking, many of those nerves are tack sharp, but there are layers upon layers beyond the limitation of the camera’s depth of field…. creating the illusion of depth in a two-dimensional image. This is an unusual and fascinating look into a rather ordinary subject (at least in the desert southwest). But is it art?

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Should Photography Imitate Painting?

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Pictorialist style became prominent among photographers. Pictorialist photographers purposely tried to emulate painters with mood, soft focus and creative expression taking precedence over clarity and sharpness. During the 1920s Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and others believed that photography should strive to establish its own identity, rather than imitate traditional art forms. According to their thinking, the camera lens’s unique capability of rendering sharp detail distinguishes photography from all other art forms. Weston said many times that the camera could give us a view of something that even the human eye was unable to see. So he went about making images of rich detail and contrast, all the while criticizing pictorialists for their fuzzy imitations of a painting.

 

For the most part, I favor sharply focused photographs. But sometimes I wish I had the freedom of using a blank canvas to create dreamy impressions of what my mind wishes to see, rather than being constrained by the hard truth of what the camera sees. So that’s what I do from time to time… but with a camera instead of paint brush. In the case of this image, it was a dry, hot summer afternoon and I was just sitting on one of my favorite park benches near a cluster of cottonwood trees. Trying to imagine something different than what my eye was seeing, I purposely moved the camera up and down with a long exposure. I had no idea what the result would look like, but the first thing I saw when reviewing my day's images on the computer was a downpour of rain that certainly did not happen. The image turned out to be one of my favorite impressionist pictures. A good photograph takes us to a different place or gives us new insight into the world around us. Sometimes sharpness and clarity are important; other times they don’t contribute to the story. I suspect I would have ridden both sides of the fence had I been alive in Weston’s time.

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Starting With A Blank Canvas

Starting with a blank canvas… that’s the essence of this image. Photography is often perceived as simply a documentation of reality. After all, how much of a sense of art could be derived from an instantaneous capture produced by a mechanical device?

 

For those who believe that photography is not an art form, but merely a mechanical process that depends on a camera for the finished product, consider this:

 

I worked on this photograph for eight days, beginning by scavenging through a dumpster behind a florist for scraps of flowers; arranging them and rearranging them into a pleasing composition where lines and shapes formed a balanced composition; freezing them in water, thawing and freezing again to bring them to the right surface level; experimenting with lighting to balance cool and warm tones; compositing four separate pictures for a total resolution of 10,320 x 8,200; modifying colors and contrast in post-processing; overlaying a few flower pieces from different exposures; cloning out odd pieces of debris; and printing four proofs on two different types of paper before concluding the project.

 

All art forms are grounded in vision and imagination, photography no less so than any other.

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Is It Original?

“Show me something different!” As a photographer, I hear those words a lot. And, honestly, I’d love to. But with estimates of 1.8 billion pictures uploaded to social media every day, is that possible? What does it even mean, and does it really matter? Maybe as artists we should be less obsessed with originality and more focused on ways that we can improve upon an existing idea. After all, every work of art is in some way a derivative of something we’ve done or seen before.

 

A couple of years ago, I was reading about ICM (Intentional Camera Movement) as a creative method of blurring a picture, giving the finished image more of a dreamy, impressionist style. I was walking around a local lake one afternoon looking at a bunch of cattails and experimenting with the process, but had the nagging feeling that all I was making was a blurry mess. Would the viewer perceive ICM to be great art or a terrible photograph? Anybody can make a blurry picture. So I had this wonderful idea that I’d make two exposures… one with camera movement and the other with sharp focus, and blend parts from each of them together. I thought I had come up with an original idea. However, I recently read a story in a magazine of a person who “developed” the same idea of blending slow and fast shutter speeds. Undoubtedly there are many others doing the same thing. It’s a big world. So much for an original idea.

 

That said, I try continually looking at old things in new ways. Looking deeper into plants, rocks and doors often results in refreshing images, possibly offering a different view of a subject routinely seen many times before. That, in my opinion, is what creativity is all about. At least it’s an original viewpoint for me, even if the probability is such that someone else has already created something similar.

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A Good Photograph Takes Us Somewhere

If you appreciate art, chances are you've probably found yourself immersed in a good book, and found yourself sucked into an entirely different time and place to share the experience of the story's characters. If traumatic enough, even a work of fiction can cause sleepless nights. It's like we're really there. I've discovered that writing and photography are two sides of the same coin. Both are expressive... words communicates what I'm thinking; pictures show you what I'm seeing. Both are created from a thought. Some say there's a critical aspect of storytelling in photography. Maybe so. A good picture takes us somewhere.

 

Take this image. It takes me home to my roots as a child. Well not precisely, because the location of this picture is roughly 3,000 miles from where I grew up. This is a photograph made in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and I grew up in a New Jersey suburb of NYC. The reason that it reminds me of home is that it's green with huge trees and water... exactly the opposite of my present home in the high desert of western Colorado. And that's not all. How many of us as a teenager didn't share a rowboat with that girl we had a crush on? Or wanted to, but were too scared to ask her. Fact is I don't remember whether I did or not. It was a long time ago. The point is that the image resonates with me because I feel good being taken to a calm, peaceful place.

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What Makes a Great Photograph?

Of course, that question raises the issue of subjectivity in art. You might consider one of my images to be a stinker that I think is great. So I doubt there are universal standards by which to evaluate a photograph.

 

But even just answering to nobody other than yourself, what differentiates a great picture from a good picture? Compositionally or technically, it’s probably a good picture for mastery of those ingredients, but there are other images which fit the same bill that don’t have that magnetic pull on me.

Great pictures seem to compel me to keep looking, keep exploring, and continue experiencing the calm and solitude that attracted me to the scene in the first place. Or maybe it was a fine, barely noticeable detail that caught my attention which is captured in the photograph... something which creates a unique or different view from the mass of images which we're bombarded with every day.

 

Great images are timeless. That's why I like black and white so much. This image of Turret Arch in Arches National Park has an ethereal quality that brings me to a different place than the more than one-and-a-half million visitors to the park see, and I never seem to tire of viewing it.

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Pink Flower...  Flowers In Ice Image Gallery 

Is It Abstract?

There are degrees of abstraction, from the abstract expressionist of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings to the shadowy forms photographed by Paul Strand where there were, at least, recognizable shapes and patterns. Georgia O’Keefe often framed her flowers so tightly that her painting became abstract. But for those who consider abstraction as an invention of 20th century artists, consider the abstract character of Monet’s water lilies. This was not just one painting, but a series of approximately 250 works created by the artist at his home in Giverny, France. When Monet wasn’t painting, he was busy gardening… which became the inspiration for his painting. His neighbors protested the Japanese style bridge depicted in so many of his paintings, and local authorities objected to his water lilies imported from Egypt and South America. Nevertheless, Monet kept his gardens as he wished. Over time, Monet eliminated the sky, trees and edges of his pond from his composition, thereby focusing solely on shapes and color, and creating increasingly abstract paintings. Early impressionist painters were not well received by the Salons of Paris though. Critics of the day labeled his impressionist style as messy.

 

Abstract means different things to different people. At its roots, it arouses our imagination. It might present a departure from reality. And it allows a viewer freedom to interpret abstract art in his own way. I began working with this photograph as a more literal interpretation of the flower; however, the more tightly I cropped the subject and enhanced the texture, the more abstract it became. I can imagine the pink flower being a feather, and the texture creates a bit of mystery for the context of this image. My inspiration for, not just flowers, but all of my photography stems from Georgia O’Keefe’s famous quote: “Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small – we haven’t time – and to see takes time…

So I said to myself – I’ll paint what I see – what the flower is to me, but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it – I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.” Motivating the viewer to linger awhile over one of my photographs and look more closely is the greatest objective I can think of as an artist.

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