So: is photography an art? And why is Alex, your (I hope) favourite writer of all things fantastic, romantic, and political, suddenly talking about it?
Perhaps a little introduction is in order. Recently—as of a few months—yours truly has been interested in photography. He has scoured the web for photography advice, detailed technical explanations, reviews of various photography gear (they are remarkably informative), and read critiques of fine photography. He has almost developed an obsession; but then, for Alex, hobby has always bordered dangerously close to obsession. He would not have been a published writer at 16 otherwise.
Anyway, the content of this post will be concerned with answering two questions. What are the fundamental characteristics of art? (This is a question Alex has explored before, albeit in less detail.) And secondly, to what extent can photography be considered art? Finally, Alex will also share some of his own experiences with photography; the photos he’s taken, and what it felt to be taking them.
What Defines Art?
As it happens, this is a philosophical question. Aristotle, in his Poetics, addressed this. And what did he think, you ask? Well; to Aristotle, art is a representation of the real world. This is similar to Plato’s position (his master) but distinct from it in one important way: whereas Plato thought art worthless—a mere shadow of the real thing—Aristotle believed that art, through imitation, could reveal facets of our life otherwise hidden.
What’s my take on this? As you might expect, I don’t buy into either theory. Art is not an imitation of something—that’s a crucial mistake. It may seem so, ostensibly; but this is a superficial analysis. Allow me to peruse some examples.
Fantasy is the most obvious counter-example. It is difficult to see how demons, vampires, werewolves, mages, and the Fae can be classed as ‘an imitation of reality’. Certainly—they may possess some of the qualities of humans. That is what makes them so powerful; they are uncanny. Like us, but not.
But of course, in fantasy, faeries and mages are not elaborate metaphors for people in real life. In fantasy, faeries are faeries and mages are mages. (Yes, I am guilty of abusing the tautology.)
But even in other genres, I feel the classification is inaccurate. What I see in art is not imitation; it is creation. The beauty and power of art lies in the fact that is born of an artist’s imagination—that ideas which seem too crazy in the real world, or which have no precedent elsewhere, can actually be explored through the medium of art.
Anyway, what does my theory of aesthetics mean in practice? The essential elements of art, I believe, are the following:
- It is something that the artist creates through the use of their imagination. Be it music, art, or fantasy worlds ;)
- It contains emotion; this is part of what makes art so powerful.
- It has a peculiar abstract quality.
You may wonder at the third condition. Why, do you wonder, is art abstract? I believe answering this question in totality (if that is indeed possible) would require extensive philosophical digression—and is thus beyond the purlieu of this post. Instead, I will answer the question in descriptive, rather than normative terms; what art is rather than what it should be.
A cursory examination of art immediately reveals what I mean. There’s something intangible about art—it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to say why a particular melody seems to resonate with our psyche, while another falls flat in dissonance. It is hard to say why some art is beautiful, and moves us, while other art leaves us bored. Why do some books become huge bestsellers, while others flounder?
Once more; this is a difficult question requiring extensive discussion. Personally, I believe art has an objective and a subjective element. Some art resonates with us on a deeply personal level—it appeals to something inherent in our personality. But there is also a general status of art. Technique, be it in writing, composing songs or drawing, does noticeably improve art.
In any case, I have presented the 3 key elements of art. The second question of this post is, of course, whether photography can classify as art. My answer is yes; photography is art in much the same way painting is. But it may not be immediately obvious why this should be so...
Photography as Art
‘Isn’t photography just snapping a picture? How is that art?’ Without doubt, this is the most common question asked by non-photographers. Answering it requires some familiarity with photography.
You see, photography as an art form is a very different beast from the ugly snapshots your average Joe takes in their average family holiday. The latter is indeed not art—it’s just pointing the camera and hitting a button. But the former; that is quite another matter.
The reason for this has to do with photographic input. Artistic photographs require something from its creator; they are a product of deliberate artistic intent. To take a beautiful photograph, the photographer has to think about where to take the shot; what elements she wishes to include and what elements she wishes to crop; and she needs to consider how colour, contrast, and depth of field combine to make a beautiful photo.
These ideas can be illustrated with the help of some photos:
See what I mean? The latter photo has no focus; it just is, so to speak. It does not tell a particular artistic or aesthetic story; it does not contain emotion; it is not particularly abstract; and it requires no great input on my part.
Whereas the former photo, taken by Soner B., exemplifies the opposite. It tells an aesthetic story; it makes you feel a particular way. (For me, warmth, and the wildness of nature.) And it of course it took some effort on the part of its creator in order to stage it.
For an even more dramatic example, consider the iconic photo by Yousuf Karsh:
Alex’s Interest in Photographic Art
So what is about photography that tugs at our darling writer’s heart? Transience, would be one answer. Photography captures a fleeting moment of real life: the particular vermilion shade of a sunset; the dimpled smile in a moment of joy; the neon hues of a city at night.
Another explanation would be... perspective. In taking photography to a higher level, I have found that I need to think, intimately, about how perspective can change the appearance of a scene. This skill is one that has—to some degree at least—carried over to my writing. I have found myself thinking about how a scene would be different if it were written from his point of view instead of hers; how would a plot carry with this scene instead of that; what do two characters see in the same situation?
So there you have it. Alex—writer extraordinaire, and photographer?
Below you will find some of Alex’s best photos so far. Naturally, Alex is working on improving his technique (and on buying proper equipment, once suitable funds have been drawn up).
Feedback, as usual, is appreciated.