Photography as art and the assumptions people make.

"  The artist should never try to be popular. Rather the public should be more artistic".  " The moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist." ~Oscar Wilde 

The evolution of art and artistic expression are advancements brought about by those artists who defy, and break away from, convention and traditions. They learn to approach things from new angles, creating new means of expression. While these alternatives are not always successful, when they are, they become game-changers in their respective fields.

I have come across many who believe in an implied, unspoken, agreement between a photographer and their audience concerning the artistic merit of the work. Broadly, this belief is that what they, the audience, are viewing must be "real" to be of any photographic value. Importantly, it is up to the audience to dictate what that means, and therefore force the photographer to conform to their sensibilities.

But if an artist of any medium was to tailor their work to the audience's expectations, surely this would cause their work to stagnate, and no longer progress meaningfully.

This implied relationship between audience and creator is evident in many fields of work. The media, for example, has an obligation to the public to be truthful in their reporting, although some media organisations only offer biased, misleading reporting, and sometimes complete lies. We would be correct in wanting to believe the same of the police and judicial system, who should treat everyone fairly and equally. Yet, it has been proven many times in the past that there can be significant biases in the likelihood of being arrested for certain crimes, be it racial, demographic or political, and discrepancies in the severity of penalties dealt by the courts. As such, for us to blindly trust in an implicit contract without any form of investigation or cynicism, we can easily be lead to error and disappointment.

If the purpose of a photograph is to document and capture true to life events, then I agree that viewers have a justified assumption, an implicit contract with the photographer, that what is depicted before them is an honest and truthful representation of the facts. If these expectations are not met, viewers have every right to be upset and to feel like they have been deceived.

However, when it comes to photography as art, my belief is that no such contract exists. There can be no justified expectation of truthful representation, for then what results cannot be the expression of an artist. Indeed, if all one could do with photography is to represent appearances as anyone else would see them, photography would be an unsuitable medium for art. 

Art is derived from “artificial.”  By any formal definition, it is a product of human skill and imagination, but not defined by any other strict criteria. For something to be considered as art, skill and imagination are the necessary and sufficient conditions. Truthfulness, however you choose to define it, is not one of these conditions.

Where such an implicit contract is not honoured, the injured party has a legitimate reason to feel deceived. But to suppose there is an implicit contract when there are no grounds for such a contract to exist is foolish, or at least uninformed. For a variety of reasons, this misinformation is more prevalent in photography (especially when described as artistic) than any other media.

We know how to apply different modes of appreciation to other media types with no confusion. Such as works of journalism compared to works of fiction. Moviegoers can easily tell the difference between a documentary film, and a work of science fiction.

So why can those same people not make the same distinctions when studying photographs? If the expectations were the same as with other mediums, there would be less disappointment, and the rewards from the photography would be heightened. The fact that a fictional novel is not as truthful as an academic textbook does not make one better or of higher importance than the other. Instead, each comes with different expectations, and rewards readers in different ways. Photography can cover a broad range of expression, both factual and expressive, but we should not persist in the belief that photographers are only “allowed” to use a small part of that range. It’s not only detrimental to artistic expression, but is also untenable. Photographs that do not represent “real” appearances are everywhere; no one can change that.

This isn’t a bad thing. Embrace it, and let’s stop pretending otherwise. Having said that, I should offer a caveat. I’m only talking about my own work and how it should be viewed. I proceed without judgment of other people’s work, or their morals. I consider my images as visual journal entries. They are images that describe real events or places, but do so in a subjective way. Not only do they express what happened, but hopefully how I was affected as the creator. The event and the feelings that were the source of inspiration are both true, but more than likely another person would probably have a different impression of the same event.

I don’t photograph to make documents or to commemorate events just because their appearance is attractive. I photograph to express moods inspired by encounters with things and places that I personally regarded as meaningful. I don’t have much reason to depart widely from the sources of inspiration, but I do apply a certain artistic licence in the way I choose to portray the scene. This is entirely subjective and not likely to correspond with what you would have seen or felt in the same situation.

An apparent stigma has been attached to photography, more so in the age of digital imaging, of “manipulation.” Yet, all art is a product of human skill and manipulation. An image occurring naturally or randomly, presented without the application of human creativity, I personally don’t think of as art. What may not be obvious from this definition is that a photographer’s primary tool for manipulation is visual composition. The deliberate arrangement of the visual elements within the frame is the photographer applying his creativity to the piece. Choices such as perspective, what lens to use, matching weather and lighting conditions to the scene visualised in the artists mind, and others, are all interpretations of the one scene. All such decisions and techniques are elements of the photographic process, and require nothing other than a camera and lens. These techniques and choices can all be used to show truthful representations, or show things that are not.

Processing your captured image is a secondary means of manipulation, and probably where the greatest misunderstandings arise. The term “photoshopped” instantly implies an untruth in what the viewer is seeing. I believe it conveys negative connotations, demeaning the image. In my work, my purpose in applying processing tools is not solely an aesthetic appeal, but rather, to bring out the emotional effect I experienced and wish to convey in my images. With the ability to manipulate colours, textures, and lines, I don’t portray these things as they were, but will change those aspects of the photograph to best fit my artistic goal. By choice, I do not create images from arrangements that weren’t physically possible in a single photograph but I also won’t be limited by the technical limitations of my equipment.

These are my choices, and ones I make to match my reasons and purpose in practicing photography. I don’t choose to practice my craft this way because I feel bound by any obligations to my audience. Other photographers make different choices or have different purposes. So long as such photographs are presented as art, no implicit contract can be assumed. That way, we will preserve photographers’ artistic freedom of expression, letting us create the images we want, and for the audience to enjoy their own way.