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Photography and Art

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See also: Social Documentary Photography | Famous Photographers

What is art?, 'human creativity, skill, any craft or profession or its principles, a making of things that have form and beauty, any branch of creative work', according to the dictionary. To me art is that which tries to express or communicate something of the author, or to influence something within the audience. Is there such a thing as good art? Possibly good art is that which successfully expresses the feelings of the artist, or communicates to, or influences, the beholder to some degree. A crude way of quantifying the merit of some artistic work is to discover how many of those who have seen (or experienced) it consider it good, however there is no absolutely good or bad art, it's all a matter of personal taste.

Can photography be art? The answer to this question must be yes. Every photograph expresses the fact that the photographer considered it worth taking at the time. Are any photographs good examples of art? Yes, in my opinion some are. Most photographs are taken by snapshooters in an attempt to capture something which holds meaning, usually happiness, to them personally. Such pictures are intended for only a small audience. Every photograph is the result of certain decisions regarding choice of equipment, viewpoint, lens, use of filters or other 'effects', exposure, shutter speed, aperture, focus, moment of exposure, development, printing and finishing. Some of these decisions are taken only once in a while eg choice of equipment, and some are fixed as a result of preceding decisions eg shutter speed and aperture will be pre-determined by the decision to use an auto-program mode. However the most important decision is to take a photograph of something in the first place. For me a good photograph is one that holds my interest or creates some emotion within me.

Most photographs provide a permanent record of a situation that once existed, and, since time continually moves onwards, no longer exists. These photographs can be grouped into those in which the photographer merely recorded what was already there, and those in which they played some part in 'setting-up' the picture. The two extremes are obviously the hard news shot and the studio still-life or scientific shot, but there are an infinite number of inbetweens. A further grouping occurs between those pictures intended for a limited audience eg the family snap, and those intended for a wide audience eg the assasination of a president or the breaking of a world record. So often the pictures which interest the widest audiences rely on the serendipity of taking a picture in the right place at the right time.

There is a distinction between those photographs which aim to show the world as it really is, and those which seek to make a more subtle statement, using the visual elements present as symbols of a deeper reality. Given that a "successful" photograph is one which appeals to, or affects, a large proportion of those who view it, it doesn't necessarily have to be liked, if it stimulates thought or even shock then it has achieved something.

The timing (ie the precise moment of exposure) of a photograph varies in importance according to the rapidity of change of the subject. The timing of a landscape or still-life isn't normally too important (although there may be one particular moment when the lighting is at its most effective). However in photographs of certain subjects, for instance, living things including people, timing is essential. Carter-Bresson coined the term The Decisive Moment to reflect this.

Once a photographer has decided to photograph a subject he must decide to what extent he will influence it. In a studio shot the photographer plays a considerable part in shaping the final image. In a documentary shot he shot he shouldn't significantly influence his subject. The photographer always has the option of changing the final appearance of his image by the use of effects such as filters or darkroom (and more recently, digital) manipulation.

Modern cameras allow the user to merely point the camera at his subject, press the button and produce correctly-exposed in-focus pictures under most conditions. Does this remove too much responsibility (creativity) from the photographer? Not necessarily. It is still the photographer who decides what to photograph. An autofocus camera will focus on the object in the centre of the frame, if the photographer then wishes to recompose his picture he can do so. Evaluative metering is designed to give correct exposure in most situations. A straight conversion of this reading into aperture and shutter speed by a program mode will satisfy most photographers most of the time. For those occasions when a particular interpretation is required eg fast shutter speed or large depth of field various program-shift or tele/wide options are available. Modern snapshot cameras have removed much of the mystique of photography and opened the medium to the masses, for this they are to be applauded.

Manual focussing, metering and exposure-setting allow the photographer absolute control over the finished picture, and in certain situations (ie those where timing isn't critical such as still-life) manual control is preferable. It's often wise to have a mechanical back-up in case of electronic failure (eg under extreme weather conditions). However, where it is necessary to capture action or some 'decisive moment' automation comes into its own, allowing the photographer to give full thought to the picture.

See also: Social Documentary Photography | Famous Photographers

© 2005