The Photographic idea

This past week I got into a discussion with two local photographers about photography as Art. Their opinion was that photography has become mostly a point-and-shoot process that is really all about documenting one’s personal life.

I think defining Art has always been “in the eye of the beholder”.  

I remember a friend chastising me when I was too critical of a photographer’s image, by saying that all to familiar phrase, “I may not know about Art, but I do know what I like.” 

Ansel Adams, in the forward to his popular 1950’s book “The Print” said, “Photography, in the final analysis, can be reduced to a few simple principles…” and he continued, “Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas. It is a creative art…technique is justified only so far as it will simplify and clarify the statement of the photographer’s concept.”

I remember the series of books by Adams when photography was about striving for the perfect negative and a good final print.

We don’t need to worry about a perfect negative any more, because even if the image file produced in-camera isn’t satisfactory it’s easily colour balanced, cropped, and sharpened later. Contrast can be changed and increasingly, the trend for many photographers has become to not make large prints at all. 

That said, I still think that Adams’ forward in “The Print” may be as worthwhile now as it was in 1950 for a photographer’s Art. Even with the changes of how an image is managed and finally used (whether print or electronic) the thought process is still important. Adams wrote about the technique of taking the picture, the negative, and the printing procedure. He might as well have been talking about transferring image data from a camera to computer, optimizing the files, and outputting to an online portfolio.

Adams wrote, “We may draw an analogy with music: The composer entertains a musical idea. He sets it down in conventional musical notation. When he performs it, he may, although respecting the score, inject personal expressive interpretations on the basic patterns of the notes. So it is in expressive photography: The concept of the photograph precedes the operation of the camera. Exposure and development of the negative…” He continues by saying, “the print itself is somewhat of an interpretation, a performance of the photographic idea.”

I have always liked that final sentence of his “…the print (image file?) itself is somewhat of an interpretation, a performance of the photographic idea.”   Those words remind me not to be as critical of other photographers work, if as Adams put it, “Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas.”

I think what my friend meant when he said, ““I may not know Art, but I do know what I like.”   Was that I should be paying attention to what a photographer might be saying with his or her image and remind myself to think about “interpretation” and the “performance of the photographic idea.”

That is why its good that I still have that somewhat out-dated book, and why I should regularly open it up. After all the prattle about the newest camera, or lens, or computer programs, I need to be brought back to what, in the end, photography is about for me personally.

Photography, a personal vision.

Kamloops Lake 1

Kamloops Lake

Kamloops Lake 1a

Lawnmower Race copy1

Lawnmower Race copy2

Sax player 1 Sax player 2





My photographer friend Greg posted the following statement on the Canadian photographer “Recently I’ve come across a number of photographs on the social media outlets that are absolutely stunning and amazing works of art, but there are a whole host of people who comment saying ‘it looks fake’, ‘it needs to be more real’, ‘that picture has no resemblance to reality’”. And he continues raising the question with “Should we be striving to produce photographs that are more ‘real’ to please the crowds who seem to have very little understanding of art?”

My quick and easy response is to quote Plato, “Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder”. Even Shakespeare in his work, Love’s Labours Lost writes, “Beauty is bought by judgment of the eye”.

I understand his (and others) frustration with those that are ready to condemn anything that deviates from their personal interpretation of photography, but we need to remember that is just their opinion. I don’t think Greg or any other photographer should “be striving to produce photographs…to please the crowds”. However, when one displays a photograph on any social media site one needs to be ready for someone else’s opinion.

I used the following last January in my discussion of Photography as a Fine Art. Wikipedia’s on-line encyclopedia says, “Fine art photography is photography created in accordance with the vision of the artist as photographer.” That should be enough to ease my friend’s frustration. I will comment to him that those detractors didn’t understand the interpretation or artistic vision of the photographer’s work.

Some may disagree with me, but I think photography has always been a technology driven medium. And just as there are those willing to push the limits, there surely are also those that employ their cameras simply as devices to document the people, objects, and scenes in front of them, and I have no doubt their criticism might come swiftly to those that manipulate their images instead of maintaining the more conservative course of photographic reality.

Regarding Greg’s question about some people’s understanding, or lack of understanding of art, that is a question that countless generations may have struggled with possibly since the first humans decided to place a favourite rock in their cave or put coloured pigment on the wall.

I believe the question is actually, “What is Art and who has the right to define Art?”

Mark Twain is attributed with the words, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.”   I expect most of us fall into that category.

Here are a number of quotes about art by artists. American architect and designer Frank Lloyd Wright said, “Art is a discovery and development of elementary principles of nature into beautiful forms suitable for human use.” However, I much preferred photographer Ansel Adams words, “Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas. It is a creative art.” Or this from novelist Rainbow Rowell, “…and art wasn’t supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something.” And French Impressionist painter Edgar Degas wrote, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

When one has the need to be creative they should have the right to decide on their own particular style to fulfill their personal creative vision. What that vision is should be entirely up to the photographer, and the audience for whom the image is produced. I think the problem in this day of mass social media is how to select the right audience.

I do look forward to your comments. Thank you, John








Does Film Lend Itself Better to Creativity Than Digital?

Digital VS Film

Where does a photographer’s creativity come from?


This past week I received the following question, “is film a better creative format than digital?”

I admit that the discussion regarding film vs. digital isn’t really that common anymore. Yes, I talk with high school students that are using film in photography classes. Those discussions are mostly about how film works, about processing, and printing, or using different chemicals.

Sometimes an older person who stopped taking pictures in the 1980s will loudly tell me digital is unnatural, doesn’t look good, and is cheating. Cheating? That conversation is always humorous. However, it is one-sided and not really worth getting into because any opinion but theirs is going to be ignored.

However, this question wasn’t about which is better as a way of making photographs, it was about creativity, and that intrigued me. Creativity is about imagination, originality, and art.

My quick answer to that was that I liked both film and digital images. To me, film is a more “tactile” medium than a digital image, and I like the extreme tonality that a good photographer can achieve. I believe digital image files can have more sharpness and a lot more detail. Sometimes that is good, sometimes not. That also depends on the photographer.

In my opinion creating an image is what the photographer does. It involves deciding upon the kind of camera and medium one might use, but the camera and medium is just the vehicle for a photographer’s creativity. It is really all about the final image, and how one decides to produce that image for the best visual effect.

I think some times that too much is made about the process. The process is just that, a series of actions or steps that one takes to achieve a particular end. I guess what a photographer does to create that show-stopping photograph is truly interesting, but in the end it is really only about the photograph.

The idea that there might be something more creative in making an image with film than with digital doesn’t make much sense.

I remember all the possibilities we had with film. Imaginative photographers would select different types of film and change the way they exposed and process it. Photographers probably had shelves of different chemicals for both developing film and making prints, as well as cabinets filled with photographic papers, and all as part of their process to bring out personal creative vision.

Now photographers can shoot with cropped or full frame cameras, and instead of dedicated rooms filled with equipment, they load their computers with software programs to help them with their personal creative project.

When using film one would previsualize (a term coined by Minor White) how one wanted to produce the final image before releasing the shutter. And I think many still do that to reach their vision, except now photographers are thinking of programs like Photoshop or Lightroom instead of the chemical processes required with film.

There are some photographers that only know film, there are some photographers that only know digital, and there are those that are competent in both. And although they might use film, digital, or both, to produce an image, creativity comes from the photographer and not the process.

Maybe I should have just replied to that question about creativity with photographer Ansel Adams’ words, “You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”

I look forward to any comments readers have. Thank you, John

My website is at


Photography viewed as Art

Green wall in alley

A photographer friend, Nancy, told me about once entering a hand-coloured, black and white photograph in a local art exhibition.  The organizers advised her that they had a problem deciding where to place it, with paintings or with photography.

Wanting to be creative, and a bit traditional, she had used black and white film to photograph a scene and printed it in the old way, using chemicals in trays, with black and white photo paper. She then used translucent oils to colour specific areas of the black and white photograph.  Please remember that hand-colouring black and white photographs has been in practice as long as photography has been around.

The individuals, who organized the exhibition being ignorant of the history of photography (I was told they were all painters), believed that because she had applied something on the surface of the emulsion-coated paper that her photograph now had become a painting. I think that, lacking respect for photographers as artists, they regarded her work as something one would do with a colouring book.

We both wondered what the opinion of those exhibition judges would have been if she had captured a scene with a digital camera, used PhotoShop to convert the image to black and white, and then placed colours on some areas of the image.  She could have erased some items in the image, cloned others, or added items into the image that came from different photographic digital files. Would they still call it a photograph?  The artist had used the medium of photography to create the final image, but I have met people that would not want to call that photography.

Ignorant of the strong tradition of creative modification by photographers, many will refer to film-created images as “real” photography, and digitally created images as “digital” photography that are somehow unreal, as if film based photographs have never been altered or manipulated.

It is not bad enough that many patricians of other artistic mediums have a hard time including photography as art; but there are also photographers that want to dismiss digital or digitally manipulated images as not being “real” photography.

In my opinion if the original image file or “negative” (whether it be paper, or film-based, or digital) came from a camera of some sort, the final print, no matter what is done to it between the time light is captured on a sensor or film and presented as a final picture, should still be called a photograph.

I am excited that the medium of photography is continually changing with modern technology. Film emulsion has gone through an amazing amount of changes since 1826 in France when Nicéphore Niépce produced the first permanent image. Incidentally, his picture took eight hours to expose.  I can only presume that if he were handed one of the latest digital cameras he would be excited, and would not foolishly hold on to outdated technology, and as a photographic inventor he probably would be happy to experiment with today’s cutting-edge technology.  Yes, if we want we can still produce images with 100-year-old techniques and materials; or we can embrace the medium as it changes.

The problem those judges had with photography might have been is that it is used in so many different ways and has become so accessible.  Try to find some aspect of our society that is not impacted by photography. The medium has reached a place that, through emerging technology, makes it very usable for many people.

There are those that use it only to document their lives, but it can also be used easily for creative purposes.  One only has to check out the multitude of online photography sites to find the truth in that. That might also be why those judges struggled to accept changes to my friend’s original image.

Nancy photographed an interesting subject, and, instead of choosing to use a digital file, or colour film, she decided to use black and white film to create a mood to help the viewer feel what she felt when she released the shutter. Then further, she continued to visually discuss the subject and the surrounding scene by adding hand colouring to enhance specific elements of the photo and produced an image that was able to go beyond being a documentary of a moment in time. I think photographers like Nancy are as much artists as those in any other creative medium.  There should not have been a problem in deciding if her print was a photograph or a painting.

I am surprised that there aren’t many exhibitions held in towns and villages here in British Columbia solely for photography. Yes, photography clubs hold private exhibitions, but those aren’t generally open to the public at large. I think lots of people would participate and lots more would attend. I certainly would.  I suggest that if there are not ongoing photography exhibitions in your community, get together with some other photographers and make one happen.

I really do appreciate your comments, John

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