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Photography As An Art Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

17 November 2017

We had wandered onto the sunny patio with a little book we rediscovered in our library of unread titles. The sun could not exert itself to reach very high in the sky but it was enough to read by. Especially in a reflective mood.

We were paging through Mark Strand's essay Notes of the Craft of Poetry in his book The Weather of Words: Poetic Invention when we were distracted by a quick movement only a few feet away. It was a tiny bird, its orange beak set off by its dark hood that broke off sharply from its dark brown body.

We had been so still it hadn't thought of us as much of a threat. And behind our dark glasses, it hadn't notice us shift our gaze to it.

Recognition. Turning around one evening, we saw this behind us.

Well, you know, poetry and birds go together. Emblematic of the art.


Which made us wonder what was emblematic of photography as an art.

"Photography: Craft or Art?" is an old (and unending) debate, mostly because it can be either or both so every axe gets ground. But in the era (over a century ago now) when the Pictorialists argued it was art for one reason, the Group f64 shortly after argued it was art for another.

And one of the more influential arguments was made by Ansel Adams.

Adams was trained as a concert pianist and found in music the metaphor for photography as art. Music is an expressive medium composed of a scale of tones that appeal to our ear. Photography, he argued, is an expressive medium composed of tones that appeal to our eyes. If you can love music, you can love photography.


From that came the concept of visualization, which considered the scene's tonality in relation to the medium's restrictions. A paper's tonal range, for example. The tones in reality were manipulated with filters and exposure to translate them to the range of tones in the paper. That's really what the Zone System is all about.

This translation was meant to be expressive. Lyrical. A representation of the photographer's inner state or feeling. Here's how Adams describes this sense in Polaroid Land Photography:

Art takes wing from the platform of reality. We observe reality, we may or may not feel anything about it. If we do feel something, we may have a moment of recognition of the imperative subject and its qualities in terms of a photograph. In a sense this is a mystical experience, a revelation of the world that transcend fact and reaches into the spirit.

And, in fact, this is something anyone is capable of. We look around and sometimes have a "moment of recognition." We usually gasp, "Oh, that looks just like a painting!"

But then comes the job of "visualization":

Once we recognize a potential photograph, we begin to "see" in our mind the image that will convey the visual-emotional experience of the subject to the maximum degree -- that is, we visualize an image. Our visualization starts with the subject but takes into account the characteristics of the medium itself and of the specific equipment and materials we are using."

Zoned. What we saw translated into the tonal zones of our screen output with detail in both the highlights and shadows.

So we see that highlight and realize we'll have to place it in the very lightest tone and we wonder which tone will be middle gray and how much of the darker tones we should preserve. We may even want to shift tones in the sky darker or lighter or give a mountain face more contrast. We are thinking of what the paper can do and how to expose the negative to do it.

That process, Adams argues, is what makes photography an art.

To appreciate that argument, though, you have to place it in the larger appreciation of art as mimetic. The craft of copying reality.


We've all praised the child who has drawn a credible likeness with a pencil on a sheet of white paper. Unfortunately, art appreciation in the general population (not, that is to say, your house) doesn't go much beyond that.

And when photography made such copying mechanical, it was considered cheating and therefore not admitted among the arts.

So the Pictorialists with their classic compositions and soft focus developed a form that was not entirely mimetic but more painterly, representative. And the Group f64 with its sharp focus and tonal play on scenes did the same thing in the opposite way.

"Art takes wing from the platform of reality," Adams argued. We start from reality but we don't copy it. We use it as a launch pad to express ourselves.


We aren't much beyond that appreciation these days.

There will always be a mimetic aspect to photography that music, for example, has never had to shake off. Music does not take wing from the platform of reality. But people will always look at a print and think to themselves that's what the scene really looked like.

And there will always be limitations to the expressive possibilities of any art. Sonnets have a form, after all, while free verse is prohibited from having strict forms. We'll probably always have trouble with reds and we'll never achieve a true black in a print.

But a 14-bit Raw capture, while capturing less than the human eye can see, has more tonality than a screen can display, let alone a print. The Zone System is, while still instructive, quite quaint.

We are, notice, still wary of blown highlights and muddy shadows as if meticulous application of the Zone System would prevent us from those "errors." But that is because the old saw still carries some influence.


We weary quickly from reflecting too much in the sun. And at this point in the argument, we had wearied. We were distracted by a quick movement under the lemon tree just six feet from us.

A small female bird was hopping around, picking at the ground.

We watched her furtive movements for a few moments, thinking how stressful the life of a bird must be, before returning to Strand.

The Art. Cropped, the darker tones subverted, the crown of gold on the distant clouds -- that's what we wanted it to be.

He was quoting the poet Wallace Stevens, who was reflecting on his poem The Old Woman and the Statue:

While there is nothing automatic about the poem, nevertheless it has an automatic aspect in the sense that it is what I wanted it to be without knowing before it was written what I wanted it to be, even though I knew before it was written what I wanted to do.

"That," Strand comments, "is as precise a statement of what is referred to as 'the creative process' as I have ever read."

Indeed, with just a little editing, we change the feathers of that bird from poetry to photography:

While there is nothing automatic about the picture, nevertheless it has an automatic aspect in the sense that it is what I wanted it to be without knowing before it was captured what I wanted it to be, even though I knew before it was captured what I wanted to see.


We can't read too long at once in the sun either. And playing around with that paragraph we had to wonder:

Does that edit reflect the process a photographer goes through?

Well, in part, it illustrates the first paragraph of Adams above. This "knowing before capture what you want to see" is the recognition Adams speaks about.

But then Adams "visualizes" the print in his mind. And Stevens, well, no. There is a back-and-forth in Stevens that Adams has no time for. Adams executes his vision. Stevens does not know beforehand what he wants, he doesn't visualize.

Stevens knows what he wants to see but not what he wants his work to be.

That is some very tricky stuff there. It describes the difference between a mechanical copying and a lyrical expression.

He felt something but he didn't know beforehand quite what. He knows what he wants to see but not what he precisely wants it to be. Only in working on the piece, does he realize (funny word) what he had hoped it to be.

Now which of those describes how you create your favorite photographs?


Something certainly attracts us about what we see in front of us while we wander around with a camera or we wouldn't go to the bother of uncapping the lens and lifting the weighty box to our good eye.

But how we expose the image and what we do with the data on our computer are only partly informed by the photographic and post-processing skills we have acquired. As we develop the image we are looking at some things appeal to us and others seem to need work.

When that balance is all on the appealing side of the scale, we're done. The image is what we hoped it would be without knowing ahead of time what we wanted it to be.

Adams was arguing for photography as art but his process is not generally how it's practiced today. Stevens, as Strand says, describes the process more precisely.


I wonder if Adams' practice was always as pure as the account of it you quote. Did he never see possibilities for the first time in the darkroom and was he always aiming to replicate an image finalised in his mind's eye before processing started? Of course, digital processing makes it so much easier to explore the multiple potential outcomes of an image as shot. But I would have thought that chemical processing is also open to improvements that only become apparent when the artist looks at at early versions of a print.

-- Ken Cameron

You're right on two counts. Adams did make improvements in the darkroom and digital post processing changes the game. The second point, though, overshadows the first significantly.

Adams, working in black and white, was conscious not just of what various focal lengths could do to an image but of the effect of using color filters on black-and-white film. He also relied on an uncommon familiarity with what the emulsion and film developer could do for him and how various photo papers rendered tonality.

He applied this technical knowledge to his approach to the scene in front of his camera. And that was the basis for his argument that photography is an art. He visualized the end result before taking the photo. He didn't just mechanically take whatever the medium gave him. He created the image, not the camera.

But he also said that the negative itself was something like a musical score. And that a print was like the performance. He hoped others would continue printing his images long after he was gone. And, indeed, he printed them differently himself.

But in the film era, you weren't going to change a sky darkened with a red filter to a light one in the darkroom. And you were better off exposing and developing for contrast than trying to print it. Your options were much reduced in the darkroom.

In the digital age, though, you can shoot color and pull the file up in your image editor to work on it in black-and-white with individual tonal control of each hue. You can recover highlights and shadow detail both. You can dramatically change contrast. And we're not even talking about color yet .

Which is where the Stevens quote comes in. A poet, after all, doesn't need to visualize anything to argue poetry is an art. He's struck by something and scribbles a few words down and then edits them to death until it's what he wanted it to be.

Certainly photographers can (and do) take either approach these days. But the argument that photography is an art depends on neither.

-- Mike

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