I have spent a few hours reading a brilliant book by Roland Barthes. (Camera Lucida). It is a short book, filled with short philosophical ideas, thoughts, observations and opinions about photography, all in Essay form. This particular book is recognised as being one of the most insightful books into the art of photography. And I felt parts of this book should be on E2. Unfortunately, due to copyright restrictions, the best I can do in that respect is to write a review of the book (which will, undoubtedly, appear on E2 before too long). This does not remove the fact that there are very few philosophical musings on my favorite art on E2, however. Which is why I, in this node, before I finish reading Camera Lucida, and before I would be stealing too many of Barthes' ideas, I offer some of my own thoughts on the artform...

What is photography?

One essence of photography is eloquently captured by Greysoul: it is "the process of trapping time with light, or making a photograph."

It explains little about the art of photography, however. The amount of photography knowledge m_turner, baffo, cbustapeck, and similar well-spoken photography-interested noders have incorporated into the database is a strong indication that the art of photography is far, far from dead. However, most of this knowledge is technical. It explains how you can use a macro lens to capture details. It explains how you can use a camera, a technique or a film in the best way possible.

But hardly any of these nodes deal with why.

Why photography?

Ever since the Daguerreotype was invented in 1839, it became clear that photography was a force to be reckoned with. People started experimenting with freezing a flowing motion. The elusive crinkles and wrinkles of time became accessible to – if not the general public, at least to those particularly interested and fairly well off.

The initial interest was purely scientific rather than artistic: People wanted to stop time. Capture a sliver of time on a sliver of paper.

The technology evolved furter, as is described better than I ever could in another node.

Fast forward to today. Everybody and his dog has some kind of camera. A compact thing, perhaps. Or an SLR. A digital camera. A Polaroid box. Or even a few disposable cameras for good measure.

Photography is probably the most accessible form of art in the world. Granted, a box of crayons is cheaper than a disposable camera, but you do not need any technical skills to use the camera. Aim it at something, and press the button. Chances are that what comes out is a photograph that is vaguely correctly focused, vaguely correctly exposed, and you will be able to tell what you photographed. If you use a box of crayons, you will first have to learn to draw.

Photography is not an art.

In other words: If anybody can take a picture, then how can photography ever be considered an art? Buy a £200 camera, and £100 of films and developing, and you are an instant artist, yes?

Philosophy of photography

Back to why people take pictures – I believe this is really the reason for why anybody would call photography an art. What are people trying to convey? For myself, it varies. There are so many reasons for wanting to take pictures of something, but they all boil down to the same thing: The intension of keeping something that is not always there, forever.

There are many good reasons for wanting to do so. A proud parent would possibly want to keep visual memories of how their child looked when it was little. Because the child will grow, and the little child will not be there forever. When on vacation, you might want to capture the views of the Eiffel tower and the canals of Venice, for almost the same reason: The tower and canals will still be there, but you won’t be there with them, so to you, they will not be there forever.

So historic preservation – either to capture something that will disappear, or something that you shan't be able to revisit soon – is a reason for taking pictures.

How do you then explain the people who attempt to freeze a drop of water hitting a glass of water? Or those who spend thousands of pounds on macro lenses so they can spend hours on end laying in the dirt photographing tiny leaves of flowers? Or those who spend days setting up a still life, before spending hours to photograph it? All that for some fruit?

This leads me to my next point: Photography can partially be about preservation. A memory-insurance (think the main character in memento, and his Polaroid memories). However, there is another important reason for taking pictures: showing a different morsel of reality from what you normally see. A properly lit apple can be a work of art. A CD disc can be a beautiful image. A glass of water – perhaps one of the most normal sights in the world – can become something breathtaking.

Stopping time

The point is that photography allows you to look closely at something. Even in its simplest form – a simple colour photograph – a photography changes reality fundamentally. For one thing, a motion will be stopped. For another thing, it is possible to look at something that is blurred. And it is now two dimentional. All of these changes have been made just as you hit the shutter. In 99% of photographs taken, the exact same photograph can never be taken again. A cloud has moved. A bird has moved. The sun has changed character. The light has changed. Something changes, effectively changing the scene. Probably forever. And the only proof you have that it ever happened is captured on your film and your memory. About 5 minutes later, your memory has faded, and the image captured on your film is all that is left.

Photography is art

Anyone can take a photograph. Which is not to say that all photographic images are works of art. But some are. The difference between photography and all other art forms is what makes art art: Taking a good photograph is largely down to technique, but technique is something that is easy to learn. Read all the nodes in m_turners photography metanode, and you will know everything you need to know. Shutter times, apertures, lens and film speeds will be second nature to you. No, technique is not what is going to hold you back from being the best photographer in the world.

Money might – buying good equipment is expensive. However, some of the best images I have seen in my life were taken with 20 year old equipment and 15 year old lenses, so that can hardly be an argument.

What makes a good photographer, is the ability to previsualise and to see.

What makes good photography?

Exposure. Crop. Lighting. Background. Contrast. Focus. Sharpness.

If your image contains a correct application of all of the above, you have created a piece of art. Kind of. It means that, technically, you master the art of photography. A correct exposure and focus proves that you know how to operate your camera. Good sharpness and contrast proves that your (digital) darkroom skills are good. Good lighting and background mean that you prepared your image thoroughly, and that you bothered to make sure that the shadows and highlights were where you wanted them. The crop is your final guide towards presenting the image. Now all you need is a message...

As an artist, there are three reasons for why I would want to take a picture of something:

1 – Something impossible. This would include anything I do using creative lighting, long shutter times (2 seconds or more) or short shutter times (1/2000 second or less). Full 360 degree panoramas. Extreme macro photographs. Why are these images special? Primarily because the images you get, are images you could not possibly see without photography. The eye cannot freeze something that happens in less than 1/2000th of a second. The eye cannot use motion blur or see in near-complete darkness, such as a 20 second exposure. This means that you are creating images that do not exist. Images that cannot exist in real life. Images that cannot be captured on motion film. Images exclusive to photography.

2 – Classic photography. This would include portraits, for example. Or still life. Act photography. A question of, through good backgrounds, creative lighting and that tiny little more attention to detail, creating a photograph unlike any other

3 – Just looking.

Just looking? But isn’t that obvious? Well, yes. But people are so used to using their eyes all day, every day, that they forget to look. Or they forget what they are looking for. Or they forget that they are looking for something. Always carrying a camera is not a guarantee to learn how to look. Myself, I trained this by walking in a forest with my eyes closed. 50 steps ahead. Then, opening my eyes, I would have to take a picture. Repeat 36 times. Be surprised. There are gorgeous photographs everywhere, but only so many people are able to see them.

Which is what creates an artist,
rather than a just a photographer.