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The Essential Landscape: Don't Be An Idiot

Text and photography copyright © Guy Tal. All rights reserved.

"Great photographers are a combination of wizard and idiot savant. They do what they do without truly understanding how, then make up a lot of convoluted theory to cover up their own ignorance of who and what they really are. Because of the self-doubt that nags photographers, photography's power as an art goes on being misperceived." - Owen Edwards

Almost since the first photographic image was made, artists choosing to work in the medium of photography faced an uphill battle for recognition of the legitimacy of their work and its acceptance as a fine art. Photography had been derided as being the product of machines and chemicals rather than the expressive minds of artists, and for offering no more than simple representations of reality, rather than having the freedom to convey nuanced and abstract concepts.

I will spare you the history lesson and evolution of the art through Pictorialism, Group f/64, etc. Just look up the terms for more evidence of the ongoing struggle. Perhaps the strongest articulation of the disconnect can be found in Gore Vidal's words: "For half a century photography has been the 'art form' of the untalented. Obviously some pictures are more satisfactory than others, but where is credit due? To the designer of the camera? To the finger on the button? To the law of averages?"

While such attitudes can be chalked up to misinformation or even elitism on the part of those who practice other forms of art, in reality it is an indication of a profound and, frankly, embarrassing ignorance of the expressive powers of composition, light, color, tone, and creativity, not to mention the effort, time, and skill required to produce an exceptional body of photographic work. To many, there is still no difference between the creation of deliberate and meaningful photographic work vs. making snapshots for the family album.

Perhaps saddest of all is that this profound ignorance is found not only in casual observers but also, and perhaps more so, in photographers! So many are quick to self-impose such lofty titles as "artist," or "fine-art photographer" without the slightest education in, or understanding of, art. The result of such ignorance is a staggering abundance of cookie-cutter images (same places, same compositions, same processing, etc.), which obscure any hope of identifying the photographer behind them, let alone understanding their intentions, sensibilities, style, motivation, and the emotions they wish to convey.

While the obsessive need to represent objective reality is a boon to some photographic applications (reportage, etc.) it is a complete non-sequitur when it comes to art. To the extent that art relates to reality, it does so in symbolic ways rather than literal ones. The reality of a sandstone wall in a canyon fifty miles from anywhere the viewer is ever likely to see in person is completely irrelevant to the artistic merit of a photographic work. The use of its lines, textures, patterns, colors, tones and reflective properties in creating a satisfying visual experience is where photographic art comes in.

At the root of any visual art is a deep understanding of the use of visual elements to evoke emotions and to appeal to elusive perceptions of aesthetics, curiosity, drama, fascination etc. Such an understanding is independent of medium and applies equally to painting, sculpture, cinema, performance, and photography; and yet, so few photographers take the time to fully explore and practice it, preferring instead to churn out bumper crops of repetitive renditions and yet-anothers.

When it comes to the artistic value of images and proclamations of self-importance, let me be very blunt: where there is no artist, there is no art. No matter how beautiful or powerful the feats of nature you photograph, if all you do is record them using photographic media without introducing your own sensibilities into the final product, what makes it art?

Your images should provide viewers with an experience they could not have had, and would never have seen or felt if it were not for your sharing it with them.

Also, by claiming (in one choice of words or another) that your role in your work is limited to transporting your gear and accomplishing a successful exposure, you are further thickening the shroud surrounding photography as a form of visual art and providing fodder for those who see it as a simple, easy, and technology-driven pursuit not truly worthy of the reverence reserved to, say, masterful paintings.

More perplexing are the diatribes on technique and "hero stories" so popular with the genre of nature photography. To be blunt yet again, nobody cares how far you hiked, how much your backpack weighed or the effects of giardiasis you suffered from drinking untreated swamp water. Seeing you hanging from a cliff and reading about the hurdles you encountered may get you a high-five from your friends but will do nothing to your credibility as an artist.

Great images should stand on their own and rely on emotion and mystery contained within the frame rather than tools, processes, or bravado. The mere knowledge of the mechanics behind them, not to mention a state of mind different from the emotion conveyed in the image, can be very detrimental to the image as a singular independent creation and experience.

"Photography would have been settled a fine art long ago if we had not, in more ways than one, gone so much into detail. We have always been too proud of the detail of our work and the ordinary detail of our processes." - Henry Peach Robinson

If you truly do intend on expressing yourself creatively and artistically through your photographic images, take a break from the incessant rush to produce large volumes of repetitive work, no matter how beautiful or impressive. Take the time to gain an understanding of Art: what it is, what it stands for and what it aims to achieve and contribute to the human experience. Invest in becoming an artist first, independent of tools. Learn to see and interpret and apply your own voice in your work.

If you want to see creative photography assume its rightful place in the pantheon of fine arts, don't be an idiot... not even an idiot savant.

Comments on NPN nature photography articles? Send them to the editor. NPN members may also log in and leave their comments below.

Guy Tal is a professional photographer and author residing in the state of Utah, in the heart of a unique and scenic desert region known as the Colorado Plateau. Guy teaches and writes about the artistic and creative aspects of photography and guides private workshops and individuals seeking the beauty and solitude of the canyon country. More of his works and writings can be found on his web site and blog at You may also follow Guy on Facebook or Twitter.

Guy is the author of three e-books, Creative Landscape Photography, Creative Processing Techniques, and Intimate Portraits of the Colorado Plateau.

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Comment posted by Paul Breitkreuz on 02/04/12 at 11:01 am     

Guy, another well written article by you with regard to photography being an art form, as well as photographers aspiring or claiming to be fine art producers. Thanks for taking time and sharing your excellent insight here.

   Paul Breitkreuz
Corona, California
NPN 2326

"Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care."
- Theodore Roosevelt -

Registered on 02/25/06, 525 Posts, 8448 Comments   Personal Website    Online Portfolio NPN Member
Comment posted by Youssef Ismail on 02/04/12 at 1:14 pm     

Well said Guy. If my initial intent behind my work was to move people's hearts with it does that make me an artist even though the photos produced are the cookie-cutter yet-agains? Personally I never chased after what others photographed, but rather what moved me and hoped it would move others. My best images have no indication of where they were taken or recognizable land marks. Thanks for the insights and making me think about this.

Youssef Ismail - Campbell, CA
Organic Light Photography
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[b]See the world in a new light ... Organic Light!

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If you contemplate the sublimity of The Sublime then all suspicion will sublimate into certainty about what you are seeing and what you saw and what you will see. The fog of illusion will then vanish and only Reality will remain without any doubt or suspicion.

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Comment posted by Kory Lidstrom on 02/05/12 at 11:13 am     

Nice article, although it seems like a bit of a re-hash of one of your previous entries. Regardless, I TOTALLY agree with the message you are sending. Until the general public understands this, fine art photography will not get the credit it deserves.

   Kory Lidstrom.
Minneapolis in the summer.
Virgin Islands in the winter.
Fine Image Photography

Join me on my next Big Island of Hawaii Photo Tour

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Comment posted by Guy Manning on 02/06/12 at 9:11 pm     

Interesting comments. My background is in art and photography going back to the 1970's when I tromped around the Owens Valley and other areas with a 4x5. I actually attended a real art school. I left shooting for about 15 years in the mid 80's and only got back into it about 4 years ago. I monitor a very small number of photo forums and look at peoples work. I am amazed at the number of people who have the disillusioned idea that they are Fine Artists, or even that they are producing Art. I considered using the term on my site, but couldn't bring myself to do so. I would have been too embarrassed to presume the title. It isn't like back in the day when my work was in shows.

I find the idea that people who have no clue how to use the tools in their hand can even call themselves a photographer. Susan Sontag brought this point up in "On Photography" back in the 70's. She likened it to someone owning a set of ballet slippers and calling themselves a ballet artist. Ownership of a camera does not a photographer make.

Due to the lack of a quality source for people to find and understand the Principals of Art and Elements of Design, I started a blog on the topics a couple months ago. It is my contention that Composition is not just placement of the frame around a scene. It involves using Gestalt, design elements, art principals, color theory, the concept of a center, and a few other tidbits, to form a cohesive whole. It is hard to accomplish, and many good images are near misses and eventually go by the wayside. But, every now and then the one hits something that just makes people mute when they first see it. Look at all the contemporary painters who put out hundreds of canvases. Yet in the end there are handful of pieces that make it into the art history books.

BTW, I also like reading History of Photography books. I never expected to see someone here quote HP Robinson, let alone know who he was.

   Guy Manning
   See my blog. Lens, Light & Composition - What you didn't learn because you didn't go to art school.
Beauty is a summation of the parts working together in such a way that nothing needed to be added, taken away or altered — ' Elio Carletti '

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Comment posted by Alain Briot on 02/07/12 at 10:23 am     

Hi Guy, I assume you mean 'principles' not 'principals', as in "I have principles' and not 'the school principal will see you now.' Also the link (HP Robinson) does not work. Neither does your link work in the response you posted to my essay. Other than that I enjoyed your responses. Best regards, Alain

   Alain Briot
Author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Composition, Creativity and Personal Style, Marketing Fine Art Photography and How Photographs are Sold.

Registered on 09/08/05, 0 Posts, 2 Comments   Personal Website    Online Portfolio Member Blog NPN Member
Comment posted by Guy Manning on 02/07/12 at 8:48 pm     

You are correct on the spelling, The spell checker and the author was not. ;)
Apparently the java is broken on the link button in this editor. That is why the links are dead.

   Guy Manning
   See my blog. Lens, Light & Composition - What you didn't learn because you didn't go to art school.
Beauty is a summation of the parts working together in such a way that nothing needed to be added, taken away or altered — ' Elio Carletti '

Registered on 10/17/11, 13 Posts, 44 Comments   Personal Website    Online Portfolio Member Blog
Comment posted by Alain Briot on 02/07/12 at 11:37 pm     

No problem. You are ahead of me regarding Java. I'm not even sure how to use html in these posts to get double spacing!

   Alain Briot
Author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Composition, Creativity and Personal Style, Marketing Fine Art Photography and How Photographs are Sold.

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Comment posted by Stan Rose on 02/08/12 at 09:43 am     

...nobody cares how far you hiked, how much your backpack weighed or the effects of giardiasis you suffered from drinking untreated swamp water...

I dunno, Guy, there's a lengthy tradition of tormented artists who prematurely die in pursuit of their passion, and  thus become posthumously recognized for their suffering. The more untreated swamp water you drink, the more likely you are to die in your prime.

   Stan Rose
Pueblo, Colorado
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Comment posted by Harley Goldman on 02/08/12 at 11:56 am     

Great article, Guy.

These forum pages are covered with the suffering of the photographer to get the posted image. No offense to the poster, but who cares? It might make the image more special to the photographer who endured the alleged suffering, but is otherwise irrelevant to the image.

Beautiful images in the article, BTW.

   Harley Goldman
Harley Goldman Photography
POP Photo Forum and CANP Moderator
"You were born an original. Don't die a copy."
- John Mason

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Comment posted by Phil Pogledich on 02/14/12 at 4:31 pm     

Wonderful article, Guy.  I agree with everything you've said with the slight exception of the critique of "hero stories."  I often enjoy the stories behind the making of certain images, even though I sometimes find myself wondering whether the product was worth the effort.  In any event, I can easily agree that it's the image--not the story--that matters insofar as art is concerned. 

In many respects this article follows nicely from your previous discussion of the "prison" of color film.  It has always seemed to me that photoshop and similar tools add greatly to the creative process by providing a way to apply our own unique artistic vision to the final image.  These tools build on the artistic choices we make before pressing the shutter button and, in this way, help dissolve the supposed divide between photography and more conventional forms of art.  Or at least I hope that's how folks come to see it in time... 

   Phil Pogledich
Davis, CA

Registered on 08/24/09, 123 Posts, 3099 Comments    NPN Member
Comment posted by Craig Myers on 02/15/12 at 03:01 am     

Agreed that images must stand on their own, released from the tales that led to their making, but there is a note of cynicism creeping into this discussion regarding the story behind the image that I don't often encounter on this site. For people such as me, who are not yet, and may never be fine art photographers, who, nevertheless, have a passion for photography and the desire to grow through study, experimentation, and effort,  the stories others share are a means of good-naturedly connecting us through common experience of both exhilaration and folly. They may be irrelevant to the judgment of the final product, but they often illuminate the fact that photography doesn't just happen, that effort is involved. Sometimes the tales amaze and instruct as to the lengths people go to achieve a vision—and they instruct as much whether the image succeeds or falls short of the labors and travails that spiced the story of it's making. I think it runs counter to human-nature to separate lasting achievements from the back stories. Whether it's the many failures of inventors such as Edison or the Wrights, the excruciating meticulousness of Michelangelo on his back, or the tormented mind of VanGogh, the narratives become concomitant with the art, and why shouldn't they, since the details of each narrative helped shape the artist.

So let me admit that I, for one, do care about the stories. I hope people don't quit sharing them just because they may have nothing to do with artistic credibility. It is important that they understand that, but it is imperative they continue telling them anyway. They contribute to the camaraderie that characterizes the forums and galleries of this network as well as offering exemplars of how and how not. In short, they instruct, and this is in large part a learning network. 

   Craig W. Myers
Leaper Photos
Simi Valley, CA & Lynnwood, WA
"Light changes, our eyes blink and see the world from the slightest difference of perspective and our place in it has changed infinitely . . ."
—Paul Harding, "Tinkers"

"I am the President of the most powerful nation in the world. I take orders from nobody—except photographers." (Harry S. Truman 1884-1972)

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