Be Yourself. Everyone else is already taken. Oscar Wilde
1 - Introduction
In part 1 of this series we saw what vision consists of. However it is one thing to know what vision is and another to know if you are expressing vision in your work through the creation of fine art photographs. Therefore, in the second essay in this series we are going to look at what it takes to create fine art photographs. What follows is a list of what I consider to be the most important aspects of fine art photography:
2 - Art can be created with photography as well as with any other medium.
The artist defines the creation of art, not the medium. Painting, sculpture, drawing, dance, architecture, music, etc. are all mediums that are traditionally considered to be appropriate for the creation of art. However they are not the only ones. Any medium can be used to create art. It is how the medium is used and not the medium itself that defines the creation of art.
3 - Equipment does not create art. Artists create art.
Great photographs are no more taken by great cameras than great meals are cooked in great pots, great music played with great instruments, great painting made with great paintbrushes, great books written with great pens or word processors, great sculptures carved with great chisels and so on. Great art is created by great artists, period.
When we start we are worried about gear and not about the creative process. As we learn and progress we realize that the creative process is the most important of the two. All it takes to get gear is money and a visit to the store. The creative process cannot be bought. Dedication and nurturing are required to unlock it.
4 - Talent and luck do not make art. Relentless study and practice do.
Art is the outcome of mastery. This mastery must cover both the artistic and the technical aspects of the medium. Mastery is achieved through continuous study and practice and takes a long time to acquire. 10,000 hours is often considered minimal. This is 5 years at 40 hours a week and longer if you can only work part time on photography. This amount of time has proved to be accurate in my career.
5 - Art is about personal expression and interpretation, not about documentation.
Cameras are designed for visual documentation. As such the camera alone cannot create art. To create art with a camera means using the camera as a means of personal expression, not just as a mean of documentation.
The camera records visual information. The artist creates photographic art. If we just photograph all we have is an image created by a camera. To have an image created by us we need to alter the image created by the camera. How we alter that image is one of the fundamental aspects of personal style. In practice, this alteration is called a personal interpretation of the original subject.
To do this the artist uses artistic license. Artistic license is the freedom to represent things as you see them, not as they appear to others. Artistic license makes use of both technical and artistic means.
6 - Art needs to make us feel something, not just show us something.
Art is an emotional response to a specific subject. This means we must ask ourselves what are our personal emotions when we photograph. Artistic photography is not about what we see in a photograph. It is about what we feel when we look at that photograph. It is not so much about the literal content of the image. It is primarily about the metaphorical, hyperbolical, symbolic, aesthetic or other aspects of the image. An artistic photograph makes the viewer react primarily emotionally to the image, rather than analytically or technically.
This means that a metaphorical level of meaning is present in the image. A metaphor is something that stands for something else. Metaphors can be expressed through any medium be it writing, visual arts, music, architecture, etc.
In fine art photography metaphors are created with visual elements that are either present in the scene or modified by the photographer. These visual elements are used to express a metaphorical level of meaning that extends beyond the physical contents of the image.
For example, a young tree located next to a mature tree may be used to represent the contrast between youth and old age. In this instance the trees have a metaphorical meaning that extends beyond their physical presence. The young tree stands for youth while the mature tree stands for old age. Similarly, a pool of dark water may be made to stand for mystery, or the reflections of clouds in water used to represent infinity or introspection and so on. The possibilities are endless and limited only by the artist’s imagination.
7 - The goal of art is quality, not quantity.
When creating fine art photographs the primary concern needs to be quality instead of quantity. A single photograph that shares an emotion carries more value than countless photographs that are purely factual and documentary. No one cares that you took, processed and printed 10,000 photographs this year if none of these photos express a personal emotion in a style that is unique to you. The goal is not to create content for a stock photo agency. The goal is to create a high quality body of work focused on your vision. The goal is also to create a masterpiece -- your Mona Lisa, Hernandez, Water Lilies, etc.
When creating art, cost and time-saving considerations are secondary. Creating fine art photographs is not about trying to save money by buying lower-priced equipment (cameras, lenses, computers, etc.) or supplies (film, paper, inks, mat board, frames, etc.). It is not about trying to save time by photographing, processing, printing or matting as fast as possible. Instead, it is about creating the finest piece possible regardless of cost and time. While we all have a limit to how much we can spend on our art, concerns for time and costs need to be secondary, not primary.
8 - Art is a luxury.
Luxury items are products and services that we acquire when our basic needs are fulfilled. We cannot create, acquire or enjoy art if we are starving, do not have proper clothing, cannot pay our mortgage or cannot meet other basic needs. Creating art is part of self actualization, the last step in Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs.
9 - The value of a work of art is greatest when it is made and signed by the artist.
A photograph printed and signed by Ansel Adams has a much higher value than one which is not printed or signed by him. The same holds true for any artist, be it a painter, a photographer, a sculptor, etc. Pieces made and signed by the artist hold the highest value. This means that if your goal is to offer the highest value to your audience, you need to optimize, print and sign your work yourself. If you invest in art, purchasing signed originals offers the highest investment value.
10 - Talking about art means using the vocabulary of art.
All professions use a specific vocabulary. Artists use the vocabulary of art to communicate with each other and with their audience. Without it we cannot talk knowledgeably about art. Unfortunately, most photographers only use the vocabulary of photographic technique. While this is an important vocabulary, using it exclusively will not result in the creation of art.
11 - Creating art means using fundamental artistic concepts.
This means we have to learn what these fundamental concepts are, how to use them and why. These concepts include visual metaphors, color palette, hue, saturation, luminosity, movement, facture, composition, light, exposure, format, style, color, harmonies, coherence, hyperbole, symbolism, exaggeration, simplification, negative space, minimalism and more.
12 - Creating art means learning the rules before breaking the rules.
Any activity involves learning the rules that govern this activity. This is true for art as much as for engineering, medicine, legal practice etc. It is tempting to see rules as being purely limiting, bypass learning them and move directly to doing things ‘our way.’ However, doing so means practicing an activity which rules we are ignorant of. Eventually practitioners who take the time to learn the rules will create better work than those who do not.
Acquiring mastery means being humble and accepting the fact that learning the rules is an important aspect of education. Over time, through practice and study, we will learn to modify these rules, break them, or invent new ones to fit our unique needs and be more creative than everyone else.
13 - Studying art history is important.
Art does not exist in a vacuum. Art started a long time ago when people decided to express and share emotions with others through various means of communication. The work done by artists that preceded us teaches us a lot about what is art. It also inspires us and provides us with guidance and illumination.
Art created today builds and expands upon the heritage of art created in the past. Understanding this rich heritage means learning what are the different art movements and which artists belong to each movement. It also means getting involved with art by deciding which movements and artists we like and dislike and by collecting art.
14 - Connecting with a like-minded audience is important.
We cannot create art in a vacuum. We need both peers and audience. Being part of an artistic community is necessary for both support and inspiration. Sharing our work with like-minded people who appreciate what we do is an essential aspect of being an artist. Our audience consists of people who like our work. Our audience does not consist of people who despise what we do. We need to find out who they are, earn their trust and stay in regular contact. We do this by showing our work and paying attention to the audience’s response.
15 - Acquiring a personal style is the only way to create work that is truly unique.
In art, personal style means a unique way of expressing our emotional response to a subject. If you see other photographers represent the same subject the same way you do, your style is not personal.
A personal style is achieved through an artistic approach to photography, by featuring in your work some, or all, of the elements discussed in this essay. Focusing on technique alone is not enough to achieve a personal style. At best you will be acknowledged for being a great technician, at worse you will be known for having prints whose only quality is to be technically sound. As Ansel Adams put it: ‘Nobody cares about a sharp photo of a fuzzy concept.’
Personal style calls for personal choices. It is tempting to embrace all the new ‘stuff’ that comes out almost daily. For example, photographing landscapes, wildlife, close ups, architecture, portraits, weddings, cars, pets and more. Using HDR, collages, textures, blending, plugins, layers and more. Printing on watercolor, glossy, luster, bamboo, Baryta and other papers. Mounting and framing with white mats, colored mats, decorated mats and more. Mounting photos on wood, aluminum, Gatorboard, acrylic and so on. Marketing by offering prints in 12 different sizes, in both ‘fine art’ and ‘poster’ form, matted in 32 different mat colors, framed in 17 different moldings, all with the choices of papers and mountings that I previously mentioned.
That’s cool. And if you can do all this it is certainly very impressive. But besides shortening your life expectancy due to the resulting stress, it will do nothing to define your personal style. If you sell your work you will be buried under the inventory you will have to carry, to say nothing about the amount of money you will have tied up in this inventory. On top of that this will do nothing to increase your sales.
When it comes to style you are better off saying, for example: “I use a layer-based workflow, print primarily on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag and mat everything in white.” It is OK to keep things simple because you are doing art not running a grocery store.
Picasso was a cubist all his life and used only one type of canvas. Cartier Bresson did only street photography and used the same printing paper all his life. Creating art is not about offering endless permutations of subject matter, processing approaches, print sizes, printing papers and mounting styles. Creating art is about offering a singular -- and above all personal -- vision. While exploration and diversity can certainly provide inspiration, it is necessary to specialize and simplify in order to create a coherent body of work.
16 - Writing your artist statement is important.
An artist statement is a description of your artistic goals and of your personal vision. It can also include your personal philosophy of photography. It is not a tutorial on how to do what you do and it is not a list of the equipment you own and use.
Your life and your work are interconnected. Your life influences your work and your work influences your life. Therefore your life story matters. Your artist statement provides the opportunity to tell your story and to explain the relationship between your work and your life. It also provides an opportunity to explain what attracted you to photography versus other mediums and what attracted you to a specific subject versus other subjects.
An artist statement is an important document because it describes who you are, what is your training and experience, how you are positioned in the art field and what is your vision for your work. As such it legitimizes your work, your vision and your goals.
17 - Focusing your work on projects, not on single images, is important.
A project is a group of photographs focused on a specific theme. A project, also called a body of work, says more about an artist’s abilities than a single photograph. This is because a project such as a folio or a portfolio, demonstrates the artist’s abilities over time instead of in a single instance. A single quality photograph can always be seen as being an ‘accident’ by a suspicious audience. However, a portfolio of quality images puts these suspicions to rest by making the point that the artist can create high quality images regularly.
18 - A valid project is not ‘everything that catches your eye.’
We have all worked on a project from the day we got our first camera. This project is called ‘photographing everything that catches our eye.’ I started working on this ‘project’ on my way back from the camera store the day I purchased my first camera. I was lucky that I had great teachers who stopped me in time. They explained to me that there was nothing original in this project, that everyone was doing it and that it was the most commonplace and un-original ‘project’ one can ever pursue.
To be original a project needs to have a specific theme. This theme can be a variety of things. It can be a location (for example White Sands), a concept (for example Wilderness), a technique (for example Color Harmonies), or a specific subject (for example Migrating Cranes). Feel free to add your own project ideas to these examples.
Every artist has started a project. Few have completed their project. Therefore a project needs to have specific and realistic goals and deadlines because without those nothing gets done.
19 - Learning how to find your best work is important.
Finding your best work is your responsibility, not the responsibility of your audience. To find your best work you need to rank your photographs on a quality scale and proceed by gradual elimination. First, eliminate technically unacceptable images. Second, eliminate redundant images. Third, find the strongest images for each location or subject. Fourth, equalize quality across your final selections. Editing is fundamentally ruthless.
20 - Seek meaningful commentary, not bias responses.
What people say about your work is only as valuable as what they know and what they can do. Your mom, dad, brother, sister, relatives, significant other, office mate, boss, etc. may be supportive of your work and have the best intentions, but unless they are accomplished artists and teachers they are first and foremost relatives, friends or workmates and as such unqualified to provide professional-grade fine art photography advice. If you want to get meaningful advice, avoid common pitfalls and save time, it is necessary to seek council from people who are where you want to be, people who have made photography and teaching their career.
21 - Learning to overcome creative fear is necessary.
The one thing that holds back artists the most in their development is creative fear. Also called fear of criticism, this fear makes people unable to create work that is different, unique and otherwise uniquely theirs. Artists who suffer from this fear are afraid that if they create original work they will be singled out, put down and unfairly criticized.
In reality no such thing will happen. At worse someone may not like your work and will pay no attention to it. At best someone will fall in love with what you do. In practice the second option occurs more often than the first.
22 - Learning how to deal with adversity and criticism is important.
Creating fine art photography offers challenges. To be successful we need to know what these challenges are and use effective strategies to cope with them. Strategies are proven, long term solutions designed to prevent specific problems. Here are some effective strategies:
23 - Learning to let it go is important.
We all started photography because we wanted to emulate the work of the master photographers we admire. Their work helped us because it provided inspiration and guidance. However, at some point we have to create work that is uniquely ours and not a copy of what the masters have done before. We need to become ourselves and do that we need to let go of past influences. You know when you are ready to let go when you find your work to be more exciting than the work of the masters.
24 - Vision Example: White Sands Sunrise
On a recent trip to White Sands National Monument in New Mexico I had a vision of space, vastness and immensity when looking at the giant expanse of white sand dunes. I also saw the dunes as a peaceful and quiet place. To represent this vision in my images I showed a large expanse of land using a panoramic format created by collaging four horizontal captures. Vegetation is scarce in the dunes and consists primarily of Yuccas. I included a single Yucca in this panorama because doing so gave a feeling of vastness that several Yuccas would not have achieved. I also minimized the size of this single plant because using a small size Yucca in a large sweeping panoramic image reinforces the concept of vastness and immensity. ??In regards to color palette I used colors of low saturation, light density and soft contrast because such a palette reinforces the concept of peacefulness and quietness that I wanted to express in this image. Soft, desaturated and light colors are peaceful and quiet while strong, saturated and dark colors are strong and vibrant. They shout while the ones I used in my panorama whisper. At times I want to create images that shout, but this time I wanted to whisper.
A comment on beauty?
A student once made the remark that a photograph can be just about beauty and that it does not need to contain metaphors about other things. This is certainly true. and beauty is definitely one of my main focus. The title of my website, beautiful-landscape.com, is a case in point in this regard. However, beauty does not have to be the only metaphor present in an image. There can be other metaphors that build upon the concept of beauty to enrich it and make it more than just ‘skin deep’ if you will. Such is the case here. Vastness, immensity, space, quietness and peacefulness are visual metaphors that build upon the concept of beauty. These concepts are all beautiful in my mind and are rendered as such in this image. Yet they are more than about beauty alone and in doing so they make the meaning of this image deeper and richer.
I also tried a semi-wide single capture with a higher contrast and saturation level. However, I find this attempt ineffective because the higher contrast and more saturated colors take away the feeling of quietness and peacefulness that I want to share. The two Yuccas are also less aesthetic and more ‘messy’ looking, further detracting from the effect I am after.
Using a relatively tight composition does not work in regards to expressing vastness and immensity. It does not leave enough room for the subject to breathe and it does not give enough room for the viewer to dream. The viewer’s eye cannot roam around. Instead, it is forced to look at the objects in the image over and over again, locking the viewer into a tight visual space. For some images this is exactly what is needed. But for this image I wanted to offer the viewer space to roam around because doing so gives the viewer the experience of being in the landscape, of looking right and left and of feeling lost in the immensity of the dunes, far away from everything.
If you look closely at the image above you will see the composition of the panoramic image. The single distant yucca featured in the panorama is located behind the two yuccas featured in the foreground of the horizontal single capture. What is interesting is that the entire panoramic composition is present in the single capture. However, this composition does not work because there is too much extraneous space and because the colors are inappropriate for the effect I was after.
Finally I tried a vertical panoramic composition before realizing that the horizontal panorama was more effective. While this is an interesting approach that works to some extent, it does not have the strength of vision that the horizontal panorama has. The color palette of this image is also less effective in creating the effect I was after, even though it is more appropriate than the palette of the single capture image.
Alain Briot - NPN 2054
Alain Briot creates fine art photographs, teaches workshops and offers DVD tutorials on composition, conversion, optimization, printing and marketing photographs. Alain is also the author of Mastering Landscape Photography. Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style and Marketing Fine Art Photography. All 3 books are available from Amazon and other bookstores as well from Alain’s website.
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