Tuesday, November 15, 2011

is it truly photography? is it truly art?

What makes photography a piece of artwork? Is it the lighting? How about the subject of the piece? Surely, creativity, composition and other elements of the photograph are things to consider but what truly makes it a work of art? What is it that separates the typical photograph from the masterpiece that hangs on walls of galleries? Before I answer that take a good look at the photo here and think to yourself, is it true photography? Is it art?

Without further ado...

The 80's

As a child my parents recognized my aptitude for art, specifically, drawing and painting. They then decided to enroll me in a weekend program in a very nice part of the city. A "yuppie" part of town as it would have been called in the 80's. In hindsight, I'm guessing the school wasn't cheap.

It was a small class, maybe fifteen other students if I remember correctly. Each of us had our own easel. I arrived early every Saturday morning, wondering what it would be that we would be creating, or recreating for that matter. Placed in the center of the room would be that day's subject. Typically, it would be a vase filled with fresh flowers or something along those boring lines. I used to hope that one morning a naked woman would be center stage. I guess the class may have been a bit too young for that. A boy can dream right?

After a given amount of time, the professor would then walk around the room, critiquing each piece with no remorse. I recall trembling as she would get close to my station.

Some days I was better than others. Some days I just purely sucked. Why? First of all, at that age, I think I'd rather have been out on the South Philly streets with my hoodlum friends causing chaos in any way we could imagine. Second, and most importantly, even at that young age, I had the strange feeling that what we were doing in that class wasn't really art. I mean I'm sure it is depending on how you look at it. Semantics I suppose. I just felt that all of us painting the same flowers positioned in different ways, day in and day out, wasn't too artistic. Hey, who the hell am I? I was just a kid? Shut up and paint, right?

I didn't last too long in that class as I was more interested in running from the police and getting into as much trouble as humanly possible. Ah, the good old days.

The 90's

Enter the world of high school and things changed even more. It was early on that I took some art classes, blowing away the competition. Therein is where lied the problem. I typically finished my projects much quicker than the other students. What remained in each class, five days a week, was free time. Time for me to get myself into trouble. It wasn't uncommon that I would get thrown out of that class and sent to the principal's office (Jeez, I hope my parents aren't reading). At the end of that year my teacher pulled me aside and explained to me that she was going to send me to an advanced art program but due to my attitude and behavior, she went against her instincts. I really didn't care too much as I was usually bored in these classes. You see, I wasn't that type. Although artistic, I was also a jock. From my early days, I was always involved in sports, no matter what game it was. It was the same time that I was getting bored with that elementary art class that the high school football coach approached me and asked me to try out. I obliged.

My art career was soon in my past. I couldn't have been more relieved. Those weird artistic hippies weren't my cup of tea anyway. All of my friends played ball and that's where I needed to be and I was good at it. I spent my years as a D-tackle, kill the QB. And that I did. As bad as it sounds, my job was to hurt people and I was good at it, hell, I even enjoyed it. Those sissy artsy hippies would never understand what it was I would do on a football field.

[Wasn't this supposed to be about what is art and what isn't? Yes yes, relax, I'm getting there]

Still the 90's With Some 2000's Thrown In

Ok, It was in the mid 90's when I graduated high school and soon after that I went off to college. Art, although a distant thought, used to pop up in my mind from time to time. I decided somewhere in my extended stay at the university, the six year plan, if I recall correctly, I decided to take an art class. More specifically, art history. I do admit, it wasn't the most exciting class ever. It consisted mostly of short films and slide shows. I remember seeing some artists' very famous work and thinking how I could have done that with my eyes closed. Here's the kicker, I didn't, they did. Period. 

It was in that class that my views of art had taken a dramatic turn. My days of criticizing art that I thought was weak had ended. I had a new appreciation for art, no matter what medium it was made with. Think about it. Jackson Pollock, the guy who simply splattered paint on a canvas was so very famous. Myself and many others thought how little abilities went into his work. Maybe so. Maybe it didn't take him long to create each piece but it probably took him some time to decide to go for it. Before he splattered that paint, no one else had. His idea was original, unique and creative. No matter how easily it was or could have been achieved, no one else did it. He did. Is it art? Sure is. Nobody else had the thoughts to make such a painting. 

Now, I'm not a fan of Pollock by any means. This is not to say I don't appreciate his works. Just not my style. I always explain that to my wife who is very in tune with the artistic community. Just because a work of art is a work of art does not mean I have to love it. Same goes for music. Music is an art form itself. Just because a song is famous beyond belief does not mean that I have to like it. On the other hand, I still appreciate it. I appreciate the work that the artist put into that medium to make it stand out from the crowd. I appreciate that the artist made in its simplest or most complex form, art.

In The 2000's, Just Not Sure When 

Aside from a simple art history class in college, I had little involvement with any form of art, besides music and movies of course. Yes, those are forms of art. Thinking back, I basically lost all touch with art the day that teacher denied me access to the advanced class due to my behavior. Probably something I should share with a therapist. 

It was a few years back, not exactly sure of the exact date or year, that I became very interested in art via the medium of photography. I was a bartender in Center City Philadelphia. One Saturday night while walking home I saw a homeless man sitting under a high rise canopy, trying to stay out of the rain. I had a cell phone with a camera built in. That was some state of the art stuff. It was probably a whopping 1 megapixel, if I had to guess. I captured a fantastic image of this man sleeping on the street. I looked at this picture often, wanting to make more. My artistic flame had been relit. Ironically, it was soon after that a friend of mine, we will call him John Doe, came to the bar with a large box. He was, and probably still is, in the business of getting some high end products at very low prices. Brand new at that. It's what they call, "off the back of a truck." I won't go into any more details as I don't want the law man or the Cosa Nostra to come knocking on my door. Needless to say, I bought my first brand new Canon DSLR. Albeit a Rebel, it would suffice for the time being. 

I new I wanted to enter the world of photography. That homeless man kept entering my mind. I wanted to make new and, most importantly, unique photographs. Photographs that would make people stop and look for a while. 

Before ever taking that camera out of its box, I read the instruction manual from cover to cover. I've never used a DSLR. In the past I've used some old Polaroids and fooled around with some beat up 35mm cameras but never had I held something so advanced. Sure I've had some higher end digital point and shoots but they didn't compare to my new monster. I had to learn how to use this thing the right way, no automatic modes. I made that pact with myself. And to this day, none of my DSLRs have ever been in any form of automatic mode. Control the camera, don't let the camera control you. 

I engaged myself with books and websites, learning about exposure, light, composition, etc. My brain was sucking this stuff up like a sponge. I was loving how I could be creative and technical at the same time. Both sides of my easily distracted brain would have to be constantly working simultaneously. This form of art was for me. 

Fast Forward

As my skills over the years, with a camera, have improved, so has my appreciation for what makes a photograph, art. There are some photos that I study so closely, so in depth, that I sometimes lose track of time. I try to put myself in the photographer's shoes. I think of how they came up with the concept. How it was executed. I reverse engineer their lighting scenarios. Most of all, I learn from them. 

If you are thinking that the bulk of this post is one huge digression from my main point, well, maybe you're right. I just couldn't help but dig deep into my brain and pull out some things that have put me onto today's path, today's journey. 

With all of what I've written in or out of mind, let's focus on the photograph above. Hmmm. You can clearly see that it is of a person urinating into a dirty toilet. If you had to guess, you'd probably guess that the person doing the evacuation is of the male gender. More importantly, is it art? Like I mentioned earlier, Pollock, who splattered paint, when no one else thought to do such a thing, was labeled a genius of an painter. Now, I'm not trying to compare myself to Jackson Pollock but I am trying to point out one similarity. Originality. This shot is not one of my favorites, in terms of technique, but I do think it is original. Maybe there is something like it out there but I haven't seen it. The idea came to me, I grabbed the gear and went for it. I created something unique. That is what art and photography are all about. 


I wouldn't be me if I didn't share how I made the photo herein. I didn't add any strobes to the photo. I was working with pure ambient from the awful tungsten lights of the bathroom. The light was low so I had to jack up the ISO to 1600, in hopes of getting a decent shutter speed. I ended up shooting it at f/4.0 at a shutter of 1/20 of a second. I have to say it was tough to steady the camera while, well, you know. 

I don't recall what it was I did in post but I went a little crazy. From first glance I notice that I added some vignette and tonal contrast. I messed with the curves and white balance a bit to get the desired effect. Looks like I bumped up the blacks to increase the "thickness" of the image. I've been doing that a lot lately. I think that it gives photos a very needed richness. 


The moral of the story if there ever was one? Art in the photography form, or any form for that matter, is simply this: if you are making something that has never been done before, don't worry about the fact that it may not follow all the rules of technique, composition, exposure, whatever. The fact that you made a one of a kind will separate your work from the rest of the herd. 

Get out there and create.