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The Problem with Cameras

Cameras are technical devices and, to a significant degree, can be configured to work in automatic mode with little input from a user, except perhaps, pointing it in a specific direction and pressing the shutter release; however, these too can be automated. It is this sophisticated engineering, mechanics, software and automation that makes it difficult for viewers to notice or appreciate decisions by the artist and accept the resultant image as authentic artwork. Fine art photographers have an uphill battle defining their role in the creation of their artwork; even the esteemed Ayn Rand was ill informed regarding photography as art. From The Romantic Manifesto, Ayn Rand states:

A certain type of confusion about the relationship between scientific discoveries and art, leads to a frequently asked question: Is photography an art? The answer is: No. It is a technical, not a creative, skill. Art requires a selective re-creation. A camera cannot perform the basic task of painting: a visual conceptualization, i.e., the creation of a concrete in terms of abstract essentials. The selection of camera angles, lighting or lenses is merely a selection of the means to reproduce various aspects of the given, i.e., of an existing concrete. There is an artistic element in some photographs, which is the result of such selectivity as the photographer can exercise, and some of them can be very beautiful—but the same artistic element (purposeful selectivity) is present in many utilitarian products: in the better kinds of furniture, dress design, automobiles, packaging, etc. The commercial art work [sic] in ads (or posters or postage stamps) is frequently done by real artists and has greater esthetic value than many paintings, but utilitarian objects cannot be classified as works of art.

Ayn Rand’s opinion on artwork versus technical creation is valid and many photographic disciplines pursue perfection in documenting how a subject appeared at a moment in time with disdain for any injection of creativity or opinion by the camera operator. The notion of the camera as a tool used to document an event, for instance, as used by a newspaper photographer, is widely accepted. Ms. Rand’s deeper point, that a painter must conceptualize prior to painting (because the canvas is blank) is termed previsualization in photography i.e., the photographer deciding what and how to photograph from his or her mental vision; previsualization is conceptualization. The assertion a camera is limited to angles, lighting or lenses conveniently overlooks the role of the photographer. Cameras do not decide what to photograph; it is purely a function of the human mind envisioning an image and then using a tool to create it. The mental image may arise from the landscape in front of the photographer, spring from a childhood memory, spark from emotion and so on. If photography were limited to merely angles, lenses, lighting, then there would be a finite potential, and, to the contrary, photographic creativity surprises time and again. Humans use tools to create. A sophisticated tool, such as a camera, does not make its resultant creation any less creative; any statement to the contrary is ill informed.

I further posit that many painters (all painters that I know) work from a photograph and their artwork is no less authentically artistic because they painted from a photograph. This fact presents an interesting conundrum for Ayn Rand; if a painter paints from a photograph, is the painting a “copy” of a photograph? Were Ayn Rand alive, I imagine her dismissing me (a devotee) and ending the conversation out of frustration, as she often did when challenged with facts she could not refute. Photographer Galen Rowell’s Inner Game of Outdoor Photography hammers home the fact that photography is art and I highly recommend it for any serious fine art photographer.

Photographers are often considered stepchildren in the artworld. Besides seething jealousy of unaccomplished painters, who feel threatened by photographic clarity or the ability to rapidly reproduce a photograph in either the chemical darkroom or digitally, rareness and collectability are also very different for photographs than for a painting or sculpture. I have not even mentioned Photoshop and how software further complicates photography because some shun adjustments to photographs; every photograph is edited before the final version. As a fine art photographer, I must work harder at being creative because the camera can do so much on its own.


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