Photography - Media, Materials, and Purpose

DSC_0282v3.jpgWarning - this is a philosophical post, not a technical post. It is not about right or wrong, not a value judgement, and certainly not a rant. Most of my rants are meant to be semi-sarcastic - I am old enough to know that that type of presentation is not widely received in a positive manner. This is my first and possibly only seriously post regarding the rarified subject of art and photography at the same time. I have spent a long time thinking about this subject and wrestling with it as so many others have in the past. You may know my taste at this point in time gravitates heavily toward photojournalistic images that bring every element that I consider to be the essential elements of still photographs together in a way that transcends the merely documentary with out any pretense, artifice, in their most pure and un-adulterated form. Obviously my thought process is flavored and biased by this - I will not argue that it is not. Now that the warning label is over let's get to the thoughts - spurred via an email conversation I had with a photographer that ran across some of my film/prints/art lesson posts.

Answer the following question for yourself - why do you take pictures? Really - why? Family or personal memories, recording historical evidence of things near and dear to you? Yes okay - probably pretty important maybe the most important reason to make photographs. Fantastic - what if what is near and dear to you is of interest to other people - even better because you now have an audience - if it is a big audience this might allow you to just do that thing and all will be well in the world. Can we agree on the above - the "near and dear part"? Let's call that class 1 images no matter how "good" they are and no matter what size your audience for those are.  It really does not matter what the subject matter is - if the audience size is one or the world - those images are important.

Let's move down the list to images of things that interest you in some way. Doesn't matter what the subject matter is - just that it interests you. The subject - not the end result of you making an image of the subject but the subject of the image in and of itself. In other words you would pay attention to what is in front of you and spend time doing so even if you had no agenda to make an image of some sort. The difference is that these subjects are not in the "near and dear" category. Of course they may also be interesting and relevant to other people as well. Let's call these class 2 images.

Down another notch is making images of subjects where you are way way more interested in the result you will achieve by making the image rather than the subject of the image itself. Now I was very specific in this description - I did not say NO interest in the subject - I said less interested in the subject than the result of you making the image. Let's say that can range from zero interest to right up to the point where it hits the same interest as the end result. Let's call these class 3 images.

Yes I know that was long and wordy - sorry about that. I do need to add one more condition to the above classifications. All of those classifications can have similar audiences and be equally as profitable - keyword is "can" but… The differentiator which is entirely a personal thing is that you absolutely would probably not be spending your time on class #3 type images if there was no reward in the end result - usually money but sometimes other currencies. Class #1 on the other hand is something you would be spending time on no matter what - images no images, reward or not. Finally Class #2 is hmmm, a maybe category maybe you would maybe you wouldn't be spending time on the subject if there were no image making involved - maybe you would - maybe there is some external reward for making the images you make maybe there isn't.

If we can agree above on the three arbitrary but general categories I have described then let's move on to assign "commercial" endeavors - this is where you make money from your images. This has nothing to do with classification 1, 2 or 3. It has to do with a personal evaluation because all of three have commercial potential - I did not nor would I assign a specific subject to a classification - it is all about your personal relationship to the images you shoot. Here is a secret - the vast majority of professionals make their living on class #3 images. I am not saying that they would rather be a ditch digger 0r a bank executive - maybe they would maybe they wouldn't but I can say that most of them make a living shooting class #3 subjects as related to themselves. Here is why - the market defines what you shoot and how you shoot it. The end.

There are a handful of photographers that make a living shooting class #2 images - they are very very lucky. If you make your living doing anything that could be class #2 subject matter you have it made in the shade and if you don't you are in the same boat as 90%+ too bad. There are very very very few people that make a living making class #1 image or doing class #1 anything - images are even tougher than other endeavors for a multitude of reasons.

If you do photography for the joy of it I would suggest you really really think through why the heck you would waste your time on anything remotely close to class #3 subject matter - further more I would suggest that you really examine how you treat (in terms of production, post  production, and presentation) the class #1 and class #2 images you decide to make and why you do what you do with them. They can serve a number of purposes - illustration of a story, instructional, evidentiary, documentary, or "art". Of course they can serve more than one purpose.

OOoops there is that word I warned you about - "ART". Means a lot of different things to a lot of different people - to some it is an "investment" and the investment part is what imbues the "value". To others it's exclusivity and the rarity is what makes it "valuable" to them - for others it is decorative in the sense that there is some aesthetic reason for it's existence as an object that may not be wholly dependent on it's own individual beauty or meaning but more part of the decor. Then there are thought precesses of art as beauty or meaning that is intertwined in some strange way.

If we take that last thought there are two schools of thought on "art" one that says the beauty and meaning is in the who and how,when, and the context of the object's making - not the object itself. The other is that the "art" is the object itself - as in what it looks like, what it is made out of, etc. No matter which school you subscribe to or a little bit of both you have to admit that a "reproduction" of such an object - no matter where it obtains it's value or how you define it's "artfulness" - the reproduction is somehow lesser than the real object. In fact I would go so far as to say that the espousers of the second school are a little wrong-headed, not my judgement, just my observation in none of those that subscribe to this put "value" on a reproduction - even a "perfect" reproduction. How can that be - you mean that even the object speaks for itself and has nothing to do with the artist people do not value perfect reproductions the same? Hmmm. There is a flaw in that thought process somehow, isn't there?

All of those words - just to bring the conversation to this point. I would go so far as to say that the only context a reproduction of "art" has is as a representation of the original if it has meaning and beauty as art in the first school of thought - who, how, when, effort, context, tools, medium, etc - not as a perfect or imperfect reproduction of the object itself. That brings us to the philosophical question of digital simulations of things that are not inherent in the digital image capture medium itself and where they belong in your personal photographic endeavors.

For class #3 images anything goes and anything is valid - for the most part they are ephemeral in nature they exist for one purpose only - to do a job and they they are disposable for both producers and consumers of those images when that purpose is done. The market dictates where things like digital grain simulations, and brushstrokes, etc, etc are "appropriate".

For class #1 and class #2 images that we make I really really question the utility, the purpose, and the motivation of the producer in the simulation of anything that is not inherent in the chosen capture and presentation medium. Digitally simulated grain? For what purpose? I am serious. If I want to go further maybe digital "Black and White" maybe not but it would be an interesting topic to discuss. Is it for purely decorative or "artistic" value? If it is then why not just use the medium that has those inherent properties? We are talking about class #1 and class #2 images here - not class #3. Is the motivation that they are personal art works? The subject is of interest to you and on top of that you feel the need to simulate some other properties it might have had if you have used another medium? Why? Are you trying to fool yourself or other people into beliving there is some sort of history or context or effort in the making of the "art" that there is not? Why does that make it better to you?  I am not making fun of anyone that does these things. It is a question I continue to wrestle with myself - for now I do not produce any end product that I consider class #1 or class #2 images to anyone anywhere for pleasure or profit that contain any simulations not inherent in the capture or delivery medium until I get to the bottom of this question for myself. I would love to hear others thought process on this - with the exception of class #3 images - market directed.

That brings me to digital "fine-art" photographers and why I make fun of this endeavor. I mock because I do not understand it's motivation, it's goal, most of it's subject matter, and the objects that are produced under this umbrella - with almost no exception the images produced simulate the characteristics of other mediums and therefor make absolutely no sense in ether school of thought on "art", they use a self imposed label of "fine-ART" but seem to possess no characteristics that make art worth much - either school of thought, and that seems to me to fall into class #3 images because the primary motivation of production seems to be to sell prints.  I am still waiting for someone to explain how they don't. But… But… The object - C'est magnifique - well only in the sense that a CNC, laser produced machine part will blow the crap out of the finest 15th century craftsmanship but it is not the same thing as a renaissance sculpture in terms of an object d'art. Sort of defeats the whole purpose does it not? Pointless?

I will wrap this never ending 2000 word post up with a question, I have asked a few so far and really would love to hear your answers. This one is more of a multiple choice on so it's easy.

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