Approaching Photographic Art – Common Misconceptions

We are living in the the digital age and practically everyone has camera in the pocket with the telephone. There are now trillions of pictures all over the internet for each and any keyword. Which ones of them are art and which ones not?
Many photographers -and to a lesser degree viewers and colllectors- still mix up technical quality and artistic value and with this kill their own creativity. I wrote about this before. Now I want to adress a few more misconceptions, more from the viewers‘ point.

A photo showcasing the bright lights of Soho in central HK in the night. A man with a yellow binder and a car in the foreground

South of Hollywood

Quite common is the shortcut to assume only black and white photos qualify as art whereas colour photography is automatically disqualified.
In film times black and white had an advantage as the film and the print could be heavily manipulated which is impossible with colour film. This gave the photographer
the freedom to decide how much contrast would be in the final print or the possibility to lighten or darken certain areas of the print. This required advanced dark room knowledge and experience and ample time. Therefore original prints of great black and white photos are rare and unique. But rarity should not be confused with artistic value. Today photography is digital, with very few exemptions and with this nearly always reproducible art, just like literature or music. The reproducibility reduces the price of the individual print but does not affect the artistic value. How many copies of Tolstoy’s „War and Piece“ or Miles Davies’ „Kind of Blue“circulate currently? It does not affect the artistic value. By the way it is worth pointing out that black and white shooting is much easier than Colour as only one of two dimensions of light, tonal value, needs to be addressed.

In the digital age a few people now believe in the rule that only „unmanipulated“ pictures qualify as art. First, let me point out that this is somehow the opposite of the worship of Monochrome as explained above! All these classic BW pictures look so great because they were manipulated in the darkroom. Second, assuming that an „unmanipulated“ picture exists relies on the assumption of an unambiguous visual reality which simply does not exist. The manipulation starts when we decide for an exposure which could produce a very dark or a very light picture or everything in between. No, it even starts before, it starts when we take a phot. Seeing with a human eye is very different to photography. A camera passively records light whereas seeing is an active scanning process with interference and extrapolation of our mind. In fact, all digital pictures are already processed by the computer inside the camera. And this includes RAW files. If we skip postprocessing in Photoshop or other software we just rely on the standard settings of the camera manufacturer. And this is certainly only a disadvantage.

Henri Cartier-Bresson is widely considered to be one of the greatest photographers. He first voiced the opinion that only pictures taken with a focal length of 35mm or 50mm can be art. Later some people changed to mildly different rules such as 28-35 or 28-85 or … The rational behind is that these focal lengths are most similar to the human field of view. The angles and dimensions of around 80mm are roughly how we see things but as we actively scan our field resembles more a 28mm lense. So these rules assume that the more realistic a photo is the better it gets, which is a very restrictive approach to art. Painters and even cinematographers and their audience would find such an approach ridiculous.
Conveniently for photographers who follow such rules, these focal lengths are technically much easier to shoot than long tele lenses which are difficult to focus or very wide angles which are difficult to frame. I suspect that the proponents of a restrictive focal lengths follow their laziness and timidity.

Some of the most striking pictures violate all these quick rules. For example Saul Leiter often used tele lenses and usually shot colour. And he was certainly not inferior to Cartier-Bresson.
We should not approach art with rules. Art is about emotions, about stories about getting moved and changed. The artist should use her or his art to express who she or he is and her or his opinion about the subject of the art. The mindset of the viewer of art should be open and curious.
What did the photographer see? What did he or she feel? Why is this remarkable? Addressing these questions leads the photographer to great pictures and the viewer to appreciate great pictures and to differentiate them from random snaps.
And further, art is about the unusual. If we do not embrace the unusual, the diversity and the surprise we loose so much.