I find myself pondering this question a lot these days. More and more I believe the answer to “is it interesting?” overrides many considerations of composition and technique. This is a personal judgment, of course. as is the question of what is interesting.
Art is almost as much about our training as it is about our natural creativity. We all start somewhere, whether we have formal training or we are self taught. When we are learning a skill or an art we concentrate on the mechanics first.
The tendency is to focus our attention on what we are trying to master. This is natural. What we should recognize, though, is that we may not really be making art in the process. Yes, it is art in the sense that we create it as art, but it is not a mature and well rounded style yet.
Photography is possibly the most technical of the normal arts. We have to master many layers of technology to get skilled at the craft. There is the camera with its hundreds of settings and controls, each of which may help us make a great image or a terrible one. Then there is the computer system required to store and process the image. And the software we choose to use for managing and editing the image. If you are taking it all the way to the end of the chain, there is the whole printing process to learn.
Each of these areas is a huge field that could require years of study to master.
If this is where you are, plow into it. Work through the learning process. Get to the point where the camera is a comfortable tool that you can use with little thought. Ideally you should be able to adjust all the major setting in the dark, just by feel.
The image processing software is probably an even bigger challenge. Photoshop is one of the deepest tools I have ever used, and that is from the point of view of a long career in very complex software development. There are only a few people in the world I know of who totally “know” Photoshop. Julianne Kost comes to mind, but then she is the chief Photoshop evangelist for Adobe. It is her full time job to be able to train people on any aspect of it. Others at about that level are Ben Willmore and Dave Cross. I study and use Photoshop hours a week but I will never get to their level.
But the good thing is, I don’t have to be a Ben Willmore. As long as I know enough to realize my artistic vision, I’m OK. I know of excellent and successful photographers who I consider to have only a rudimentary knowledge of the tools. They know enough to do what they want to do. I personally can’t be happy unless I feel I have mastered my tools enough to comfortably use them as an extension of my creativity. So I study a lot. But that is just my own burden.
It should be about creating interesting art, not our ability to use the tools.
The next major pillar of image making is composition. It is another thing that can become a lifelong study in itself. We can burrow into art history, visual theory, Gestalt psychology, and all manner of ideas and opinions.
We start with only an intuitive feel for good composition, based on art we have seen and our inherent notions of what we like. Probably we cannot express in words what good composition is. As we study and practice we get to where we have a more formal view of it. We can critique our own or other images in terms of their design. Eventually, we can compose our images intuitively, without much conscious thought. We can repeatedly produce compositions that please us.
Keep in mind that most of this time, we are producing images that are now technically “correct” and have “good” composition. But maybe nobody wants to look at them yet.
Is it interesting?
This idea was clarified for me in a book about poetry. (Writing Poems, Robert Wallace. The link is for a later edition of the book) Weird, huh? It is a book about writing poetry rather than a regular book of poems. I find hints and ideas to improve and better understand my art from all sorts of diverse sources.
The author made the statement that if the poem is not interesting, what good is it? It can have wonderful form, metaphor, irony, symbolism, etc., but if it is not interesting, no one will read it.
I believe there is something here to apply to our art.
I have seen, and made, too many technically perfect, classically composed images of … nothing memorable. While I value sharp, well executed images, and pleasing compositions with flow and leading lines and great light, I have come to realize that is not enough by itself to really be art. This is, of course, just my personal opinion. But then all art is a personal opinion. 🙂
When you have mastered the basics I suggest you first visualize something that will make a memorable image. Then use your acquired skill to capture it perfectly. Don’t just work on technique. You’re better than that.