Something out of Nothing

composite art

A great image is more than a subject. Sometimes the obvious subject itself fades to the back and the overall effect of the art becomes dominant. I would call this making something out of nothing.

Geoffrey James, a Canadian photographer, has said “A photograph is more than its subject. The real challenge is to make something out of nothing.” He goes on to say “it used to be everything had to be beautiful, picturesque”, but he was now making images where the subject (something beautiful) was not the notable part of the picture.

I don’t exactly subscribe to his vision, but the phrase captured me.

I find myself frequently making something out of nothing. It’s subtle and difficult to explain. It is not normally about the beauty of a subject. And it is not “it didn’t work in color, try black & white“.

Liberated from reality

I am a fine art photographer. (the term is actually distasteful to me; I consider myself an artist who uses digital media, but that’s a subject for another article.) This is extremely liberating.

One of the things this means to me is that the pixels I capture with the camera are just raw material. I am free to transform them any way I wish to create art. The resulting image may be “about” something entirely different than the original capture. Occasionally I see an opportunity to composite 2 or more images to make something different. I love doing this and I am sometimes surprised at the result.

Back in my early learning curve, I was active in my local photography club. It was great experience and a good organization, except for certain aspects of the competitions. They were narrowly focused on the “purity” of the image. It could have some minor spotting and color correction and cropping, but that was about it. In other words, about what you could do in a chemical darkroom. I’m afraid I generated quite a controversy when I submitted (and won a blue ribbon for) a digitally manipulated image what had some serious warping applied. That was the beginning of my break from any assumption that an image should be “as shot”.

The joy of Photoshop

What a time to be an image maker! Photoshop is a marvelous tool for working with images. There are other tools, but I do not use them so I will not try to act like I know anything about them.

Photoshop brings us almost infinite control over our pixels. It is far better control than the best darkroom masters ever had. We can adjust tone precisely and in totally localized regions. We can adjust color balance and tint in the most subtle or extreme degrees. It allows us to color grade, convert to black & white, remove distractions, selectively sharpen, warp and distort the pixels, and basically do anything possible with pixels. Pixels are raw material.

So images are now completely malleable. There is no reason to stop processing an image until it is exactly what we see in our mind’s eye. When we get done, the image might have a completely different “meaning” or effect than the original. It has been fashioned into a different piece of art.

What do pixels mean?

This has been a difficult transition for me. Coming out of a background that valued a respect for the image “as shot”, it has been hard to give myself permission to push the original image into something completely different. But this is what art is really about. And I love it!

In one sense, pixels are just pixels – a grid of little colored spots. They are a resource the artist has available to work with. Like paint on a canvas, they are there for whatever the artist wants to make of them. If the intent is to enhance the original image, that is great. If the artist wants to shape them into something completely different, that is their privilege and joy.

We are no longer “stuck” with the image we captured. We can make it into something entirely different. In that sense, we make something out of nothing.

If I have misused Mr. James’ quote, I apologize to him. I transformed the raw material through my own values and perspective and made something out of nothing.

Note

Please let me know what you think and what topics you would like me to address. I value your comments.

Art or Craft?

Headlights on a mountain road at sunset

Is photography a “pure” art or is it a craft? One of the arguments against photography is it is too quick and easy. Anyone can do it. It only takes a moment, not days or weeks to create. Let’s examine that.

It’s a medium

Photography is a medium. It is a technology for expressing images. It seems to me that any medium that produces the results the artist wants is a valid medium. I know people with formal training in painting who switched to photography because it better expresses what they want. I have also known people to go the other way, moving to painting after doing photography. That indicates they are equivalent medium.

Any art form is a craft

An artist is a craftsman. To be at the top of your field you have to develop an excellent ability to use the medium you have selected. For photography that is one thing that distinguishes the person who “just takes pictures” from the artist. A tremendous depth of craft and technique has to be mastered to make great fine art photography. I have used photoshop for nearly 20 years and I am still learning new ways to use it all the time. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t spend some time learning and practicing to improve my craft.

What is art vs. craft?

Some have said that art is based on creativity while craft is skilled application of technique. Something you learn from practice. That is a little obscure, basically that if you build the same things over and over it is a craft. Hmm….. That might sweep out a lot of artists.

Most of us have an inherent understanding of the difference between art and craft, even if we can’t articulate it clearly. Hardly anyone would claim that selfies at Disney World are art.

The harder part seems to be asking ourselves if the “art” we are presented is really art. What is that indefinable but perceptible thing that takes a work from just a well executed piece of craft to being called art? We often call it creativity, but that is hard to define. But we all have our values and preferences. I know the things I call art. I’ll leave it to you to define your own.

The point for this blog, though, is that the question of art or craft is independent of the media.

Photography is too easy

The story here is that you just point at something, click the shutter and you have an image you are trying to sell as art. It was too quick and easy. You have to suffer for art. It isn’t art unless it required hours of labor.

So if it is easy it’s not art? But a good painter thinks painting is easy. A good sculptor thinks sculpting is easy. A good writer thinks that is the hardest thing in the world. Oops – wrong argument. The point is that easy is relative and subjective.

It seems to me the discussion should revolve around did you, could you, would you. Did you take a picture just like that? Or did you look past it? Could you have done this? Ignoring the “my kid could have painted something like this splotch of color” reactions, could you really have captured this image? Do you have the technical knowledge, the equipment, the time to invest, the image processing skill, and the eye to have seen and composed the image? And would you? Would you really see this, or would you have walked by in a fog of busy thoughts that occupy most of us too much?

Capturing an image in the way the artist wants it can take days, months, even years. Realize that some of the images you quickly dismiss were long term projects. And for an artist, an image is never finished out of the camera. Each one requires extensive processing. This is one of the great creative processes in photography.

Are you ready to say it can’t be art unless it was hand carved from marble?

It’s a creative act

The same amount of creativity goes into photography as any other work that considers itself art. The technology may be very different, the process may be different, but it is still creativity. Creativity is hard and requires a lot of work on the part of the artist. Good art is art and craft. There is something that sets some works apart as not just craft. It is easy to recognize but hard to define.

Because it is so hard to define, be careful. It is fair to say that an image doesn’t appeal to you. Be careful judging that it is not art.

Pretty Pictures

If I call myself an artist, am I allowed to take “pretty pictures”? If you look at fine art galleries and catalogs the answer seems to be no. Some would say I am not an artist if my images are pretty.

I know. I know. This is a long standing conflict. The modernists and postmodernists and surrealists and photojournalists and conceptual and fashion and even environmental activists have seized the microphone and control the dialog right now. According to their designated gatekeepers, “prettiness” is not a worthwhile reason for an image’s existence. It should have deep meaning or angst or futility or confront the evils of modern civilization.

I can’t wholeheartedly support the politically correct party line here. People are wired to perceive beauty. No, beauty is not in the eyes of the beholder. That is a silly notion. There are objective notions of beauty that most people share, regardless of race or culture – a sunset, flowers, waterfalls, mountains, the ocean, certain facial features, human bodies, etc. We are all drawn to these. Even, I believe, the most hard core postmodernist. There may not be much agreement about truth, but there is actually surprising agreement about beauty.

So if we all react to it and we share such common appreciation of beauty, why is it rejected? I think there are a couple of reasons.

First, I think the guild of artists is trying to protect their turf. Everybody who picks up a camera (or phone) rushes to take pretty pictures, so, by implication, it must not be something an artist would do. If everybody is doing it it must not be special; it must not be very valuable. Besides, if 4 billion pretty pictures are taken a day, how can I stand out as an artist?

Second, most artists want to be taken seriously. In the current vernacular this involves being gritty, dark, bland, sometimes ugly, confrontational, challenging. By going the opposite direction of the mainstream we show that we are different. Maybe that makes us an artist. We need to be elitist, above our audience and leading them.

There is some truth to all of these statements. It is necessary for an artist to stand out from the crowd in order to be seen and to make a living. Art is a business. Having a differentiator is good business.

But we should lighten up a bit. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We need an edge to differentiate ourselves, but acknowledge that beauty is still beauty. I may create some totally abstract, even surreal images in the name of “art”, but I am a sucker for a beautiful sunset. I have to shoot it, even if I know I may never show it to anyone. Maybe it’s partly because I am fortunate to live in Colorado where I am surrounded by beauty: mountains, plains, waterfalls, snow, etc. Within 40 miles of my house I go through many of the major climate zones of the country, from high desert to tundra. I love it. And I shoot it. It may not be what the “serious” artists would call art, but I love it and can’t resist.

Is it really art, though? If it is art to me, it is. And if I can create something a little bit above the norm, maybe other people will see it as art, too. I take it fairly slow and disciplined, asking myself “why am I wanting to take this?” I try to come up with a slightly different treatment of the subject. But those are refinements. The truth is I may be taking the picture because it is beautiful to me.

The image accompanying this article is a minor example. I just loved it. That’s why I stopped to take it. Sure, it was the time of day, the stark old barn, the bleakness and loneliness, the composition of the cloud formations, the expanse of the Colorado plains; these and other things. But what grabbed me was the beauty I perceived at the moment. I couldn’t. help myself.

Bottom line is that sometimes beauty triumphs. Beauty is beauty and it is worthwhile even if it is not bringing any “deep” message. We need more beauty in our world.

Technology is Important

Technology is important in photography, maybe more than most other arts. I sometimes hear photographers say “I’m not interested in the technology; I just want to make pictures.” This seems to usually have one of 2 meanings: either they really do know the technical side but they are making an exaggerated statement to say that artistic considerations are more important, or they really don’t consider the technology. This later group is needlessly limiting their potential.

The term “photography” comes from Greek words meaning “writing with light”. It is a good name. Photography is unique among arts in that (for the most part) we start by capturing something that is there in front of the camera. Most other visual arts start with a blank canvas and the image has to be built from scratch by the artist. I’m not arguing that this makes photography more of less valuable than, say, painting. Just that the process is different.

Since we are capturing something that exists, we must know how to use the tools we have to maximize our success. Taking digital image capture as the norm, there is the lens, the camera body, the image correction process, and the creative manipulation process. Modern photography absolutely requires a good computer system.

  • Lens : The focal length and maximum f/stop determine the envelope of what can be captured for a certain scene. The focal length sets the magnification or “cropping” or framing of the subject. The f/stop choice determines the depth of field — the relative amount of the field of view that is in acceptable focus. They also interact to control the amount of light entering in to the camera sensor.
  • Camera body: In a typical modern camera this controls the exposure, the focus, the shutter speed, the image capture, and the initial image processing. Exposure is a combination of the ISO speed (the relative sensitivity setting of the sensor), the aperture, and the shutter speed. The image is captured on the sensor, a large silicon chip. The sensor is perhaps the most critical piece of technology in the system. It has a maximum number of pixel it can capture and a dynamic range — the range of brightest to darkest data it can record. The data coming from the sensor is not the image ready for viewing. It must have sophisticated and high speed processing done to it before it can be written to the memory card or even previewed on the back of the camera.
  • Image correction: Even after the processing done in the camera, every image needs some correction. This is not a flaw, it is a required part of the process. Typical processing at this stage include color correction, a little bit of sharpening, some tone correction (e.g. reduce highlights and/or raise shadows), and cropping.
  • Creative manipulation: This is a later stage of processing, maybe using in the same software; maybe not. This may include tone mapping, black & white conversion, removing extraneous objects, compositing images together, blurring, sharpening, and many other operations.
  • I’m not even considering here the final output. This can be prints, web postings, stock images, etc.

This is neither a tutorial of digital processing or meant to scare you away from photography. It is just stating what is involved to do a better than average job.

The point is that a good artist will have an excellent working knowledge of every one of these steps. Each one is an important factor in determining the final outcome. You have to become very familiar with your tools. It is necessary to work with them over and over for so many repetitions that they are second nature. An artist must make dozens of conscious decisions, often in a fraction of a second, in the dark, or in bad weather, to get the result they envisioned. This might be heresy to many, but my opinion is that an old camera you are intimately familiar with is better than a sophisticated new camera that you don’t know how to use quickly. (So get the new camera and spend a lot of time learning it 🙂

Any visual art involves making things. Making things requires tools. A good artist learns their tools well. This is one of the things that separates the good ones from the mediocre. When I hear someone say “I don’t do technology” I interpret it to mean “I’m not serious about my art.” Is that unfair? Not to me, but let me know what you think.