Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Comment about Comments and What is Art (Yet Again)

I've been reading Kirk Tuck's blog, The Visual Science Lab. As a working photographer Kirk always has something informative to say but lately he has shut off comments so I can't respond directly to his thoughts. I gather from what he says in his posts that he got tired (irritated/upset/PO'd) at some of the rude and abusive comments to his posts so he just turned off comments for the remainder of the year in order to be in a better mood for the holidays.

I can't say I blame him. My little blog doesn't seem to attract that sort of comment (it attracts few comments at all). The closest I've come is a reader suggesting that I don't know what I'm talking about. That's fine. It's his opinion and he is entitled to it. I've been photographing for well over a half century and spend considerable effort trying to be accurate. I firmly believe that in the case in point I am right but I'm open to someone demonstrating to me that I'm wrong. I moderate the comments on this blog, meaning I get them in an email before they get posted and they only get posted if I approve them. I approved his.

My standard for approval is that they are not abusive and/or blatant self promotion. I've been fortunate not to get any abusive comments but occasionally I get a "Great photo. You should see my site" followed by a link to another site which when I follow it takes me to a site selling something, a low class form of network marketing, frequently not even related to photography or anything else discussed here. Word to the wise: If you submit a pseudo compliment as a ploy to get a link to your site, it will be trashed, not posted, not even the compliment part. Further I only post links to other photographers sites if I believe their work has something to offer my readers. I welcome (civil) discussion and I am not above accepting flattery admiration if it isn't a cover for commercialism. Call me elitist, but hey, it's my blog.

And now on to the subject of "Art" (again).
Kirk brought up the subject of what makes a photograph art in one recent post and while I don't entirely disagree I feel he is taking too hard a line in coming out against "applied effects". Those who have followed my blog are aware that I do apply effects to some images so they may feel I'm just being defensive and maybe they are right. There have been times I have expressed some misgivings here about the relatively limited controls in some of the effects I used. On the other hand I do believe that some photos benefit from more than just a 'straight' treatment in order to tell their story.

Take the two photos in this post. They are both phone photos, shot with an app called Pencil Camera. Both are very simple images that would most likely be overlooked in a instant if not for the "random manipulation" of the phone app and the border I painted in Photoshop.  Sometimes it is necessary to add some drama or at least a different way of seeing a common subject to get the audience to look at it long enough to see what you are trying to show them. I see it as being like the writer or poet who approaches the ordinary from a very different perspective, using words in an unusual way to help the reader see beyond the superficial.

As I noted I am occasionally bothered by the relative randomness that Kirk refers to, algorithms written into software by anonymous engineers whose code is applied to your photo. It is random, or at least appears so, but I note that it is different in every image, apparently responding on some level to the subject matter. It is true that I am not the one controlling it but is total control the appropriate measure of art?

Traditional Japanese potters would not agree to that. Some of their most highly prized Raku and wood fired pottery is the result of what can only be called fortunate kiln accidents, flames touching the pot in just the right place creating patterns hoped for but unplanned by the potter, a collaboration between the fire and the potter. In Western art too there is the example of accident accepted as art, most notably in the paintings of Jackson Pollock who (it is said) "learned to trust gravity" in creating his paintings. There are those who question his standing in the art world (I would be among them) but the fact remains that art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. As one who has made Raku and has a couple of pieces that I can claim only partial credit for, the remainder being the product of smoke and fire that I could not precisely control, I have to accept that randomness in the application of technique can in fact result in art. Not always of course. But then I can't guarantee "art" even when everything is fully under my control. Nor do I know anyone who can.

In the end I think art is what happens when the 'artist' (if we may be so bold or pretentious to call ourselves such), the subject matter and the medium (whatever it is) come together in a fortuitous way that can be helped, but not assured, by long practice. At best it can increase the odds.

With that I wish one and all a happy holiday (Christmas, Hanukka, Solstice, Kwanza, or whatever you choose to celebrate) and the hope for a peaceful and prosperous New Year.


  1. Leslie Ashe5:49 PM

    I don't often comment on blogs but in light of your recent post felt I should at least say that I follow your blog and enjoy what you write and your photographs. For me the recent stand-out picture was "Old Made New".

    Best wishes

    Leslie Ashe

  2. Thanks Leslie, I'm glad you enjoy it. BTW My wife liked that photo a lot too.