Weekend Rumination – Is Photography Art?

I am sitting in a hotel room as I write this, currently teaching my fourth workshop of the summer with a wonderful group of students from across Canada and the United States.  It is late, I should go to sleep, but I really need to write.  Much like making images and playing guitar, writing is a muscle that I need to flex every now and then.  I have so many new images to share with you from Amsterdam, Paris, Vancouver and Toronto, along with so many new stories to tell, but I haven’t had time to edit and process those images yet; so, for tonight, I’d just like to ruminate briefly about a discussion that was triggered by my last blog post.  This discussion centred around the question of whether photographers are artists or craftsman.  

Before we get started, I think it is important to note that ultimately definitions like artist or craftsman are irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.  They are wholly subjective, with countless varying opinions, when what really matters is what we DO and not what we call it.  Having said that, it is an interesting question and I think that the answer depends on a lot of factors.  Perhaps we could use an analogy from my past as a starting point:

I have played guitar for 32 years and was a professional musician for 8 years.  During that time, I had the pleasure of playing with many talented people who usually fell into two categories.  The first category included people who were technical wizards on their instrument, who could play any song asked of them to perfection.  Other people’s songs, that is.  Many of the people I would consider to be in this category never wrote their own music, rarely improvised solos, didn’t jam… they simply played other people’s music (albeit exceptionally well).  There is absolutely nothing wrong with this of course (I would actually put myself into this category to a degree as performing other people’s music in a rock/blues cover band was a very good source of income for me).  The other category of people I played with, however, simply embodied music.  They lived it.  They breathed it.  They wrote it.  They created it.  They collaborated and shared their work.  Simply put, everything about them WAS musical and there was no way they could be called anything but artists.

Now, were both groups of people musicians in the truest sense of the word?

When I think of the photographic craftsman versus the photographic artist, as discussed in the above noted conversation, I think it really comes down to creative vision and intention.  Is the photographer who replicates a scene in front of them with an iPhone an artist?  Some would argue no.  Is there anything wrong with simply documenting life though?  Absolutely not, it is actually very important that we do that very thing.

I have a friend who once took a job working for a company that specialized in high volume school portraits.  At the time she knew very little about photography, but was given a detailed list of instructions that involved dialing in the same settings on the camera and strobe every time.  She was taught to arrange the “set” the same way every time too,  right down to using a pre-cut length of rope to ensure that the lights, camera, and posing stool were all the same distance apart so that the exposure was consistent.  She would spend each day posing every child the same way, clicking the shutter enough to ensure that there was no blinking, then move on to the next child.

Is this art?

I have another friend who is a rock star real estate photographer.  He times his exterior shots to capture the best ambient light.  He uses several off camera flashes to strategically light his interior shots.  His post processing is diligent and exceedingly well done.  He takes extreme pride in his work, but would be the first to admit that real estate photography is simply a pay cheque gig for him.  By his own definition he is a craftsman, and a damn fine one at that.

Maybe the question should be:  when does the craft of photography become the art of photography?

Take a portrait photographer who sees a finished image in their mind, who then goes out and casts the right model, hair stylist, makeup artist, wardrobe stylist, etc to ensure that the shoot goes off as imagined.  Take this same photographer, who then meticulously processes the images to create what he or she saw in their mind.  Is this not analogous to the painter who envisions something and then physically creates it with a brush and paint?  Is this not art?  Surely art should be defined by the creative intention behind it and not simply by the medium used to create it?  Indeed, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines art as:

“the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects“

I think the most important part is the phrase “creative imagination”.  Perhaps the photographer moves from craftsman to artist when they make the shift from simply documenting what is in front of their lens to creatively visualizing and then producing what they see in their heart and in their mind.  Today, when I was teaching, I saw an absolutely amazing looking woman walk down the street toward us.  I immediately saw the finished image in my mind, shot low with her green dress and red hair set against a black building near us.  I only had 3 or 4 seconds to shift position, adjust my camera settings, position myself low and shoot the image as she passed.   The craft of photography certainly allowed me to capture the image, but surely the art of photography is what enabled me to see it in the first place?

As stated above, this is purely a semantic discussion when you really think about it.  We need fewer definitions in art, not more, and readers of this site know that I am not one to pigeonhole or rigidly define things.  At the end of the day the only thing that should really matter is how your photography makes you feel and how it serves you.  If the camera brings you joy and satisfaction, helps you express yourself, brings you peace, puts food on your table or helps you provide for your family, that is all that really matters.  Photography is an amazing thing, regardless of how you define it or define yourself.  Whether craftsman, artist, or both, we are all so lucky that photography found us… aren’t we?

Until next time,



The Importance of a Moment in Time

The most significant moments in our lives are usually made up of tiny slivers of time.  I will always remember exactly when my daughter took her first breath and the moment my wife said “yes” when I asked her to marry me.  I remember where I was when I learned that planes had hit the towers in New York City and I remember the time I said something brutally honest to a friend and then regretted it instantly, even before I saw the hurt in his eyes.  I remember all of the times that my sickest patients, whom I had fought so hard to resuscitate, defied the odds and started breathing again.  Many of these moments were only seconds in length, but I remember all of them with absolute clarity.

The times in between these events, however, are rarely remembered with any true clarity.  I don’t have special memories of grocery shopping, waiting in line at the bank or of working out at the gym.  To be honest, as the years go by, I find myself trying to clear the “noise” from my life more and more, actively focusing on the important slivers of time that really matter.  I don’t want a life consumed by “in between” things… I want the memories.

Now, there is a direct parallel between these moments in our lives and our photography.  Anybody who has shot long enough will have experienced at least one special moment when out with their camera;  the street photographer who sees and captures that rare time when the subject, background and light all come together in a perfect composition, or the landscape photographer who finds themselves shooting through a sunrise so beautiful that it must have come from God, or the wedding photographer who captures the first kiss, but who then stays with it and captures a tear on the cheek of the bride as she pulls away, her eyes still locked on her new husband.  These are the moments I live for as a photographer.  

As we gain experience I think it is important to learn how to anticipate these moments, to create them if it is within our power to do so, and to not get distracted by all of the “in between” photos that present themselves.  It is important to know the value of that one special photograph and to not get lost in a sea of “in between” ones.

I love the photograph at the top of this post.  I think the lady is beautiful, the expression on the waiter’s face is perfect, and I love how well the subjects match the background.  The light in the scene is good and, perhaps most important of all, the photograph tells a story.  There is a genuine moment here, captured as a slice of time in my camera. These photographs don’t present themselves often, but I would gladly trade one thousand “in between” photographs for ten or twenty that truly tell a story like this one does.  

When I took this photo I knew I had something I loved as soon as I clicked the shutter, and it got me thinking about the fact that I seem to be making more and more of these images as time goes on.  Upon reflection, I can honestly say that the main difference between now and a few years ago is simply this:  I have slowed down, which allows me to see more.  I have learned to focus on those special moments in time and to not get distracted by all of the “in between”.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, considered by many to be the father of modern street photography, wrote often about this concept.  Here are a few of his thoughts that have influenced my approach to photography:

“It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera… they are made with the eye, heart and head.” 

“A photograph is neither taken or seized by force. It offers itself up. It is the photo that takes you. One must not take photos.”

“There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.” 

What is Henri saying here?  I think it is that the photograph is already out there, but to capture it we need to be more patient, more cerebral, more focused and yes, sometimes more instinctual.  We must slow down, see more, and be ready to act when we do find that perfect moment in time that will only last for a few seconds.  Henri also wrote:

“We must avoid however, snapping away, shooting quickly and without thought, overloading ourselves with unnecessary images that clutter our memory and diminish the clarity of the whole.” 

When we first learn photography the right side of our brain is often overloaded by the technical aspects of shooting.  This is as it should be, we need to shoot a lot in the early stages to develop our skills.  Once we have the technicals down, however, it is important to place the focus on our creative vision.  For the street photographer, this means learning how to become more attuned to the environment, to anticipate moments, and to shoot photographs in a way that captures the story that our eyes are seeing.  We won’t nail it every time, far from it actually, but it is so satisfying when we do.

So, here is my challenge to you:

The next time you hit the streets, coach yourself to slow down and see more.  Really take the time to become in tune with what is happening around you without a camera up to your eye.  Don’t shoot the “in between” photos during this outing.  Don’t settle… wait for that special moment.  Wait for the decisive moment, where you make that one photograph that will mean so much more to you than a hundred “in between” ones.  

It might take some time, but it will absolutely be worth it.