Just Because Your Art is More Difficult to Make Doesn’t Mean It’s Better

June 06, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

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Fire In The Grove

Over the course of an average day I get to interact with a fair number of people. I go out for breakfast most mornings and the typical conversations about weather and politics (mostly local) occasionally give way to discussions about art. Who is showing where, “What is art?”, etc. It never fails when Photoshop is mentioned that someone says: “Hey, isn’t that cheating?”. I’ve even gotten that questions from fellow photographers. You know the ones I’m talking about. The sometimes self-righteous “film” photographers totally in love with the process of processing film and developing prints by hand that they haven’t created a memorable image in a decade. I guess every media has these folks but it seems photography has more than its share. They feel that using digital cameras and processing images in software on a computer is somehow “selling out” and not real. They feel that sending a carefully crafted image to an electronic printer can not be art.

I always wonder when talking to these folks if they feel this way because the digital photographers don’t suffer enough. I’ve suffered enough! I not only did the darkroom thing for myself for a bunch of years but, running a commercial lab, I did it for a lot of “them” too. The quality of art does not increase with suffering. That could be the quote of the day!

Advances in technology have been steady since the dawn of time. I wonder if cavemen accused other caveman-artists of cheating when they attached a stick to the rock so they could hold it better? Or what about when they started using their own blood to paint with? (Back to suffering?) Were painters accused of selling out when their paints and brushes became commercially available or were they better at their art because they made their own?

It’s true that the digital photo revolution happened pretty fast. Technological changes in general are happening faster all the time. I’m still trying to learn how to use my two-year old phone! Photography enjoyed very few remarkable changes for quite a long time. From the advent of the roll-film camera to the next big thing; auto exposure and auto focus, nothing really changed much. There were a lot of years in there. Was auto focus cheating? Was auto exposure cheating? I don’t think they got accused of cheating because it took quite a while before they were good enough for reliable use. There was a period of suffering if you will. Digital cameras went through the same growing pains. So has the software. Believe me when I say there has been suffering along the digital way too.

Today it is relatively easier to create a photograph with greater technical precision than in times past. The auto focus and auto exposure parts of the process are pretty darn good. The camera’s automatic image processing is pretty good too. The photo printers available for a few hundred dollars will make prints that will last a lifetime and that look terrific. It’s never been easier to create a technically proficient photograph.

There are still a few things that the cameras can’t do. Neither can the computers or the software inside. They still can’t tell you what to point them at. They still can’t describe an emotional response to a scene that you’ve experienced. They can’t interpret or pre-visualize a landscape (or any other subject) in a way that will get viewers to say “Wow”. When the software engineers and camera designers can accomplish this feat then using digital cameras will be cheating and the camera artist will be irrelevant. Just because modern technology has put good quality photography into the hands of the masses doesn’t mean the camera artists are any less artistic. In fact, I would offer that technological improvements have raised the craft of photographic art to an all-time high. While it’s true that the capture of the image is easier and more reliable, the artist must still bring his vision to the process. There are still obstacles to overcome. CCD chips, internal and external software, lenses, cameras, printers etc. all have their individual idiosyncrasies which must be learned and either accepted or defeated by the artist to fully express his or her vision. It’s still difficult to create a two dimensional representation of an event or scene in a manner that will generate the same emotional response the artist had in mind. That’s what artists do. Technology, if anything, has provided artists with an even greater ability to express their vision. It’s also provided more ways to fail. I am happy to suffer at the computer instead of in a darkroom. I’m also happy to create images I can share worldwide instead of only in person. I’m thrilled to be able to print my color photographs on real paper instead of plastic. I’m thrilled that I can archive my images so they will live longer than I will. Now that’s progress! Now if I can just figure out what it is I’m trying to say………

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