This is the third and last installment of my essays on photography as an art form. You can read the first one here: And here is the second one: This is a look at art and how I think it emerges, and although it is perhaps true for all art forms, I see it from the perspective of photography.


Take or Make
First of all, let’s pick up where I left off in my last essay: why do we take photographs and of what. In his book The Photographer’s Eye, the author John Szarkowski argues that the photographer “takes” from what is already presented to him or her by means of framing. Unlike a painter who can insert an element at will, a photographer can only choose or select from what’s given. In that sense a photograph is taken, not made. For those who want to argue they make photos, well, by that they often refer to the actual physical object–the negative, the print–as opposed to the content of the negative or print. It is a deeply philosophical topic. One can still “take” the contents, in Szarkowski’s sense, and then proceed to make the photo, the physical end product. But that initial “taking” is the necessary condition. Why? Imagine you run a photo lab and someone drops off a roll of film. You develop the film, scan the negative and/or print from it in the darkroom. In the end, you made the photo, you absolutely did. But you can’t say it’s your photo. It belongs to the person who took it.  Henri Cartier-Bresson didn’t do the darkroom work himself. Beyond the initial taking he left the rest to other darkroom experts. But those are still his photos. And he is not the only example. Steve McCurry is a more contemporary example. The point is, there is a reason why the word “take” is used for photography. If you like saying “make” by all means continue to do so. English is a versatile language and I’m sure over time it will accommodate your usage. Just recognize that the use of “take” didn’t arise in a random manner. It has reason behind it.

There have been photographers in the past and there are many now who set up scenes, place models and props and have used and continue to use all manners of analog and digital manipulation, thereby taking photography into the realm of painting. “Pictorialists” from the last century, HDR photographers of our time, artists who blend many different layers to create surreal photos, photographers who create elaborate sets: these are all examples of this latter group. Is their photography or art any less worthy? Ansel Adams had a huge chip on his shoulder and together with his friends he buried the Pictorialists of his time. If Adams were alive today, Trey Ratcliff, with his veritable HDR empire could very easily hand Mr Adams his hind quarters on a platter. I have met Trey and he is a very nice fellow and would never actually do that–what Ansel Adams did to William Mortensen–to anyone, but he could. But, I digress.


Why do we take photos?
So,why do we take photographs? Off the top of my head I can think of a few reasons:
1. record keeping: on a public scale this is photo journalism; on a personal scale it is vacation photos, birthdays, weddings and parties and so on.
2. commerce: in this I’ll put all kinds of photography, architecture, product, travel, models, business & class portraits, and the intersection of each with the other and what not.
3. capturing beauty: this is fine art photography, l’art pour l’art, art for art’s sake. It is eclectic and can dip into the above categories or go off completely on a tangent.

Now each of the non-fine art categories can easily be infused with an artistic spirit, for example wedding photos don’t need to be just plain wedding photos. They can be rendered artistically. Product photos don’t have to be insipid (in fact, they better not be!) Business headshots can be made as poignant and deep as any renaissance portrait. But the one fact that separates these from  fine art is that unlike fine art those have a utilitarian value. Fine art doesn’t. You can actually point to a reason why photos in #1 and #2 exist. There is an actual answer to that why in “why do we take photos”. For fine art, there is no real answer. The answer is often “Just so”, “I felt like it”, “I liked what I saw”, “It caught my eye” or something similar. The photographer doesn’t exactly know why. All that they know is that there was something they connected with, something that appealed to their sense of beauty. What I am about to say next applies to any form of art, not just photography. I will try to say how it applies to art in general and photography in particular.


What is art?
Do you ever wonder what leads scientists, physicists for instance, to look far out into the vastness of space or deep into the heart of matter? What are they looking for? What are they searching? More importantly, why are they doing it? I will guess that they are looking for the unknown, looking for patterns that lead them further and further into the depths of the unknown. They are searching for truth. Perhaps, for the infinite. There is something out there that beckons, that lures.  And it draws the scientists out to look for it in the stars, in the atoms. In order to connect with this unknown entity, you have to first traverse the entire known landscape. You must reach the borders of knowledge and stand at the edge. Behind you will be the entirety of what is already known. And then only you will come face to face with what’s unknown. And perhaps you will get a glimpse of the void and be able to take one more step forward.

What is art? There are many answers to that. To me, art is a quest for the unknown, for the infinite. For truth. Beauty is seeing the infinite in the finite. Note that both scientists and artists are moved by beauty. Beauty is that connection to the unknown: it is the lure, the bait. The methods are different. But the end is the same. Art is ultimately a quest to understand the unknown. It is imprecise, as it is not quantitative and it focuses on the inner world which is largely unexplored. Art is the mind reaching into itself to search for the unknown. And when you catch a glimpse of it, it looks beautiful. When we express that beauty, that’s art. A poet explores language and creates words we didn’t know were possible. In the same way, the artist’s job is to explore visual symbols, abstract or real, and show us beauty that we didn’t think was there. This is not the common notion of beauty: of a majestic landscape, or the symmetry and balance of a celebrity’s physique. Those have already been explored, thus they are common. But the unknown, the infinite doesn’t just have one face. It has many faces and many ways of discovering and looking at them. And all of that is art. When is it not art? When it strays from its mission and instead seeks wealth and fame, it stops being art. Would you respect a scientist who strayed from his or her mission and produced “science” that only has market value? Would that even be science?

Anytime you produce something that isn’t produced from purely the urge of your own heart, it’s not art. It may be artistic, it may be artisanal but it is not art. So the architecture photos you took for the client aren’t art, but that one shot you sneaked in that the client didn’t ask for but you just wanted to take, probably is. The nude model in awkward poses directed by you isn’t art, but the partial nude, sleeping and unaware of you, with a ray of light from a crack in the curtains falling on her, that moment that caught your eye as you woke up, probably is art. You get the point. You can practice technique till you master it, but art only happens when technique meets serendipity. It’s when, in a quiet moment, a window opened up and you peered through it, like that ray of light, and came face to face with beauty.

How does this relate to photography as an art form? The kind of photography I described above, the one where you “take” photos–as opposed to where you create sets, use props, and later manipulate the images–is a special form of art. It is very different from nearly all other art forms in that that it is handicapped. You cannot add anything. You cannot remove anything, except by means of framing and composition. You can only select from what is given. You can only select from what is given in narrow slices of time and space. You cannot come back to the canvas tomorrow. You cannot edit the page. Some say in that photography is like Impressionism, but I think Impressionists had it easy.  All artists seek beauty, we all come face to face with that moment but they are fleeting moments. In photography, more than anything, being in the moment is of utmost importance, as moments are what photos are made of.


Quietening our minds & Flow
In his seminal theory of Flow, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Mee-hi Sic-zen-mee-hi) theorizes that our brains can accommodate at most 126 bits of information per second. If you are using those bits with one thing, you are missing out on something else. For example, a single conversation takes about 40 bits/second limiting our attention to at the most three simultaneous conversations. Other things, memories, conversations we have had before, thoughts, feelings… everything has to be accommodated within that processing limit of 126 bits/s.

Our minds are full of thoughts. Usually they are reflections of things we have experienced earlier: conversations we’ve had, faces we’ve seen, places we’ve visited. This plays a part in art too. When you have seen other people’s art for a while, those play in your head. Even without knowing you are often emulating them. But in order to create art you have to see for yourself with your own eyes, listen to your own mind. How can you do that if your mind is full of other people’s stuff? You are using up processing capacity of your mind. By centering on yourself, you devote more of those 126 bits to your own mind, you quieten your mind, and you might see what’s in there. Before you can share the wealth of your art with the world, you have to first acquire that wealth in solitude. When you are able to make your mind settle down, you can see what is it that catches your attention. Not the impressions others have left on your mind, not what you think will impress others but what truly catches your mind. This is when the Muses whisper in your ear. This is when art emerges. This complete focus is flow, and to quote Csikzentmihalyi, it is:

“being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Achieving flow isn’t easy. How do you keep your mind fully, or at least mostly, engaged? There is a chart where Csikzentmihalyi lays out the relationship between challenge and skill and how it affects our mental state. It is a constant tension between challenge and skill. A low challenge, low skill situation leads to apathy, but change the skill to high without increasing the challenge and it results in relaxation. On the other hand, if you increase the challenge to high while keeping skill at low, then it results in anxiety. Only when the challenge and skill are both at high does the mind achieve flow.


The borders of comfort
Like the scientist, who has to traverse the known territory and stand at the edge, so the artist has to walk the familiar landscape and stand at the brink. If you are not at the brink, how will you look at the unknown? How often have you heard someone–or yourself–say how you are not getting anywhere, you feel unexcited, or in a rut? There is a reason for that. When you are in familiar territory, the level of challenge is low. You can do things almost by muscle memory, effortlessly. It can lead to apathy, boredom and may be relaxation. But it won’t lead to art.  When you emulate someone, attend a workshop, you are practicing technique. It is almost never art. It is rehearsal. Rehearsals are necessary but a rehearsal is never the performance. Rehearsals take place in comfort.  Art always happens outside the borders of comfort.

Now, a lot of people have a quaint definition of what constitutes “discomfort”. For instance, a photographer might think that changing their familiar focal length lens to a different focal length is going outside their comfort zone. No, it isn’t. It hasn’t actually caused any discomfort at all. It’s merely an unfamiliar lens. It has effectively lowered your skill level temporarily. But getting in the face of strangers on the street with a short focal length lens might be discomforting. It increases your challenge level. You might get yelled at. Chased. Someone might throw a punch–or their drink–at you. You might get interrogated by the police. Or for example, you may think shooting a 365 project is outside your comfort zone. Not necessarily. It depends on what you are doing with that project. If all you are doing is simply taking photos of everyday situations then it’s not discomforting, certainly not unfamiliar no matter what you want yourself or the world to believe. You may have stayed in your previous skill level or lowered your effective skill level without increasing the level of challenge. But say you decided to wake up two hours before your usual time every day, and drag yourself outside to get your daily catch, like a fisherman, then yes that’s discomfort.

When you take your camera, large or small, in the heat and dust of a desert, or the freezing cold up a mountain, or in the hold of a rocking ship to go out to sea, that is discomfort. When you stand with soldiers in a battlefield with bullets and shells flying by, that is discomfort. When you leave your cosmopolitan city and trek out in the middle of nowhere to meet nomadic people, that is discomfort. When you go out into the poverty-stricken, crime-ridden part of town, that is discomfort. You have to stand in freezing water or sweltering heat. Or you just have to stand, for hours. Or walk, for hours. Stay awake, for hours. No matter what you do, you have to experience actual physical discomfort. When your body feels discomfort, your brain acts differently. You are increasing the challenge level. That physical discomfort is a sign of the heightened challenge. There is no way to emulate this by simply holding an unfamiliar instrument while still in a comfortable environment or doing a familiar activity over and over. The reason performances are different from rehearsals is because stage acting (or even public speaking on a stage) is very discomforting. It can cause upset stomachs, nausea and what not. Getting in the face of strangers on the street can cause similar reactions. Going to a different country can be very discomforting, but only if it is a different culture–going from the US to the UK isn’t a big deal. Dragging yourself out on the street when you are tired, overworked, sick even is discomfort. Quitting your job, putting everything on the line is discomfort. Doing something that is hard and what your body and mind just doesn’t want to do is discomfort. However you do it, you have to actually step out of your real comfort zone and feel physical and thence mental discomfort. Assuming your skill isn’t lacking, it is the higher level of challenge that brings you to the brink.  Yoga has uncomfortable postures for a reason. One of the things that physical discomfort does is it centers your mind on yourself. You stop seeing other people’s photos in your mind, you stop thinking of impressing anyone else and you achieve clarity. That’s when you get absorbed in your act, leave all the familiar territory behind and come face to face with the unknown. And that is the source of all art.



PS: You can read more about Flow and Mihai Csikzentsmihalyi on Wikipedia and in his book Optimal Experience.
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