Photographic Aesthetics

I subscribe to a lot of blogs, and more than a few of them have been featuring photography taken by the respective bloggers. Pictures of kids, and dogs and your house, I’m completely okay with, but once it starts going into the realm of art photography, my “pretentious art dick” hackles start to rise, and I find myself feeling like Lars in “Some Kind of Monster” telling the rest of Metallica that their riffs sound “stock”.

So I apologize in advance.

I really started my own journey into photography casually, just shooting things that I found pleasing to look at. So I don’t blame casual photographers for posting art photography that is… casual. One of the great, and terrible things about art is that there really is no accounting for taste.

Everyone creates and consumes art for various reasons, so we have to resist the temptation to judge art solely on our own terms. Art exists within context, and it’s important to consider that context when we react to art.

But I personally find it very hard not to have “why bother” reactions to depth of field experiments on tree bark. I understand the process of developing an eye, and learning that the lens and sensor are a different tool than eye and brain. And with some individuals, (I don’t include myself in this group BTW) being exposed to that process of development is fascinating in and of itself because that artist’s innate sense of aesthetics makes their work interesting even while their knowledge of the tools and techniques of photography develop.

But what makes most artists art uninteresting for me is a lack of a voice. It’s easy in photography to simply document pretty things, partially because what gives a scene or event it’s meaning is something you experienced while you took the image. But that meaning is almost never captured in your image. It will always be there for you, because of the memories you created while taking the photo, and which are evoked when you now view it, but the rest of us don’t have those memories. Viewing the image has to be an experience in and of itself.

Developing a voice in your work is the ability to start making a still image reflect what you experienced while taking it, and then beyond that, having your work evoke the specific reactions you intend it to. This ability makes the image yours even if it’s of something that people see every day. You can shoot the mundane if you have a voice. If you don’t have a voice, the images are not only of the mundane, they are themselves mundane.

Humans are extremely visual, and dedicate a large portion of our brains to processing visual information. We are specifically wired to respond with favorable emotions to specific colors, specific shapes and dimensions, specific placement of objects and a variety of other factors. We have specific ways that we expect different subject matter to be presented. Knowing how we’re predisposed to react to this visual information will help you deliberately see things in a way that connects people to the meaning you feel when you see a scene naturally.

Humans also have reactions to other people. We search for the intent of another human in human-created objects. When you make an image, the viewer is not just trying to connect to the subject of your photo, they are trying to connect with you, almost certainly because you are forcing them however briefly to experience the world as you experience it. When they can detect your presence in a photograph, it helps them feel like they are connecting with another person, positively or negatively. Either can be compelling. Simple documentary photography doesn’t connect artist to viewer.

Now don’t get me wrong, great documentary photography as pursued by photo journalists absolutely achieves art as it certainly contains the voice of the photographer. The documentary photography I’m talking about here is “I see a cool flower, let me get a shot of that”. Compelling photographs aren’t scenes captured, they are scenes created. And I don’t mean creation in the sense of unreal or manipulated, I mean created in the sense of imaged with intention. These are images that consider not only the subject, but the viewer at the time of capture.

This is why some photographers still advocate the use of large format cameras. They slow you down, they make you spend more time considering the scene. How do I want it framed? How do I want it focused. What is the most important thing in the frame, what supports the importance of that thing and what takes away from it? How is the scene lit?

It’s easy as we capture things these days to simply react to a scene personally, bring our camera up and shoot, assuming that we’ve captured what made it compelling to us because our tools are so quick and offer us instant feedback. It’s easy to loose our consideration of the scene.

So I guess my bottom line here is, if you want to take a photograph to do something beyond serve as a record that you were someplace, or saw something, consider the subject a little more, and consider the viewer a little more. Read up on color theory, framing, and art history. They will improve your art.

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