A photographer is someone who takes photographs. These days, anybody can be a photographer, and the reciprocal is also true—a photographer can be anybody. From the hottest haute-kultur gallery orchid on the planet down to somebody selling something on eBay or a real estate agent snapping pictures of an empty house with a cellphone.
We also use the term "photographer" as shorthand for "good photographer," "good" meaning skilled, practiced, experienced, interested, dedicated, or ambitious, or just hopeful. That's why some people will show you their snapshots and say self-deprecatingly, "I'm no photographer," and a guy with a big camera collection can indicate his interest by saying, "I'm a photographer." Even though the first guy sort of is and the second guy sort of isn't. The guy at the DMV who takes all the driver's license photos said to me, "I guess I'm a photographer, but I'm not a photographer." He used the same word in both senses.
It's too bad the term "artist" is so loaded, because it's a term we need. Some good photographers reject the word—David Vestal has always said that it's good enough to be called a photographer. I've always provisionally used the term "art photographer," even though I know it shares some of the drawbacks of "artist"—it's a term of disputation over status, prestige, claims to attention, claims to money, pretensions, and so forth. Too bad about all that. But it's the best term we've got.
Here's what I think: I think an art photographer is a photographer with an opinion.
An opinion about which of their photographs can truly stand as one of theirs, and about how the photograph ought to look.
A Sexton. Or actually a small JPEG approximation of a
Sexton, from an auction listing.
You have several really important controls over how you can express your opinion. The first one is to only show your best stuff; never show your sh*t. (I use the asterisk not because I'm a prude, but because certain words trigger spam filters.) I was almost offended by the huge Cartier-Bresson show originating at MoMA and curated by MoMA's Peter Galassi—I saw it in Chicago—because they were showing his sh*t. Sacrilege! They made him look bad. He would have disapproved. It was the worst argument I've ever seen for Cartier-Bresson as a great photographer. Then again, that wasn't the aim of the show.
All photographers have sh*t. Most have lots of it. The trick is never to show it.
The way I think about this is, which photographs are truly mine, in that they fully meet my idiosyncratic approval? I can go to an event and take a perfectly good record snapshot that the relatives will like, but that doesn't mean it's one of "my" pictures. I might take test shots and throw them up on this blog for illustration or discussion purposes. That doesn't mean they're "my work." I might even take a picture that excites me, that I put a lot of time and work into, but that later proves to be...nothing. (Doncha hate it when that happens?) "My" pictures are the best I can do, the ones that I love, the ones that hit the spot for me. The ones I'm proud of. The ones that fully satisfy my opinion about what one of my photographs ought to look like.
That picture from yesterday is one I took. It's also got prospects as one of my pictures, my actual work. I like it more today than I did yesterday. Time will tell.
Years ago, John Sexton was showing me some of his then-new "Places of Power" work at Photo West. I remember that when he got to one photograph he waved his hand and said, "Ah, that's nothing. That's just a snapshot." Of course he was talking about a very good workprint from a 4x5 negative, so it wasn't exactly what most people would think of as a "snapshot." What he was really saying is this. In looking at workprints of new work, we were looking at prospective Sextons. He didn't know yet which pictures would end up making the final cut: he was still in process. But he knew that one wasn't one. It wasn't a Sexton. It was another also-ran. It wasn't his work.
Never showing your sh*t is a principle that a great many photographers are violating as a matter of course these days. (I violate it too, but I have to show sh*t in the context of being a de facto teacher. To learn how the machinery works—whether actual machinery or aesthetics—you have to dismantle a lot of images, like medical students dissecting a corpse.) They throw all their stuff up on the web where anybody can see it. It's like letting people paw through your underwear drawer: that should be private. We don't want to see it. (Especially, you need to have an opinion about which shot out of a bunch of tries is the shot. I'm amazed at all the photographers who will put up nineteen versions of the same bleedin' shot on their website. What are you doing? You haven't even done the work of deciding, and you want us to care? Bah.)
The second control is getting the photograph to look like you think it ought to look. Virtually all good photographers I know, or know of, have opinions about this. They get it to look right. And they know what "right" means for them. Because they have an opinion.
The third control is putting work in the best context. Or at least a good context. For a photojournalist, that can mean putting it in the context of a set of pictures that together tell a story; for an art photographer, it might mean putting it in a gallery show where it's displayed exactly as it should be, fixed in the proper form and size, and organized and sequenced and in the company of other work that sets it off or informs it or enriches it.
Of course, 92% of all art photographers don't succeed in observing the first of these principles; 96% don't observe both of the first two; and 99.5% don't manage all three, together, with any regularity.
So don't feel too bad.
P.S. Oh, and by the way, the difference between an art photographer and a professional is that the art photographer insists on satisfying her own opinions about her work in her work. A professional defers to other peoples' opinions...usually the client's, or that of the client's representatives. There's more to it than this, but that there's the short-short version.
P.P.S. I made up the percentages in the second-to-last paragraph. They're meant to convey a general idea. Numbers mean little to me (I was one of those people who were horrible at algebra but outstanding at geometry in school), so it's always a good idea to assume numbers aren't real when I use them, except if I cite a source.
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Featured Comments from:
Staffan C: "There is a lot of talk about 'art' in connection with rather everyday photography that makes me a little uneasy. It seems to me that we need at least one more category. Art for me is something that has ambitions—about depth of meaning or originality or perhaps sheer excellence—that seem out of place not only for bad photography, but for most of the good and some of the very good as well. It seems to me that the right ambition for most photographers is to be an 'artisan' rather than an 'artist'—a skilled worker, making functional objects that are also aesthetically pleasing. I photograph my family and my life, primarily for the memories. I would never think of myself as an artist, but that does not mean that I don't try to make my pictures as good as I can, according to my own taste."
Mike replies: You make a great point, but what I hear you saying is that you have a well-developed opinion about what it is you're doing and how it is you ought to do it. Maybe "art photographer" doesn't cut it for you, doesn't even have meaning within your chosen context, but that's all right—it's just a term, and the term is just a tag, and the tag doesn't matter. What matters is that you care about what you're doing and you're clear about it in your own mind—it's still what I'm trying to get at with all that stuff about "having an opinion." Even if the tag I chose here muddies rather than clarifies the waters in your case. Maybe "photographer" in the implicit sub-meaning of "good photographer" works better for you.
You know, maybe—this just occurred to me—maybe the best way to conceive of this is to consider the word "photographer" to have a series of implicit meanings...just as "photographer" sometimes means "good photographer" and sometimes "photographic craftsperson" and sometimes "photo enthusiast," might it not also sometimes mean "art photographer" or "artist" implicitly rather than explicitly?
Even in the context of photographers shown in museums (artist-photographers?) there's a huge basic categorical divide, between artists who use photography (Andy Warhol, say, or Gilbert and George) and actual practicing photographers in some more workmanlike mode who just happen to be exceptionally good at it, so good that their work transcends to art—Helen Levitt as a street photographer, Richard Avedon as a fashion photographer and portraitist. Categories just get us lost in taxonomies, anyway, like Victorian butterfly collectors.
Eric: "My friend John Wood, emeritus professor of photographic history, series editor and poet, thinks that serious photographers, with very few exceptions, are poor editors of their own work. Every such serious photographer should therefore have a trusted 'friend' who is not afraid to say what they think."
Mike replies: I have several excellent books about Daguerreotypes and one about autochromes by a John Wood—the same? [UPDATE: Yes.]
Nick M: "Good article. I'm a beginner at photography. Number of photographs I have taken so far that I'm proud of? One. And I certainly am not going to show all the duff ones to anybody else—why would they want to see them?"
Mike replies: So let's see the one!
raizans: "I bet the main reason people don't edit strongly is to see which photos get the most page views and comments."
Len Salem: "It often comes out in conversation with people I've just met that photography is important to me. This inevitably leads to the question, 'And what sort of things do you like photographing?' At one time I used, at that point, to experience a considerable sinking feeling in my stomach because I didn't know how to answer that because the question of what I photograph is a million miles away from why I photograph.
"So I developed a short answer to this question. I reply by saying that the photography that matters to me is not 'of' something but 'about' something. With the right sort of questioner this can often develop into a discussion that is meaningful to us both without ever mentioning the word 'art' although in fact that's what in my own mind I am making, or trying to make, with the photographs that matters to me. I am in fact trying to express something personal and not something purely descriptive. For me that it as good a description of art as most."
Nicholas Condon: "There was a great moment for me about a year ago when I realized that I was the only audience for my photos that mattered. I don't need to worry about making money from my photos, so the enjoyment that I derive from making them is the only reward worth seeking. As it turns out, I enjoy making photos for myself far more than I did when I was thinking so much about the opinions of others. I doubt this makes me an artist, but it does make me a much more satisfied photographer."
Mike replies: You make me wish there were a way to hang Christmas lights on a comment.
The big irony to this is that if you really manage to do work that is true to yourself, your chances of pleasing others actually go up. Or so I believe, anyway. Although it might take a while. I think some of the most successful artists are the ones most true to themselves. No one who starts out anxious to please others above all else ends up as Rothko or Van Gogh or Thelonious Monk or Lee Friedlander. (John Camp is no doubt going to comment here, so I'll just wait to see what he says.)
John Camp says: "Sure, I've got a comment.
"I have a friend who went to college (Yale, I think) to become an artist, a painter. When I met him again many years later, it turned out he'd become quite a distinguished art historian. When I asked him about his early artistic ambitions, he said he'd discovered that 'I had the facility [to make art] but not the need.' I think exceptional artists have a powerful need to do what they do, and great artists are so focused on what they need to do that their vision changes the form itself—as with Van Gogh, Gauguin and Cezanne (and their descendants Schiele, Matisse and Picasso.) In other words, with exceptional and great artists, I don't think they do it to please themselves; I think the art is something that is virtually wrung out of their psyches. They don't 'choose' to do it, they don't do it to 'please' themselves, they do it to somehow save themselves, to justify their very existence.
"The word 'art' gets thrown around a lot, but I'll tell you what: there are damn few really exceptional artists, and at any one time, I'd suggest that there might be something between zero and five great artists working in the world. Who they are is hard to decide without the perspective of a few decades. I now suspect that Andy Warhol might have been one, but I'm still uncertain of that. There might be some great photographic artists around (living), but I don't know who they are. I haven't seen any that have struck me that way. I think Ansel Adams was one; maybe Edward Weston. I think Avedon might have been one. They actually changed the way things were seen. Who has done that recently? (Well, to answer my own question, some cinematographers. But I don't know who they are—and are they really photographers?)
"By the way, art isn't what somebody says it is. Art is its ownself."
Mike replies: Thanks for the ringing in John. Of course we're never going to settle anything here, but it's still very interesting to talk about.
Mark K Lough [not in reply to the above, n.b.]: "Yeah, yeah. As usual, among the best photo discussions anywhere. I just want to thank Mike for using a John Sexton print as an example. He is the primary one, back in the darkroom, who exemplified for me the power of putting the range dancing between just a little detail in the darkest, and just enough tone in the brightest. Look where the body of the pine left of center does not quite go black, and the edge of the birch is still there. oh, and the symphony of tones everywhere in between. Artist."
Florian Freimoser: "I like your concept of photographs that are truly yours, become yours or turn out not to be yours after a while. However, even if a photograph is really yours, it is not automatically art. I think that your third principle may be the most important. In my opinion you cannot be an artist without showing your work in a coherent context or physical form (I would say other than an online gallery) and without an audience that wants to see your work. In my opinion, artist is a term that rather describes the perception of the audience of somebody's work than a statement that anybody should make about himself. For the person who photographs, paints, composes or creates, 'artist or not' should make no difference whatsoever."