May 25 2015

Technical Photography & Fine Art: Why the two are inseparable for producing convincing imagery & the importance of communicating intent in composition


I recently had the honor of judging one of the local camera club’s monthly exhibitions.  This was super fun and super daunting.  It wasn’t just those whose images were being considered that were on the hotseat that evening.  One of the major comments I received (and it was meant as a compliment), was that they were surprised at how technical my commentary was– that they expected the artsy types to focus more on the emotional and artistic content of the image and less on the technical elements of it.  I’ve thought about this quite a lot now and come to some interesting conclusions, not the least of which is that what is missing from that assumption is an accommodation for the fact that the two are not mutually exclusive by any means.

Ever heard the saying “You have no idea how much make-up it takes to look like you are not wearing any!”?  Well, basically, one might also say “You have no idea how much Photoshop and knowledge of the technical elements of an image it takes to create an image that doesn’t look Photoshopped.”  (For more on this, see my upcoming post detailing the creation of a Fine Art composite from start to finish.)

While that may sound strange coming from someone such as myself given it’s pretty clear I’m completely unapologetic about my use of post-processing and often make utterly no effort to hide that an image has been subjected to (a lot of) it, and I often work much more like a painter than your average photographer, that doesn’t mean I am not concerned about making sure that my processing has some elements of realism.  And, that involves knowing, understanding, and often applying a lot of technical knowledge to my images.

By way of example, a popular local restaurant in Albuquerque had an artist paint murals in their dining room.  Many years ago, prior to my being dedicated as a full-time artist, my husband (who had a minor in Fine Art and could have majored in it) said to me “Argh! That mural is making me nuts! The light is all wrong!”.  I hadn’t even noticed.  Now, I am a great lover of hyper-realism and surrealism.  I don’t mind when visual art wanders into that uncanny valley where things aren’t quite as they would be in real life.  But, not to sound harsh (or even hypocritical), the painter whose work was nice enough, was clearly a mediocre talent.  My husband was right.  When you actually looked at the image, you noticed that the light was indeed all wrong– shadows were at the wrong angles, inconsistent, and even on the wrong sides of objects… It seemed clear that the artist had not done this with intent, but rather out of naiveté.  While sometimes we consider this charming, it doesn’t always work.

Just as intent matters when a crime is committed, so it matters to our understanding of art and whether we interpret it qualitatively as “good” or “bad”.  One can get away with quite a lot compositionally, but if the viewer is not convinced that it seems intentional, it may not be well-received.  When you are venturing into conceptual work or taking a lot of liberties with a piece, a great deal of consideration with regard to composition should be taken.  For me, that means making sure that things like light and shadows are correct (-ish– for the most part– I often intentionally take forays into that aforementioned uncanny valley).  It means that the sense of depth of field I am creating should make sense– unless it’s obviously not supposed to…  and so on…  Clearly, there are stylistic liberties which are and should be allowable, and some imperfections may be permissible or even desirable, but your viewer needs to understand that what they are seeing was done with intent and is not just shoddy workmanship.  As such, the capture, the cropping, and the physics of the light in the image may all still matter even if your image is highly conceptual or abstract.  This is why we talk so much about “learning the rules so we can break them”.

Typically, photographers tend to be opportunistic shooters.  We love the “happy accident”, that amazing shot we just happen to stumble upon or even discover later we’ve captured unintentionally.  Some of us premeditate more– we scout locations and the light there, and we make sure we are there for the perfect shot.  Some of us are gear-heads that absolutely love, love, love to get everything right in camera.  But, far fewer of us work conceptually, and doing so requires a broader tool-set than any of the former mindsets.  When evaluating more conceptual work, it’s good to keep in mind this concept of intent.  No matter how you are working, or what you are aiming to accomplish, your viewer should know that what they are seeing, and how they are seeing it is exactly as you intended them to.  -Amy

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