We are asked to think about what we believe makes photographs a unique art form, and then about their production in relation to time and what exactly we mean by ‘photographic image’.
Some things that make photographs unique from other art forms, for example, paintings:
- The same subject can be captured from different angles, distances, viewpoints and heights in a very short amount of time and with little effort, just by moving the camera. Changes to exposure ad aperture are also quick to do in order to alter the lighting and atmosphere. If you wanted to make these changes to a painting or sculpture, you’d have to start the whole thing again from scratch, which is not an instant process.
- Producing photographs is accessible to anyone and everyone who possesses the equipment to capture them. This could be as simple as a smartphone. Granted, most people taking photos today are just taking simple snapshots, but should they want to produce more artistic shots, it is an easy enough task to learn a few simple compositional rules, or set up a posed scene to capture, and get some decent results. It is much harder for a beginner to produce other types of artwork such as a painting or a sculpture. There is a lot to learn, and there is equipment that is needed. Pencil drawing is accessible to everyone, but the chance of a novice making something that one might call art without a lot of practice is slim.
- Photography captures what is there. Post processing and editing can change this, of course, and on camera/phone filters are common nowadays, but in it’s simplest form, the camera records exactly what is in the viewfinder. Other forms of art are very much influenced by the person producing them. Two photographers could take almost exact facsimiles of the same subject, if they so wished, whereas two painters could never produce the exact same work. Even if they were trying and the copies looked the same to the layman, there would always be differences. You could, of course, take a HD photograph of that same painting and reproduce it almost exactly millions of times, if you so wish. By the same token, any photograph can be reproduced exactly millions of times too if you have the negative or digital file.
- Photographs can be more spontaneous and accurate than other art forms and capture fleeting moments of time and changing events that may never occur again. If you are carrying your camera around in the hope of producing artistic shots, you can do so in the blink of an eye if something captures your attention. It doesn’t even matter if it’s a moving object that’s there one moment and gone the next (if you are skilled enough with your equipment). The camera can freeze the action forever (or let the action flow in a long exposure, if that style is preferred). There is no other art form (other than derivatives of photography such as film) that can do this. If you’re a painter and you see a bustling crowd that you think would make a good piece, the best you can hope for is drawing a very quick sketch before it changes and disperses, and then trying to remember the details when you’re ready to paint it later.
- Following on from the above point, artistic photography can require little planning and can capture things that other art forms just cannot due to practical issues. If you want to paint a landscape and be there to see it in real life, you will need to sit in one spot and paint for as long as it takes to get to a stage your happy with. Of course, you could also spend a long time at a site with your camera, but you’re unlikely to spend as long in one particular spot trying to get a good shot as you would with a painting. You could of course photograph the scene and then take it home to make a painting from your photo, but that just shows how much more convenient phtoogrpahy is as an art form. The same goes for portraits of people. They either have to sit still for a huge amount of time while the artist captures them (sometimes over multiple sittings), or the artist works from a photo. On the other hand photographic portraits are very quick, as well as being able to find the best angles and change outfits without causing issues with the finished product. The other point here, is that you can capture photographs of almost anything, and anywhere. Nowadays, you would be unlikely to want to take your canvas and paints out into a protest or even a warzone, but a camera is much more feasible (if you’re brave enough!).
- Photos, even artistic ones, can become our reality. Our memories are short, especially when it comes to the details, whereas a photo can live forever and it becomes the truth because we can’t remember any differently. Paintings are accepted as being subjective in that the artist can paint whatever he likes, and therefore a painting only gives an idea of what might have been going on. A scene can be staged, of course, but once photographed, it will be viewed and not easily dismissed as an actual event.
We are asked to look at photos in relation to time:
- Szarkowski said that the time a photo is taken is always the present and that it describes only the period of time in which it was made.
- In reality, photographers generally don’t just take one photo of a scene, they take many and then pick the best one (or the best moment in time) afterwards.
- Photographs immortalize a moment in time, and what a photographer chooses to shoot is obviously a meaningful moment for them.
- Time is one of the aspects of photography that can be controlled ie. We can manually set the amount of time the aperture stays open in order to freeze movement (very short amount of time) or blur one (very long amount of time). Although we often associate photography with the snapshot that captures an instant in time – a long shutter speed gives us a sense of time progression and motion. The same effect could be achieved by moving or panning the camera during the shot.
The last part of this exercise asks us to think about what we mean by ‘photographic image’. Does it have to be something permanently fixed? Does a photograph have to exist in hard copy? Is there a difference between a printed photograph and a digital image that sits virtually on someone’s device, for instance?
- A photographic image, at it’s very basic level, ‘…is an image created by light falling on a photosensitive surface, usually photographic film or an electronic image sensor…’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photograph)
- ‘The word photograph was coined in 1839 by Sir John Herschel and is based on the Greek φῶς (phos), meaning “light,” and γραφή (graphê), meaning “drawing, writing,” together meaning “drawing with light.”‘ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photograph)
- A photographic image can be distinguished from other types of image such as a painted or drawn image.
- Photographic images could be catagorized into many different types – portrait, landscape, architectural, documentary, wildlife, sports, fashion, and many, many more.
- Hard copy photographs can be scanned and turned into digital photographs, and digital photographs can be printed out into hard copy photographs. Some people may distinguish between the two types and refer to digital photographs as digital images, but I personally think that a digital photographs is still a photograph.
- Is there a difference between the two? It depends whether we’re talking about the difference between a hard copy of a film photograph and the soft copy of a digital photograph, or just a hard copy and soft copy of a digital photo. FIlm photographs have characteristics that you just can’t get straight out of a digital camera, but you can of course do as much post-processing of a digital image as you like in order to get that same aesthetic. Printing out a hard copy of a digital image is unlikely to yield much difference (other than having a physical product), although it depends on the quality of the printer and how well it’s calobrated to match the colours on your screen. It took me a while to realise that printing photos from my phone or digital camera in the high street chemist produced terrible quality photos in colours that were way off what I could see in the digital version.