the challenge of art in photography

my ‘vegetarian love’, 2001

In the early 20th century, some of the boldest of modern artists chose to think ‘outside the box’, and started exhibiting works which could not be judged by the traditional conventions of classical art. Their desire to be original, to create something that hadn’t been seen before. Lead them to new forms of art. The school of Dada rejected reason and challenged logic, and was followed a few years later by the surrealistic movement. There was a certain element of mockery in their creations. And it was at that time that the first works of conceptual art began to appear. Many see the ‘Fountain’ by Marcel Duchamp as a pioneer work of conceptual art.

On the one hand, the artist often finds himself unable to compete with the masters of the past who reached a level of perfection in their representation of the world around us, and on the other hand there is the constant desire to say something original, to contribute a unique, subjective expression of the individual’s relationship to the world around him. Yet beyond these artistic challenges, there is also the desire to communicate with others, to offer them some aesthetic enjoyment or thoughtful stimulation.

For the photographer, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that many see photography as a glorified copying machine, in which the press of a button puts a picture seen in 3D in the real world on a piece of paper or on the computer screen. With the increased popularity of photography, and the emergence of the cell phone as an acceptable camera, in the hands of almost everyone, this problem has become still greater. Yet even a hundred years ago, there were artists who purposely jostled their cameras while taking a picture, or created warps and distortions in order to differentiate between their work and the ‘copying’ nature of photography. There were those who preferred to photograph banal objects, and to focus on a subjective beauty in the portrayal of those items rather than photograph subjects which were acknowledged by all as beautiful.

The great master, Ansel Adams, was often criticized by the photographers of his time because of his preference for shooting subjects of great beauty. What made these works of art so moving and inspiring, asked his fellow photographers, if not the beauty that was already there before he took the picture? And this philosophical question remains open to this day. But let’s not forget that a banal image that doesn’t offer inspiration, can’t be justified or reach the hearts and minds of viewers regardless of explanations. Ultimately, the art itself has to communicate something worthwhile and unique.


55 responses to “the challenge of art in photography

  1. That’s a fascinating reflection. I’m wondering what one does with ‘art’ that does not appear to communicate anything very much, like Hurst’s cloven cow. Is uniqueness worth expressing simply for its own sake? Or is it art at all?

    • You raise a very interesting question, Gillyk. For me, art has always been very close to prayer. And in a way it offers certain aspects of that, to those who do not believe, and who would rather not pray… or might feel that they have no one to pray to. And so, from my point of view, everything that is made for the sake of art, i.e. art for art’s sake, is in its own way unique. But trying to be unique might loose the very essence of the creativity. Your comment was a challenge to me as well, because I’d never heard of Hurst’s cloven cow. But I did manage to see the animation through the internet… and I didn’t actually see any cloven hooves. But of course, there was a message… and I suppose that animation could very well represent artistic communication to a lot of people. Thank you for your thought inspiring comment.

      • that is such an interesting reply, because I’ve recently been reading some articles by the so-called ‘new’ atheists, and Alain de Botton says that they need to secularise religion. One way of doing this, he suggests, is to see art in all its forms as a substitute for the dogmas of belief, and art museums as the equivalent for places of worship.

        • I haven’t heard of the ‘new’ atheists yet, but it doesn’t surprise me. Unfortunately, they will run into more dogmas in the art world than those they learned in church, but they might feel more comfortable serving popular conventions than they do trying to deal with something that is greater than themselves…

          • Ha ha, I love that, it’s most amusing! I was left thinking that his ideas might suit the middle-class and educated, and as such were very limited in their scope – and so it was a poor substitute for a faith in the universal Lord.

  2. And the angle you chose to photograph the vegetable love tells me lots about your artists eye

  3. Especially today, isn’t part of the delivery about how the photograph can be digitally enhanced? That doesn’t matter to me because one still must start with a good base photo and have the creative skill with the software.

    • I consider the software, and all the tools of the computer to be equal to the camera in the production of the artwork. I would even go further than you, Frank, and suggest that one could take a very poor original photograph and turn it into inspiring art by skillful use of the software. The point is, that till the artists hands his work to the viewer, at every stage, he can work with it.

  4. For me,the fact that I could very happily live with the carrots in a frame on the sitting room wall tells me it is true art.Yes.

    • For me, Kathryn, that tells me more about your individual taste, than about the merit of the picture. We all choose to hang certain things, and dismiss other things… even if other people might see it as art. Taste has an important role in the appreciation of art.

      • Kathryn Braithwaite

        The last sentence has two meanings which is appropriate since carrots can be eaten.I think it’s the background,,,, the lightish colours you chose.But like my friend who does not want to have her own very fine drawings of nudes on the sitting room wall perhaps this may be better in the room of someone who sleeps and entertains in the kitchen.
        I love it anyway… so simple and beautiful

  5. Subjectivity and creativity are key elements to consider when viewing the work of artists. What the artist considers beautiful, or thought provoking is just that. We can say and think whatever we like about the work, but what the artist saw and intended to portray is all that matters in the end.

    • It might be all that matters to the artist. But still, we as an audience have the prerogative to appreciate one piece of work, and dismiss another. And if the artist is interested in making a living from his art, or amassing a great amount of ‘likes’, then he should consider the taste of the society around him. Of course, there is ‘art for art’s sake’, and there are those who are completely satisfied with their own work regardless of criticism or judgment from outside, but most artists feel a need for approval and celebration. Thanks for your comment, Angeline.

  6. Amazing carrots… poetically hit my eyes… Thank you dear Shimon, have a nice weekend, love, nia

    • Thank you very much, Nia. I’m so glad you liked it. I picked this picture because it tells a story on two different planes. On one we see the reality… the carrots. But we also see some associations, and that is the beauty of the picture in my mind.

  7. Wonderful post Shimon. I don’t think I’ve ever had to go to Wikipedia so often at one sitting to look up words and understanding. You already know I have no art training and this sure helped me. Unusual that I too, have an unusual carrot image. I’ll send it to you separately. Happy your comments are open this time.

    • Thank you very much for your picture of the carrot, Bob. I enjoyed it. And yes, that is one of the wonders of the internet… that we all can broaden our horizons so easily. I may have been mistaken to close comments on some of my earlier posts. I thought that since I was only showing some pictures from a walk I’d taken earlier, I would save people the trouble to respond by closing the comments, but it could be that I was wrong. I’ll have to think about that. Thank you.

  8. One of the nicest comments I received here on WordPress, Shimon, was from a lady in India who said ‘I know nothing about photography but I can feel your photographs’. For me that was all that mattered. I’d connected with someone through my photography. I was conveying an experience of Cornwall to someone who had never been here and who probably will never come.
    I’m a member of a couple of photography sites around the web and I upload my landscapes and they are never published. The sort of pictures that do get published are quite bizarre photographic manipulations and if there is a distorted, naked female form in the picture, all the better.
    To photograph something of beauty is still considered by many, obviously, to be banal and to have no merit and yet, I communicate regularly with people around the globe through my pictures and though I’ve never really considered myself an artist, I guess I should.
    Thanks for a very interesting and thought provoking post Shimon.

    • I agree with you, Chillbrook, that that was a very beautiful comment… and I feel much the same as that lady, even though my fate has lead me to learn a lot about photography. When something meaningful is related to us, the manner in which it is related, the words or images chosen, are less important than the subjective experience of linking with another, seeing a far away place, or understanding a bit of something that is far from our own life’s experience. In that way, I think that photography is a bit like poetry, in that it can link us to a foreign reality, and open up new worlds. I don’t think the role, or the designation, ‘artist’ is so important. Sometimes it’s an artist that opens up new worlds for us, and sometimes a story teller… and sometimes a clown… what they’re called doesn’t matter so much. Thank you very much for your comment.

  9. As usual, a thought-provoking meditation. Plus a great photograph.

  10. I do love those carrots, they really made me smile.

    An interesting post Shimon, I think you summed it up absolutely perfectly with this comment. “Ultimately, the art itself has to communicate something worthwhile and unique” I couldn’t agree more.
    btw, I have enjoyed looking at your wonderful spring pictures and thought that black flower was rather amazing!xxxx

    • I’m so glad you liked the picture, Dina. And no applause makes me as happy as a smile! And I’m glad you enjoyed the spring pictures. I have a very special one of a wild orchid, that I’ll have to post soon. Thanks.

  11. As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is the understanding and the connection with art. Either it does, or, it does not convey any meaning or interest. I don’t see that mass photography is any more a problem than mass marketing of art and art forms, be they pictorial, sculptural, musical,spoken or written

    Art and its presentations, in my view, should be an open pick-and-mix from which people may take with what they connect. Filtering by society, will always occur for any number of reasons, including the imposition of elitism, and sadly, in the extreme, repression and suppression.

    Elitism is not the final arbiter of taste, nor of what is acceptable to the majority. Culture and individual subjectivity are greater arbiters than elitism will ever be. All artists will make their unique signatures within their work, some more subtle than others.

    What I like about your approach to art in its various forms, is its versatility and universality. The photograph demonstrates it! Where did you find that superbly conjoined carrot? It would make a wonderful poster.

    • I agree with you, Menhir, that the understanding of art, as is beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. The problem is simply that once, the production of beautiful pictures could provide a livelihood for a family. But this is quickly changing these days. And there are those who invested in the craft, and can no longer make a living from it. This is because there are so many very beautiful pictures available for next to nothing. But I agree with you too on the subject of elitism and the standards of culture. Popular taste is heard much more today than in past centuries… and yet, as you say, there is room for unique and special approaches which can find their audience too. Thank you for your comment.

  12. Neat summation, Shimon and interesting points. I went for a walk today without my camera and was struck by the sheer number of photographs being taken around me. Every inch of Covent Garden must have been covered by now.

    • Yes, it’s amazing. I never tire of watching such scenes, where people take out their phones and start photographing. It fills me with glee. There is something so spontaneous about it. Thank you, Richard.

  13. I love the photograph…..I’d like to hear what you saw when you decided to take it…..why it caught your eye. I think I use photos because I can say it as well as a picture can.

    • I’m so glad you like the photo, Linda. I most enjoy images that tell a story. I love listening to stories… and I suppose this image was an illustration of how a sight can bring other things to mind.

  14. I have never viewed the copying nature of photography as a problem as such, although I know it bothers many. It’s part of what makes photography accessible and exciting, but also challenging. With any creative medium of of self-expression, the end product can be good or bad, banal, interesting, or inspiring, depending on your capability and your intentions. The carrot is a fabulous find!

    • Like yourself, I was never bothered by that either. In fact, when I was teaching, I used to encourage my students to use a copying machine as a camera, and create interesting pictures with it. There were some wonderful results. I believe that any tool can be used to create an enjoyable image. Thank you so much, Emily.

  15. Why, my dear Shimon, you’ve taken to posting veggie porn in your old age! 😉 (At any rate, it was tastefully done, as they say…) The question seems simple to me. When I snap a photo, I am looking at the subject from my own point of view. I saw something of interest in the subject that inspired me to photograph it. Hopefully, I am able to capture that something. Often, I am not, but when I am able to capture the “something” that I saw, it becomes my interpretation of what everybody else saw. Ten people can photograph the same subject and produce ten different interpretations of it. I am certain that Ansel Adams visited the sites of his landscapes more than once and carefully planned what he wanted to capture there before he took the first photograph of them. I think that is always true unless, of course, one is photographing a page of text for a record. Surely, you didn’t have the carrots for dinner…

    • Agree with you completely, George… and what’s more, you’ve got me smiling about the veggie porn. You see, I called it love, but you saw porn (still smiling). But you are completely right about the subjective possibilities of a photograph. As for Ansel Adams, I adore his work. And he used to really study his subjects… and I studied his works and was overwhelmed by what he could do. But it’s interesting, that even in the appreciation of art, there are a lot of different views. Always enjoy hearing from you… and be careful about what you eat at a friend’s home. You never know…

  16. WordsFallFromMyEyes

    ‘Vegetarian love’ is an EXCELLENT name for this, Shimon! Love it.

    Love your reflections. You really are so interesting, how you look into things Shimon – infinitely! 🙂

  17. I enjoy reading your thoughts about photography and art. I think artists help us see what is right before our eyes but have somehow missed.

    • I suppose that does happen now and then. There are so many places we can go with art. Sometimes it tells us about the artist, or his subjective view of his world. Sometimes, I feel as if the artist has been reading my mail. And at times, art can be an inspiration in itself. Right now I’m reading a book. It’s a biography of a very colorful writer here, who was quite famous here. Yet as I read the book, I find myself more fascinated by the author of the biography than by the subject. I think that really fine art always surprises us. Thank you for your comment yearstricken.

  18. I was just reading last night “The New Art of Photographing Nature” by Art Wolfe. In it, he shares an insight about photography that I had never considered. That is: painting is a constructive process where the artist adds strokes to create their art form, whereas photography is more a process of subtracting elements and working with light to create an image. The photographer has to decide what to include and what to leave out to make that image pleasing. I realized that, yes, that is what I do in practice, but I wasn’t as cognizant of the process. It will be fun to work from that place in the future.

    I love your image here, Shimon!


    • Yes, that is a very interesting way of comparing photography to painting. It sounds like an interesting book. I haven’t come across it, because most of my reading is in Hebrew. But I have to tell you that I found your own photography very interesting and beautiful, and had a very nice time looking through your recent posts. A pleasure to meet you, Cathy.

  19. The carrot — a simple and wonderful minimalist photo handled beautifully, yet with the very human association of entwined lovers, which brought a smile to my face! Thank you! Nature is wonderful….

    • We do agree, Janina. Nature is wonderful. And we too are a part of nature. And how wonderful are our associations… and the inspiration that we receive from observing the world around us. Thank you very much.

  20. Well written post Shimon! It was a pleasure to read it. An interesting image!

  21. Thought provoking as always. I spoke with my art students many, many times over the years about just these questions, and there are unlikely to be any perfect and clear answers.

    For my part, though, I tend to think that regardless of how much a photographer–and even, in some ways, a painter or draftsman or other image-maker–tries to be or appear strictly as a documentarian, the choices of angle, focus, and many more variables only exaggerate the fact that one has already chosen what subject to document and how much of it to include within the frame of the image. We can never hope to (nor, I suspect, should we) direct exactly how viewers will see and interpret the images, but we certainly bring our own interests and biases and opinions and tastes into play merely by making the choice to *make* an image and then further, by how we make it. Thanks for sharing!

    • As we learned in school, Kathryn, it’s the questions more than the answers. And I agree with you, that both the artist and the viewer are subjective, each bringing his own world to the subject at hand. Always fun to share with you. Thanks for your comment.

  22. I had the great opportunity to see a large showcase of Ansel Adam’s work at the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Georgia. I have to say that thousands of photographers have went to the same locations that he did, with less than similar results. As you say, we are too caught up in clicking. It is amazing the time he would spend waiting for the right moment. Weeks! Imagine how in tune with an environment you would become with such a thorough study.

    The only photographer I know of that comes close to replicating his quality is Clyde Butcher. I’ve always studied his marketing technique. Every time he sells a print of a scene he marks the price up a little on the next one. Builds value for his customers, creates a buying frenzy for early purchases, and builds value into his art. I remember just a few years ago when he was getting way less for his landscapes photographs.

    I also noticed that Ansel’s prints look like nothing I have ever seen in any book and I have looked at hundred’s of books on his work. They have a sepia tone to them. You would know more about this than me for sure as I have little printing experience.

    • I agree with you completely, BoJo. I too, had the pleasure of seeing his work ‘live’. He was a truly a great master. And what’s more, I sympathize with his desire to photograph the beauties of nature. I just wanted to share the perspective of history, and the fact that some folks were critical. As for marketing techniques, I think that many of us work differently. I have seen fine photographers fail because they couldn’t handle the business end. But my attitude was just the opposite of what you say about Clyde Butcher. When I had great success with a picture, I would afterwards give copies as presents to students and friends. I felt as if I had earned what was coming to me, and I was very happy that I was able to succeed in the business, and live quite comfortably. The tone you saw on Adam’s prints was a process to make the print more permanent. And they do last very well. Thanks for your comment.

  23. You have plowed through the muck and mire of modern babble about art & photography. You have clarified the issues well, and I really appreciate your openness and thoughtfulness. I think that, with camera phones, Instagram, etc., ideas of what is art will continue to expand. But I agree that the value will remain in “communicating something worthwhile and unique.” It’s hard these days, with so much out there, but always worthwhile.

    • Thank you very much, Lynn. I believe that there is a great future for art, but that it will be different from what we’ve read in history, and gotten used to in the past. I think in the future it will be more of a calling and less of a profession, and that many more people will find personal expression in art. Very nice to see you checking out the different posts here…

  24. I enjoy your blog very much, but I’m having trouble finding the time for everything, particularly in spring, when I don’t want to miss all the beauty outside. I can see more people expressing themselves artistically (where basic needs are met) but it’s hard to imagine why there would be fewer professional artists.

    • Well, professional artists sell their work, and expect to make a living from their art. And the more it will become a common enjoyment, people will give art to one another as presents, for free… and there will be less need for professional artists. I remember, when I was a boy, there used to be conductors who operated elevators in large buildings. Now, everyone presses the button themselves and gets to where they’re going. I think the same thing will happen with art.

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