Photography and Art

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

How Creative Does a Photo Have to Be?

There are many genres of photography - almost as many as there are photographers. Like many photographers who are learning the craft, I struggle to find a consistent groove and often wonder how great photographers decide on their life's work. My work tends to range all over the place as I look for the topics that I can communicate well.

I'm sure there are others out there too that wonder what it takes to establish a personal style that attracts viewers. There doesn't seem to be any one answer. For some, the route to success seems to be through technical virtuosity. I admire the work of Alain Briot at Beautiful-Landscape who had the benefit of a traditional fine arts education and has worked very hard to establish himself as a landscape photographer. He is a prolific author and educator on fine art photography and print making.

For others, the route to success is not so much technical virtuosity, but in developing a knack for capturing a wonderful image at a point in time. I was recently at an Art Gallery of Ontario exhibit featuring Ansel Adams and Albert Eisenstaedt. We all know that Adams was the master of exposure and print making, but Eisenstaedt on the other hand represented the ideal opportunist. He was a photojournalist, so rarely made prints. His talent was an uncanny sense of timing and composition that he developed successfully throughout his career.

There is another group of photographers that are of the belief that to be successful you have to push the envelope of creativity. This seems to be a very popular theme in local Toronto photo galleries and I'm not at all sure whether this represents a path to a long, fruitful career in fine art.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of abstract art and very appreciative of photographs that make a strong statement geometrically or with colour or texture. One of my fave photographers in the flickr community is Omni, an Aussie who has a very definite style and does beautiful abstract work with common objects. To my left is an example of one of her photos.

I also enjoy artists that push the envelope when it comes to photo processing. I like the look of photos taken with toy cameras that leak light or cross-processed photos that warp our points of view in delightful ways.

However, there is a fairly large group of artists that feel compelled to go further and further out there to differentiate themselves. Two recent exhibitions illustrate my point. Last week I went to Pikto Gallery here in Toronto to view and exhibition by David Graham White entitled In the Garden I Felt Safe. Imagine a collection of fairly conventional photographs of English Topiary Gardens (the ones where the hedges are trimmed into shapes), displayed on a TV set and then re-photographed. The point of the exercise was to take photos of claustrophobic, constrictive spaces, then project them on a conventional medium like television so that they take on a more disconnected, familiar feeling, like a horror movie.

I was struck with two thoughts as I looked at the prints. I was very taken with the emotional impact of the images. The concept is powerful and the execution was disconcerting. However, I also found myself wondering about the extent to which artists have to go to create art these days. Was it really necessary to create all these steps or could the same impact have been achieved with simple photographs?

Yesterday, I went to Gallery 44 here in Toronto for a show by two British photographers, Sonya Hanney + Adam Dade. The photographs in the show were all very similar to the one depicted here. There was also a video which depicted the couple in a hotel room taking all the furniture and furnishings and making them into a cube in the centre of the room, taking the photograph and then putting the items back where they came from.

These were well-crafted prints and, judging from the video, the artists took extreme care to arrange the objects in a precise way. The only question left hanging in the air is "Why?". What on earth are these two artists trying to communicate here? These images just don't make an emotional statement for me on any level. This is an example for me of weirdness for weirdness sake.

So, what is the student of photography supposed to learn from all of this. Is the secret to developing a personal style based on mastery of photography and printmaking? Is it based on learning the precise moment when forces conspire to create the perfect composition? Or, should we be pushing the envelope, looking for creativity in strange places like hotel rooms in Scotland?

This image is probably as abstract as any I've taken. I wanted to juxtapose several shapes and angles and found the perfect subject in the Ontario College of Art building, a giant box on metal stilts. I took the photo of the bottom of the box looking up one of the stilts.

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