For the past couple of weeks, I served as a volunteer host at a photography exhibit. My main responsibility was to remind people to behave themselves while they enjoyed themselves, as in, “Excuse me, but would you mind asking your child not to lick the photos?” We had thousands of visitors, so I heard a lot of comments from the public, ranging from “Aw, look at the doggie,” to “Impressive depth of field — he must have been shooting at something like f8, but with a relatively slow shutter speed.” In other words, pictures were admired (or loathed) with varying degrees of sophistication, and tended to be based on either subject matter or technical skill.
Once in a while someone wanted to chat with me about a specific photo or about photography in general. One gentleman asked a question that bears repeating here. “Can you explain to me,” he asked, “the difference between a picture and a photograph?” It took me a second, but I figured out what he was getting at: where’s the line between a snapshot and a work of art?
I should acknowledge that several decades ago there was some debate about whether photography deserved to be considered an art form, but I think that case has been closed. Some photographs are undoubtedly art, and some — ones taken at a bachelorette party, for example — are not. So what’s the difference?
To qualify as art, it seems to me that some level of technical proficiency (or incredible luck) is necessary. Some thought has to have gone into how the picture is composed, how it’s lit, and so on (see my blog post of 7/13/09, “Tips For Better Photographs”).
Compelling subject matter helps, too, although something as mundane as a pile of firewood can make for a great photograph if shot with imagination and skill. I’m willing to bet that an artist who uses a camera almost never says, “OK, everybody line up and say ‘cheese’.” Hypothetically, you or I could stand next to an artist and take a photo of the same sunset, but he or she somehow sees it, and records it, in a way that elevates it above our Generic Sunset Shot.
But here’s the thing about art — any kind of art: the form it takes, the method of presentation is only half of it; the other half is how it’s received. That’s because art is a subjective experience. In the recent exhibition, I saw photographs that were technically perfect — but left me cold. They didn’t inspire me, they didn’t make me see the subject matter in a way I hadn’t seen it before. The photographer had, in effect, asked me to look at something without really showing me anything.
There were other photographs, though, that — at least for me — met the standard of art. They may have been slightly flawed from a technician’s perspective… but they were so achingly beautiful that they made your eyes fill. Or made you want to lick them. But please don’t.