Thursday, July 27, 2006

My Camera, the Imperfect Translator.

My Canon G6 is starting to show its age. I'm now in the position of having to decide whether to abandon this model for something slicker and more technologically advanced. I have to give it credit for serving me well over the last few years. It's been a useful, if imperfect, translator.

I read (or heard) years ago a very simple way of categorizing artists. I apologize for not remembering its source. Its conceit was that there are only two approaches that artists take to their work... they either engage in a process of addition or subtraction. Within this perspective, everyone engaged in art has made a commitment to one or the other process. Installation artists, many painters, and most musicians take a constructive (or additive) approach to their work. The painter who applies layer upon layer of color to his/her canvas is the archetypal example. Sculptors, on the other hand, traditionally employ subtraction. They acquire a chunk of their chosen material and whittle it down into the form that fits their vision.

I would make the argument that the essential process of photography belongs to the subtractive category. In our day-to-day existence we have access to a field of visual stimulus that exceeds 180 degrees. We choose to focus on a portion of this field depending on our thoughts, emotions and subconscious impulses. When we employ the use of a camera as a medium, we consciously deconstruct our environment. This is (in my opinion) where the art of photography manifests itself. What have we chosen to focus on? We delineate our own limitations.

I'm not saying a contrary strategy can't be employed. Indeed we can devise an internal subjective vision, and construct its approximation in external reality. In this case, the photographer builds his/her image in as controlled a manner as possible. The devil's advocate might still point out that the artist must eliminate all external factors that do not support his/her vision... but this seems to evade the essential nature of the artist's strategy. Cindy Sherman's work is a great example of this kind of photography.

When deciding what we want to accomplish, we have to consider the nature of the tools we are using. In the case of photography, the image is the product and the camera is the medium. Our decison to take an addititive or subtractive approach is going to dictate the nature of the equipment required. The technological limitations of the camera itself is going to inform our dialogue. Those characteristics, I would propose, are less at issue in a subtractive approach.

For example, my Canon G6 is going to impose its flaws on the process itself. It will be an imperfect translator. The artistry lies in the manner in which the artist engages these limitations with respect to the external stimulus. It's a three-way... with the subject, the camera and the artist all collaborating to make the image. In a constructive approach, we are imposing our will onto the subject through our camera... which in this case is going to act as our slave. Our success is determined by our ability to master the camera. In this case technological limitations are merely to be overcome.

Using the G6, I have learned to make my art with a respect for the camera's limitations. I would assert that this strategy has often led to a serendipitous product. In allowing the camera itself to have a voice in the final outcome, I have discovered ways of viewing that I would have discarded if my aim was constructive. Therefore the purchase and use of a new camera will fundamentally effect my artistic process. The translator itself will be more silent in its accuracy. It will be liberating my artistic will, and most folks would consider this an ultimate good. But I will miss the voice of the G6, and its peculiarities of vision. Maybe it's all just an illusion of animism, but there is no doubt that it has informed my work.


Anonymous jefg said...

I think the whole topic of photography as art would make for an interesting discussion. I haven't Google'd it to see how much has already taken place, but I've been giving some thought to it recently.

Someone once referred to my photography as postcard photography. It wasn't meant to be derogatory, and I didn't take it as such. I don't think of (most of) my photography as art at all, just as photos, trying to capture the moment's reality as I see it and think others might like to see it. However, I haven't taken some photos that resemble what I think of as art. Usually they are a piece of a larger realistic view, taken from an odd angle, unusual lighting, etc.

On the other hand, many take photographs that I would call conceptual art, as the photos show something other (and more) than the simple reality of the subject.
I have absolutely no problem calling photography an art, and photgraphs as art. How far off of the simple reality of the camera's point-and-shoot eye must a photo be to be considered art? Maybe it's a fine line, I don't know.

I suppose the same discussion could take place over painters from the school of realism (the photographs before photography existed), versus interpretive painting.

7:44 PM  
Anonymous jefg said...

For what it's worth, after comparing a bunch of digital cameras for such things as size (yes, size matters), range of features (megapixels, screen size, manual settings, ability to attach filters and lens, optical zoom#), ease of use (meaning, a Canon, since my last three cameras have been Canon), and price, today I ordered a Canon A700. I'm hoping to get some good additions for my photo wall, and perhaps even venture into some more creative photography (i.e.; photography as art.)

7:49 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

I agree that there is no hard-and-fast demarcation line for photography as art. Art is usually in the coceptualization anyway, and people are going to naturally disgree about the merits of any work. Many folks would consider craftsmanship to be artful... I think there is actually a nebulously defined genre of postcard art. I'd rather skip the question "Is it art?" and move into more specific discussion on a piece-by-piece basis.

9:59 PM  
Anonymous DeeA2Z said...

Perhaps the best feature of the camera lens is the ability of the photographer to capture a fleeting expression, a moment in time which would otherwise be forever lost, now memorialized by a simple shutter movement. The lens captures all that is, and does not discriminate between what is considered to be beauty and what is not. The result of the shutter click either on film medium or as a digital image becomes the artwork to be viewed, manipulated and critiqued. A photographer can always manipulate the lighting and composition of a subject, but the lens will always record just what it "sees", including anything the photographer might consider undesireable.

It seems to me that photography could be considered a pure form of art. It depends upon your definition of "art", which is of course the subjective point of this particular blog.

Photographers who enter their work in various competitions have more fields in which to categorize their photos, depending on how they manipulate the results (including computerized manipulation). Thus it seems that photography has become more legitimized as an art medium. Don't artists manipulate their medium in some way? Every "art walk" displays photos, and many photographers through the years have shown their work in art galleries. I rather think photography has been considered "art" for quite some time.

3:45 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

If it were as you said, I believe that photography would be unable to transcend documentation. The fact that the photographer uses intentionality to discriminate between what will be seen and left unseen is what allows it to be considered "art".

6:39 PM  

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