But is is Art?

February 7, 2019

Recently I have been experimenting with manipulating photos, after they are edited to my taste, in a suite of programs that allows for a variety of transforming and “painterly” effects.  I find a number of the results fascinating and often more compelling than the originals. That has lead me to wonder – is this an advance in creativity?  Or just an affectation, rather like the quaint engagement with HDR photos that many new photographers experiment with, diminishing their growth until they put the plaything behind them? Or, perhaps even more relevant, like the Instagram filters that many people slam on their very average cellphone snaps to make them “artful” and unique …  For this program itself allows only minimal variation and customization of the effects.  There are a variety of such “filters”… but not infinite.

Even going back to past editing, what about the validity in creative editing of use of Presets.. preserved sets of editing parameters that can be applied on one click to a photo?  Are these a valid path to creating art? Some think so, at least as a starting point.  Others would argue that anything other than working from scratch on a photo using grown up programs like Photoshop is just derivative playing around.  They regard people who work with Lightroom, even when used from scratch as opposed to using presets, as lesser artists who don’t fully realize the potential of their images.  Then there is the opposite frame of view, that the purity of the original photo is paramount, and the supposedly virginal SOOC version (straight out of camera) is the ultimate measure of a photo.  All creativity is supposed to be in the choice of subject, framing and exposure parameters and editing is just a crutch for those who got it wrong in camera.

People are all over the map as to right and wrong ways of processing images.  What I find fascinating, though, is that even within a single view there are fundamental differences in the rationale and basis for the opinion, often based on the evolution and experience of the photographer.  Let me show some examples.

Someone who is a complete newbie may view SOOC images as the best because they know no other option.  They don’t have the capability to edit their images in a satisfactory manner.  Someone later in their evolution may revert to getting it right in camera after becoming unsatisfied with the impact of their photos even once they have proficiency in editing.  On the surface they have the same view, but the latter is more nuanced.  When I first started photography seriously, I reveled in the editing of photos and transforming them into different (and improved) versions.  I was fascinated by the variations that one could make.  But then, as I progressed, I found myself turning more and more to a version of editing that simply enhanced the image, rather than transformed it, looking to get the right light and colour in the original photo.  It’s not that I don’t edit, and sometimes in a muted way that captures what I think is the essence of the photo, but I don’t do it just to impress with the “look”.  I am more picky about the starting point, and sometimes even just clean up the image as it came.

At the other end, there are those who regard Photoshop as the tool for all photos because they have been told it is, and have either not known anything else, or have clawed their way up the steep learning path and equate difficulty of use with professionalism.  Their opinion is based perhaps based mostly on lack of knowledge and an unjustified feeling of superiority.  Others, who have mastered Photoshop and make effective use of its many deep features like it because it does things they just can’t deliver with other tools, and view it as the correct path.  And then there are those who root for Photoshop as the professional answer to creating images who simply grew up with it and have neither bothered nor felt the need to consider other approaches.  One might call this a stick-in-the-mud or even arrogant viewpoint.

So the same viewpoint might be based on completely different worldviews in different people, from uninformed novitiate through to experienced and thoughtful photographer, and lesser stops inbetween.

So where does that leave me in my consideration of using a program to manipulate images in non-photographic ways?  Well, first, let’s take the less than helpful truth that people have different ideas of art, and that art can perhaps be anything you deem it to be.  So if I think it’s art, then frankly that’s all I should care about.  Who, though cares nothing for what others think of their work – I can’t say I am that evolved!  But starting there, and thinking about the changing perspectives of editing as I gain experience, I can make a case that this is a valid approach for some editing – at least the way I do it.  I curate the images I work on substantially to pick the ones that have the most potential “in camera”.  I apply the conventional edits to improve and tune the image to fix flaws and bring out the feeling I am after.  And then I carefully review possible transformations, picking the one that most captures the essence of the image as it speaks to me.  Finally, I edit again where necessary to tune the transformed image, remove distractions and highlight the subject matter.  Is it art?  Well it expresses the feeling I want people to experience when they see it, so to me it is.  And the path to it is, in the end, maybe irrelevant.

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