Drawing the Line

In fact every photograph is a fake from start to finish, a purely impersonal, unmanipulated photograph being practically impossible. When all is said, it still remains entirely a matter of degree and ability. ~Edward Steichen

The only definition for art that I was able to come up with that is both unequivocally true and that also can be put to use to clearly delineate art from anything that is not art is this: art is the product of artists. This is because, in one context or another, practically any object or experience can be considered art, but not every person can be considered an artist.

Defining art as the product of artists also serves to appropriate the term to things created consciously by a human agent. As artificial intelligence advances in leaps and bounds, it may well be that machines will soon be able to manufacture artful, perhaps even creative, products, which indeed will be a spectacular technological accomplishment. But we will do well to exclude such developments from the definition of art at the outset, lest we risk losing what art is beyond mere aesthetics. Machine generated art may be indistinguishable from human made art to someone viewing it, but there is one aspect of art that no machine can ever replace: the inner experience of the artist.

I’m of the opinion that defining a thing as a work of art describes its function (at least within a given context and/or period of time) but should not be considered a value statement. I believe that there are many worthy things that are not art and that are as, or more, worthy than many great works of art. Documentary photography, for example, has been responsible for some of humanity’s greatest accomplishments, including the proliferation of information about, and awareness of, some of the pinnacles of existence and of human endeavors, both grand and terrible. Commercial photography is responsible for much of our industrial progress, our knowledge of what people and things look like even if we never get to see them in person, and much more. But why do these have to be art? It seems odd to me that many hijack the term art as a marketing label, or as an indication of elevated quality, creativity or other things, even when such things are decidedly absent, or irrelevant to the work’s intended use. When everything is art, nothing is art.

I’m of the opinion that what artists wish to express is of greater importance than the means they choose to express it with. As such, I consider such things as purity of process, tradition, or any other constraint that a photographic artist may choose to adhere to, as important to understanding the artist’s temperament, but otherwise less important than their reasons for creating their work in the first place. I am more interested in the why than the how.

Having made such statements before, I recognize that sometimes viewers may assume about my work what lawyers call, “facts not in evidence,” namely that my tolerance for what some may call “manipulation” suggests that I push the boundaries of (to borrow a term from Ansel Adams) “departure from reality” to a greater extent than I actually do.

I do, absolutely and unapologetically, create images that are departures from reality. In fact, I do not believe that any product created with the aim of representing (literally re-presenting) reality qualifies as art. The very origin of the term art is a Latin word implying something manufactured by human skill, rather than occurring naturally. But, I also wish to make clear that my departures may be far more nuanced than some may believe. I practice my work as self-expressive art, meant simply that in my images I wish to reflect a true, subjective, inner state. I unequivocally do not seek to manufacture images just for aesthetic beauty, nor to elicit emotional responses that I had not experienced at the time of making the image. And those inner states I wish to express most often are inspired by my experiences in wild places. And I do not wish for my work, or the emotions it expresses, to depart from those real experiences.

My goal of expressing my own inner states in my work, using natural beauty as a vehicle for such expression, rather than its ultimate goal, also explains the things I do not do. Images ensuing out of technological feats, such as aerial photography or renditions of the night sky that I am unable to see or relate to emotionally (at least not until after the image is made), while interesting to experience as a viewer, do not interest me as an artist. They may arouse an emotional reaction in the viewer, but they do not ensue out of an intuitive one. At least for me.

I also rarely create images in the company of others. This is because I am extremely introverted and do not experience emotions with the same depth and power when around people as I do when alone. No matter how beautiful the scene, if I feel uncomfortable, distracted, or self-conscious, I will not photograph it.

And so, although I do not presume to impose my boundaries on anyone else, nor claim that my reasons are in any way more “true” or valid than those of others, I draw my line for departing from reality at the extent that such departures distill and emphasize those aspects of an image that are conducive to the emotions I feel and wish to express, and that I hope to elicit in the viewer. The image in its aesthetic aspects, to me, serves as a conduit for real inner experiences and subjective feelings, making tangible things that otherwise will only be available to me, and offering a means of relaying them to others.

This is to clarify my own approach, and not in any way to disparage the works of others who choose to draw their lines elsewhere, or whose motivations in creating their works are different from mine. My reason for making these statements is that I find it eminently interesting to understand the motivations and choices of other artists, and I wish to encourage anyone engaged in producing expressive work to similarly think about and to articulate their own motivations in writing. As a viewer, it greatly enhances my experience of your work.

All is Well

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18 thoughts on “Drawing the Line

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  1. Guy, wonderfully stated my friend. I really enjoy all of your writing and your ability to express your thoughts so clearly and make it so relatable for me. You are able to explain things that I feel, but I cannot transform those feelings into words like you seem to be able to do. I own “More Than a Rock,” it sits on near my computer where I edit my images, and I am always referring back to different parts that really impacted me as an artist on a journey to reach his full potential. I love your photography but I think I almost equally enjoy your writing. Please continue to do both for as long as you can, I depend on your inspiration.

    Peace and Love


  2. Guy, I always enjoy your writing – as well as your art, or should I say as well as your “photographic art”. I think defining art is an “age old” task that has never been completed successfully. In your opening paragraph:

    “The only definition for art that I was able to come up with that is both unequivocally true and that also can be put to use to clearly delineate art from anything that is not art is this: art is the product of artists. This is because, in one context or another, practically any object or experience can be considered art, but not every person can be considered an artist.”

    the last phrase: “but not every person can be considered an artist.” highlights the issue. By saying art is what artists do, you have merely shifted the question from “What is art?” to “Who is an artist?” And left that hanging.

    The phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” comes to mind. And suggests to me that as no one has successfully given an objective definition of art, that this clearly falls in the the nature of a transaction in the form of “I think this is art or I know this as art” It is in essence a transaction between the one who makes the object to be considered as “art” and the one who values it as such.

    In viewing any object, we can simply view it as a whole emotionally, or deconstruct it into various elements which may appeal intellectually. In either case, how we perceive and react to the object is as much determined by “who” we are as individuals as by any intent the producer may have had in mind to convey to the observer. So, I would say that there is little way to objectively lay the term “art” on a piece of work since that determination (and hence the appellation “artist” applied to the maker) is dependent not only on the intent of the producer, but the “eye” of the beholder. Pieces are placed in museums and galleries because of consensus of beholders, sometimes based on current fashion and taste, tradition, or “norms” of institutions. They become thereby defined as “art” culturally. However, for each personal beholder there is the individual transaction between the beholder and the producer that actually defines “art” and the maker as an “artist” in that moment. Otherwise, “art” is just a convenient label for something made by someone.

    1. Great observations, Greg. Thank you! I actually did contemplate the answer to “who is an artist.” From my book, More Than A rock:

      “I think what makes one an artist is not the medium they work in or anything they produce. If you have a thing—any thing—that you are passionate about, that keeps you looking for new creative endeavors, and that factors into the way you pursue life and engage with the world, you are deserving of the title of artist. Wear it proudly.”

      One interesting aspect related to the “eye of the beholder” argument is that we are finding out that it also has a physiological/neurological foundation. I often recommend Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master And His Emissary, to anyone interested in the scientific underpinnings of art. His arguments are very provocative, but the scientific studies he cites are fascinating, whether you agree with his conclusions or not. One of the things I found particularly interesting is the fact that the parts of the brain engaged in creative expression and in aesthetic experience are more tolerant of ambiguity. They don’t require things to be unequivocally this or that.

  3. Excellent discussion of the concept of art and artist. Thanks for continuing to challenge and stretch my thinking! Keep up the great writing!

  4. Excellent thought provoking post. After reading this last night, I spent some time today trying to come up with a definition of art that worked for me, and failed. I agree with you that an art photograph has to be based on the photographer’s involvement with the world and her emotional reaction to it. From a viewer’s point of view, I want an image that invokes an emotion in me, or, shows me the world in a way I hadn’t looked at it before. The problem that that gives me is that some of the most evocative images I have ever seen have been taken by photojournalists. Can a journalist produce art?

    1. Thanks Peter!
      I think that’s a matter of how you define art. I wonder sometimes if we made the term so ambiguous that it is no longer of practical use. Why can’t something be evocative, emotional, inspiring, etc., without being labeled as art? On the other hand, if a photojournalist wishes to consider their work as art, it is entirely their prerogative. Such is the danger of labels. Art or not, it is more important to pursue those things that elevate our lives. We may argue about terminology, but to favor terminology over experience seems silly to me. The most unfortunate incarnations of such confusion of ends and means that I know of are to be found in the academic study of philosophy and art. Just as some artists waste their time arguing about art to a point where they become unable to be moved by it emotionally, try asking someone in the Philosophy department whether or not they agree with the philosophy they study (more so, if they do, how come they rarely implement it in their own lives).

  5. Guy –
    Wonderfully written and I agree on almost every account of what you wrote here. The expression of art should be a personal one and I think that is where landscape photography has gone off the rails so to speak. Many “artists” are producing images not because they move them or that it is driven by some intrinsic response to the environment, but because they want likes or they want to reproduce the work of someone else. I really enjoy that you drew a line in the sand for yourself but expressly stated that this is YOUR line and that you understand why someone else might feel differently. I personally LOVE taking photos of the night sky because it takes me back to those magical nights under the stars where I feel so small and filled with wonder. That’s my reason. Does not mean it has to be your reason. These are topics we discuss on my new podcast, f-stop collaborate and listen, quite a bit. I’d love to have you on sometime, even if you say you’re an introvert. The conversations are very laid back and unscripted. Thanks again for your writing – it is always a good read.

  6. I can relate to your thoughts on this. There seems to be a few very specific reasons, or possibly conditions that create the highest level of creativity within my own work. Solitude being one of the most dominant. I recently experienced some personal struggles that led to great desire for solitude. As I typically do, I headed to nature in seek of such solitude.

    I am not the one to determine if work created during such personal conditions is good, or bad, which is not the purpose anyway. But the act of creating was, and seems to always be soothing to my soul. This can only happen during those times of solitude. I am very grateful to have discovered this some years ago.

    Then again I relate very closely to the “extremely introverted” condition as well. Which I also cherish. Some may think it selfish, but I learned to appreciate the value of personal expression simply because “I” needed something. Though I can appreciate others opinions they never seem to enter my mind before, during or after such experiences. Which is a complete blessing as well because I am self conscious to a fault.

    1. Good thoughts, Brad. A thought came to me as I read your note: art as a means to freedom, if only temporary, from one’s demons. All incarnations of consciousness, if they are to persist beyond a singular accident, have to be selfish: to find value in their own existence. The point is not to disregard the self, but to nurture it without ill effect to others.

  7. Guy,
    Your writing as always is well written and thoughtful. Thank you. But for me ,it also make me think – more questions arise than answers.
    I think you have said for example that programming and some math can be artistic and elegant. Also that a shoemaker can create art. I personally believe art doesn’t have to come from an artist. The shoemakers intent may be to make a really nice pair of shoes but the shoes may be perceived by others as art.
    For me it’s a chicken/egg question: a person sets out to make something nice (maybe a photo, maybe a pair of shoes) and it is perceived by others as art. In retrospect is that person an artist? I took some pictures of Cuban mechanics that needed to make tools for their work. I found those tools artistic. But the creators are still mechanics. Isn’t this a bit relative?
    Tools to them , art to me – which perspective is correct?

    1. I think that from the artist’s perspective it’s more an issue of the things you can or cannot control. Works of art, once made public, assume a life of their own, sometimes linked to the life and intent of their creator but not always, and often outside the creator’s ability to influence. Susan Sontag made a similar observation in her book, On Photography:

      A photograph of 1900 that was affecting then because of its subject would, today, be more likely to move us because it is a photograph taken in 1900. The particular qualities and intentions of photographs tend to be swallowed up in the generalized pathos of time past. Aesthetic distance seems built into the very experience of looking at photographs, if not right away, then certainly with the passage of time. Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art.

      Ultimately it is up to each person to decide what art means and what value it holds in their own life. Perhaps the most important point of sharing such thoughts is to suggest qualities and values of art that one may not have thought of before, in hope that they may lead to some revelation or greater appreciation.

  8. Art speaks from the heart. Sometimes I think it’s my heart that presses the shutter more than my finger. The technology, tools, camera gear and photo software are all just tools that facilitate our expression.

    1. “The camera only facilitates the taking. The photographer must do the giving in order to transform and transcend ordinary reality.” ~Ernst Haas

  9. Like you — and unlike some artists/photographers — I am fascinated by what it means to photograph, and what choices we make about subject, methods, ethics, and more say about what we do. I’d love to be part of a roundtable on such things. (And, yes, I’ve learned — too many years in the arts and it teaching! — that not everyone shares this fascination.)

    I don’t have a “definition of art” — though I have some pretty strong notions about it, whatever it is, and about how it is created and regarded. I have come to believe, and it seems obvious now, that it is more about what the artist him/herself communicates than it is about subject or particular choice of media or technique, etc.

    Oddly, when you subtract out the media and the objects/creations that we regard as art you are left with two things. One is the person who produces it. The other is the person who experiences what the first person created. The nature of the experience is two fold. The artist is creating something that embodies his/her subjective truth — a way of seeing (or hearing or speaking, etc) the world and its experiences. The “viewer” experiences that subjective truth and way of seeing.

    I’m fascinated by the idea that something remains unknown to each of the partners in this. The creator produces something that comes from his/her experience and perspective, and shares it mostly openly with those who are interested. Yet the artist can never fully share his/her relationship with the work. I can look at your prints and believe (know, actually) that I understand and learn something about how you see and experience, but there is a portion of what is in the work that only you will ever understand.

    At the same time, the observer also gets to hold secrets. When I look at your photographs I may share certain perspectives and experiences with you — I’ve seen such light, I’ve watched similar clouds, I’ve walked in these places, I’ve felt that breeze, I’ve heard those sounds. Yet, I, too, have secrets concerning your work that you can never know, because the work evokes experiences and relationships and points of view that are my own.

    Maybe that is part of the enigma — that while we (artist and viewer) are both looking for a communication of something that we can share, we can never fully share all that we know or see about the work.

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