Earning Your Medals

By offering here something of my understanding of photography, I can continue to earn the images that I have been given.

~Minor White

There is a tendency among photographers to seek definitive, objective, answers to ambiguous and subjective questions—a futile endeavor, to be sure. One such question that arises with some regularity is this: what makes a great photograph? Another is, what makes a photograph art?

In the way I approach my photography and in the way I appreciate the photography of others, a great photograph is not the same thing as a photograph of something great. This is because, to me, art worthy of being considered great should be an expression of the greatness of the artist, not necessarily the greatness of some subject or technique.

When it comes to artistic expression, not all greatness is the same. Some photographs may be considered great by virtue of requiring great skill, great effort, or great luck to accomplish. But those images I consider the greatest are those that, above all else, result from great creativity, great power of expression, and great depth of feeling. These qualities are not qualities of the things photographed, they are expressions of qualities of the mind of the artist.

I’m hardly knowledgeable enough to use sports metaphors, but these thoughts occurred to me during the last Olympic games: I can beat Usain Bolt to the finish line on any race, and I can adorn my display case with more gold medals, in swimming or any other sport, than Michael Phelps. I can do the former by driving a car to the finish line, instead of running; and the latter by having someone make me copies of whatever medals I want. Will I be worthy of the same honors as Bolt and Phelps just by virtue of reaching the finish line first or possessing some number of medals? What makes such athletes worthy of being considered great is not merely the fact that they crossed the finish line first, but the way in which they did so: by honing their skills over years of training, by perseverance and fortitude, and by proving their superior abilities.

Regrettably, in the judgment of the greatness of photographs, taking shortcuts to the finish line and boasting about metaphorical “forged medals,” often make no difference in the judgment of artistic merit. Photographs are rarely evaluated on their originality, or by the degrees of creativity, self-expression, and cognitive effort, that went into their making. Most often, photographs are evaluated by their aesthetic appeal alone.

Is it any wonder that so many take the easy route to the finish line, when the judges don’t seem to care if you ran or drove to get there? One has to do little more than to follow directions and to make copies of others’ compositions to win the same accolades and prestige as the original, if not more.

Today, just about anything can be stamped, “art,” and be considered valid as such, at least by some. Although we may argue about what makes art good or bad or great, none of us is empowered to decide for others what is or is not art. Therefore, the designation of a thing as a work of art, in itself, is meaningless. Whether a photograph is art is less important than whether the photographer is an artist. Art is art, just like a medal is a medal, but if you own a medal without earning it—without years of training, without running a race, without dipping a toe in a pool, without playing a game—can you call yourself an athlete?

A Merging of Worlds

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6 thoughts on “Earning Your Medals

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  1. Yes…the artist reaches for creative self-expression and thus becomes more than just a collector of objects, which is what a photographer becomes when they merely copy an image or take photos for ‘likes,’ sales and awards. I find the latter is more satisfying when my mind, heart and soul are on display in the form of an image. Thank you for the inspiration to go deeper!

    1. Thank YOU, Cheryl! To carry the metaphor a step further: to collect is to appropriate—to acquire something already in existence. I much prefer to create than to appropriate.

  2. I really like the idea of ‘earning’ the images we are given. There is much more reward when we’ve worked hard to develop our own ways of seeing and expression rather than chasing the crowd. It then feels like a gift to ourselves.

    1. I agree completely. Ed Abbey had a snarky take on it:

      “All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare, said a wise man. If so, what happens to excellence when we eliminate the difficulty and the rarity?”

      (The wise man he’s referring to is Baruch Spinoza)

  3. All these philosophical questions are important for some people and there always be debate about, therefore I enjoyed the read and your point of view. For me photography is something that makes ne happy and something I enjoy doing exactly the way I have been doing for the last 15 years and that ia all there ia to it. Is it art or not, An I an arrist or not that is for others to decide, in thw mean time I continue to do what makes me happy regardless.

    1. That’s a good way to look at it, but on the other hand, if you don’t try different things you won’t know how happy you can be. As Goethe wrote, “We are never further from what we wish than when we believe that we have what we wished for.”

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