I took this image while on a trip out west to the Grand Teton Mountains and Yellowstone National Park with my family and about 50 other people. We were driving towards our next lodge, past the mountains and the Snake River where we would be rafting the next morning when I became rather fascinated with the scene that lay before me.
Having never seen mountains before in my life – besides seeing the photographs online and in movies – I was awestruck. Immediately I grabbed my camera and began snapping away, fighting the glare of the window while also paying careful attention to the meter in my viewfinder. After I had arrived home about a week later, I was culling the images I had taken on the trip. Almost immediately, this became my favorite.
This image was also taken in the mountains, another favorite of mine, was a much more thought out composition. Our tour guide had told us that we would be stopping to see a church with plenty of photographic opportunities. Almost immediately I knew the shot that I wanted.
I set up my tripod ever so perfectly, did a few test shots to make sure my exposure was right-on, and then explored the area, leaving my camera in position until everyone else was back on the bus. Although I knew I would be the last back in my seat, I knew it would be worth the wait. And it most definitely was, for as everyone else was loading on the bus, the scene was almost completely empty. I took three exposures of the scene, bracketing it just in case the light had changed, and got back on the bus.
Are we artists or photographers?
The reason I’m telling you about these two images is not to make you jealous of my amazing adventure with my family. Rather, I tell you about these to get you thinking. You see, since the days of Ansel Adams, there has been a major debate regarding whether or not photographers should be considered artists.
Ansel Adams himself had struggled with this, having been amongst many other photographers in the beginning of the craft who used soft-focus lenses to create images which looked less like reality and more like paintings. Why? Because photography as a form of art was not taken seriously at the time and to make it among other artists, you had to make your images look like they were painted, not photographed.
Do we document or make art?
So, this begs the question: as photographers, are we crafting works of beautiful art? Or are we simply documenting the world around us with some special – yet easily done by others – ability?
One argument that is commonly brought to light against photography being an art form, is that anyone can do it. There is no need for special gear, no apprenticeship is mandated; you do not even need to take a class to learn photography. Most professional photographers haven’t taken a formal education.
But if this is the case, why do we bother honing our skills? What is the point of constantly learning new compositional techniques, new ways of post-processing? Why do we bother to buy “better” camera bodies, new lenses, sturdier tripods, if our craft is not considered a form of art? If anyone can do it, what is the point of buying a $ 4000 Nikon D850 that everybody is drooling over?
Because not everyone can do what we do
Yes, everyone can be a photographer; every random guy on the street can pick up a camera – or use his smartphone – and take a pretty picture of the sunset. Just look on Instagram and you will see what I mean. But that can be said of painters, sketch artists, etc., as well. Everyone can be an “actual artist” as well. I can pick up a paintbrush, slap some paint on a canvas, and call it modern art. I can draw a single line in the center of a 20×30 foot canvas, hang it in a prestigious art gallery, and sell it for millions. It’s been done before, and it will continue to be done. So, the question is, is this still art?
So if you tell me that painting a single stroke on a canvas is art, then you must also allow me to tell you that photography is art. Otherwise, you are saying that everyone can do photography yet not everyone can paint a line, correct?
Photographers as documentarians
There is also the argument that, as photographers, we are simply documenting the world. We are merely at a location at the right time; we are lucky.
But if we are lucky, how can you explain the countless hours we spend sitting in one spot, waiting for the light to hit, only for the photograph to not turn out as we had hoped. And then we go back to that same location and wait even longer, hoping that the light will turn out this time. Then when it doesn’t, we continue to go back until finally, that light works out. Is that truly luck?
Yeah, just like painters we could probably find a way to Photoshop in some light, replace the sky in the scene to something more visually appealing, and then call it a day.
It’s more than just luck
To say, however, that we are lucky with almost all the shots that we obtain only undermines the countless hours, months, years that we have spent attempting to get better at our craft. Studying compositions of the great photographers before us, buying tutorials of the photographers we admire in hopes that they know something we do not – that does not constitute luck.
Yes, as photographers, we rely on chance. We rely on the weather turning out how we had hoped and the scene we are looking for to be found. At the same time, however, we must learn to adapt to our surroundings, and to our situation. If we are to make it as photographers, we must learn that not everything will turn out as perfectly as we had hoped.
And at that point, we can either come back to the location later or find a way to make it work. We must use our creativity to craft a scene that will be just as good, if not better, than the one we had originally planned in our head.
Looking back at the photographs I had taken while out west, I must ask myself, am I an artist?
What does the master say?
I think Ansel Adams had it right when he said:
“A photograph is made, not taken. A photograph is not an automatic recording, neither is it an accident. It is a concept, a vision of the world translated into shades of gray, communicated in terms of simple devotion to the medium – a statement of the utmost clarity and perfection possible…”
Art has always been subjective. It doesn’t matter if you are taking a picture of your cat or a grand vista in Iceland. In my opinion, if you have an opinion, a mood or emotion, that you are trying to convey to the world through your imagery, then you are an artist.
So, the question is, do you consider yourself to be an artist? Let’s discuss in the comments below.