Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting excerpts from my new e-book on creative portraiture, “Capturing the Face”. The book is subdivided into the 10 considerations we need to make when we approach a stylized portrait shoot. The full 44 page, $2.99 e-book is available for the Kindle here, and if you enjoyed this I encourage you to check out my image transfer workshop video tutorials on Skillshare!
This particular excerpt is a discussion of “What Makes Artistic Portraits So Artsy?”:
What makes some photography “art” and other photography “not art”?
Is it mere semantics- “It’s art because I say it’s art”?
Do art photos express a personal point of view unique to the photographer?
Do art photos have no practical commercial, historical, scientific or otherwise utilitarian use and by default become art?
Do art photos start as art or can they be elevated to the level of art only within a certain context? Say, a family snapshot from 1977 that gets scanned, enlarged and printed in 2015, displayed on a gallery wall or with a few postproduction filters added?
Or are art photos generated with intentional use of the elements of art, principles of design, and with a deep understanding of historical art traditions and composition?
Is the art product solely within a printed physical copy of an image?
These are the kinds of questions bandied about in forums, college classrooms, and internal monologues of the art photographer. Rarely is there consensus in any definitive answer, because every venue or gatekeeper that typically provides some guide as to what is art and what isn’t changes their minds as to what gets included and what gets left out. The 1977 snapshot example would not have bypassed a gatekeeper in its own era, but time and technology have changed the gatekeeper’s POV. It’s only been recently in history- basically the last few years- where gatekeepers are starting to get sidelined, and the online tribal camps figured out how to curate their own galleries, magazines, YouTube shows, with zero overhead costs or investors to answer to. It’s only been the last few years that artisans could sell to a wide audience through Etsy, eBay, Red Bubble, and other online shops with no juried gatekeepers.
We’ll talk about reaching an audience and dealing with the gatekeepers in a later chapter. For now, let’s consider those earlier questions about art photography.
A photo that at one point may not have been about something could adopt meaning and now be about something. Or something other than its original intent; for example, party photos of the disco era are now historical artifacts.
We now no longer need a printed physical version of something to enjoy it fully, have it communicate its meaning to us. Many people consider online experiences as real as real world experiences.
Commercial/ historical/ scientific/ utilitarian imagery is considered a creative art as much as the purely “self expression”-type of imagery and the purely “formalist”-style of images focusing on elements of art and composition, like shape/ color/ value etc.
For the purposes of this book, I’ll say:
1. The Artistic Portrait Photographer is someone who generally takes pictures for themselves. They would take photos even if they weren’t paid, though as with all things people like to get paid for what they do. Why they like to take photos is irrelevant- most of them would like to get better at what they do, and possible receive some recognition in some form for their creations.
2. The Artistic Portrait Photographer uses style and craft to communicate an intended feeling about the subject. The subject may be loved, or distrusted, or admired, or any number of other emotions, and the photographer’s intent should be recognized by the viewer.
3. The Artistic Portrait Photographer needs to have some recognizable stylistic traits that continue over some undefined period of time- not every photo needs to look the same, but there needs to be evidence of choices being made.
4. Artistic Portraits cross general photographic genres, from fashion to documentary and travel to nudes to family to candid street images.
One of my favorite artistic portraiture photographers is Richard Avedon. Avedon did commercial work, fashion work, shot the Vietnam War, created a series about the characters of American West, and generally shot hundreds of major cultural figures including presidents. His most recognizable work involves pure white backgrounds and “the thing itself” as he presented people- stark, in some state of emotion due to the interaction between the photographer and subject. It’s a pure, minimal aesthetic- I remember, as a snot-nosed 20-something, initially finding the work dull, but as years went on I recognized the masterfulness of it. For my money, Avedon is untouchable; yet my Photo History professor portrayed him as a high-falutin’ NYC guy what come to pick on the yokels in his American West series. That professor laid out the notion that Avedon’s assistants did most of the work, and that the shots chosen reflected some East Coast stereotypical viewpoint. Does it matter if assistants do a lot of the heavy lifting? Well, consider how films and other major productions are created- there’s a lot of delegation that doesn’t water down artistic intent.
A less recognized genius of the Artistic Portrait is Ralph Eugene Meatyard. Meatyard was an optician with an interest in Zen philosophy and used his family members to illustrate ideas that had visual tricks and wordplay in the titles to evoke a photographic equivalent of Zen meditation. In lesser hands, the blurs, masks, and vibrating images would come across as gimmicks, but Meatyard had an internalized purpose and vision. The struggle to create good art is a struggle to understand ourselves.