In photography, we tend to have many dividing lines, a prominent one being: "Art" Photographers versus The Realists.|
Which one are you? Before telling you what the definition of each is, think about what images come into your head? Do the words tell you something or hint at something? Are these two camps so distinct that the Realists can never make art, nor the Art Photographers ever photograph reality? Well, that would say that we know the definition of art…and neither of us believes that you can define what it is, nor what it isn't.
Taking a step back, what constitutes an Art Photographer or a Realist? Now, as with any hard and strict definition, people will dispute the definitions. In fact, they should dispute them. As an artist, we don't want strict definitions for anything. We don't want anyone telling us what our style of art is….it is us, it is personal, and it cannot be evaluated or summarized in a single word.
Now, lets be strict for a moment and separate the two camps. The Art Photographers' main emphasis is mood, created through lighting, color, shadow, subjects. They want to create beauty, not find it. They are the modern day Pictorialists, those original photographers at the turn of the century who created scenes, rather than just photographed what they saw. Granted, Pictorialism went away with Adams and Weston, but in their day they were a strong and fundamental aspect of photography's roots. And, they are once again gaining momentum.
On the other hand, the Realists tend to look for beauty that already exists in the world. Both Adams and Weston help gain worldwide attention to their view of the world, as is. Their goal was finding the beauty in ordinary objects, whether it be a suggestive bell pepper or Half Dome. The Realists are defined as those photographers that depict subjects in an aesthetically pleasing manner (while not altering the image to a great degree, as the eye has perceived it).
The Realists believe that they must document what exists, rather than merely what we want to be there…what is hinted there, but not stated blatantly. But, the Art Photographers would also argue that their depiction is of their reality, and thus equally valid. The argument is moot and redundant for both sides; there is no proof that either is correct or incorrect. There is no right way or wrong way to practice photography. There are no rules you must follow, and there exists severe overlap between these two schools of thought. Regardless, there is one unfailing truth amid the varying myths, fallacies and half-truths. Greatness generally comes from the fusion of both philosophies.
In the beginning of your photographic career, you will probably begin as a Realist. It's a natural step in each photographers' personal evolution. We start out merely taking snapshots. None of us ever picked up a camera the first time to do anything but record an event. But for each person reading this column, we realized (sooner or later), that purely recording events was not enough. You may stay a realist for the rest of your photographic career and enjoy it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and many of the greatest nature photographers and journalists do just that.|
But maybe you want to express yourself a bit more in your images....put some of your own personality in your view of the world. So, what happened after that? Maybe you started to emulate photographic styles and maybe even attempted to outright copy your idols and the masters of photography…all in the pursuit of your own personal style. You slowly realize that your creative side does take over…that making a mood through a style is just as important as recording the truth.
Later, as you mature, you will hopefully find yourself diverging in your photographic interests. Copying will no longer be good enough. An old and notoriously stupid quote, which is regurgitated ad nauseum, is "everything's been shot before!" This is probably one of the most moronic and self-defeating maxims in photography. Of course everything has been shot before, but then again, everything has been written before as well! But, it is our process, our style that makes our stories unique. Shakespeare has been copied over and over again. I find it difficult to find a movie out today that isn't based on something else! Yet, they are telling the story differently, just as you are telling your story, your own "truth" differently. This subject that you photograph is reality, as you see it, but with your mood, you are creating your own truth….you are blending these two camps, taking the best of each, to make the best of you.
Photography, by its very nature, is a biased viewpoint. For that, I'm quite thankful. You are an individual, and for your viewpoint to be anything other than original robs not only yourself of your potential, but the community as a whole. So, embrace the Realist and the Art Photographer within yourself.