An artist is not paid for his labor but for his vision.
Don’t you just love it when someone views your work and the “oohs” and “aahs” ensue only to be followed by “Gee, you must have a great camera.” Doesn’t that just steam your clams? I wonder if these same people tell an author, “Gee, you must have a great typewriter”, or a painter, “Gee, you must have a great brush.” Why is it thought that we photographers are somehow less artistically inclined? Are we just perceived as a bunch of dolts walking around with a tripod over our shoulders? I’m generally pretty laid back about most things, but that phrase just makes my blood boil!
How does one respond to these comments? I’m sure we’ve all heard them. I’m also pretty sure the person issuing such an observation is doing so quite harmlessly; they might even think they’re paying us a compliment, but such assumptions still leave the photographer totally out of the equation. Did the camera set itself up, decide on composition and perspective, conclude what lens to use, determine the desired depth of field and shutter speed, and select the appropriate filters? If so, then why yes, we must have a really great camera! Even with all the sophistication of today's modern cameras, it is still basically just a box with a hole in it. Did Ansel Adams have a great camera or did he have a great vision? I think we all know the answer to that. Keep in mind I’m a landscape photographer. I know today’s cameras and lenses have made life easier in many ways for wildlife and avian photographers, but even superior equipment cannot turn out superior results unless it’s in the hands (or on the tripod) of a superior photographer.
Equipment is important, of course, but artistic vision is far more important. Artistic vision is what sets photographic art apart from a snapshot. That vision can be the most rewarding and most frustrating part of nature photography. As in other art forms, some photographers seem blessed with a natural “eye” for composition and perspective, while the majority of us have to work at it to some extent. Having that natural eye doesn’t mean those photographers work less for their craft, it just means they’re better at it than most. These are people whom I admire and who truly advance the art form – people like Ansel Adams, Galen Rowell, Clyde Butcher, and many people here at NSN. With photography, artistic vision doesn’t stop with composition and camera settings though. It must live on through the processing and presentation of the image as well. So, are we artists or technicians? Truthfully, we have to be a combination of both. Compositional skill means little if we can’t process the image in a capable manner. Certainly, all great photographic artists are and have been great technicians as well, whether in a traditional or digital darkroom. In many instances, composing a scene and releasing the shutter may be the easiest part of the process. Processing the image from camera to final print is many times the most time consuming and complicated part of making an image. Artistic vision is what guides the photographer from their very first visualization of the scene to final output. If we falter on any part of that vision, the final outcome will be adversely affected.
We couldn’t do what we do without equipment, but equipment by itself shouldn’t take top billing. Could it be that we, perhaps, are responsible for the perception that photographers aren’t artists? I think that may be at least partially correct. I’ve spoken with many photographers who themselves don’t consider photography as a genuine art form or themselves as artists. If that’s the case, it’s no small wonder the general public may have reservations about photography being viewed as a genuine form of art. If some photographers can’t be convinced of the legitimacy of photography as art, is there any hope of convincing the general public? I believe the answer lies in educating those who don’t understand that human talent is responsible for the image they’re viewing. We must, in polite fashion, help them recognize equipment is only partially responsible for the image in front of them. It’s up to us, the artists, to justify our existence. We can do so by sharing with the public the details of the shot, how and why we set up the way we did, and why we chose the perspective we did, by explaining what our vision was and what feeling we wanted to impart upon others with the image, by explaining post processing, and by encouraging questions. When they see there’s more to photography than just pressing the shutter release button, hopefully they will gain a new perspective and appreciation of the passion we all put into our efforts. Granted, this can be a painfully slow process, but at least it’s a move forward, and we can never tell what actual effect we may have; perhaps more people downstream will also gain an admiration for photographic art. Art shouldn’t just be viewed; it should be felt as well. We all strive for our work to evoke a visceral response in addition to a visual one. If a small amount of education will help the viewer recognize equipment is just a tool used to achieve a desired result, that the real artwork was forged in the mind of the photographer, in many instances long before the actual image was taken, then I would say it’s time well spent, and just might reduce the instances of “Gee, you must have a great camera!”
Now, I’m off to purchase a Stradivarius; after all, I’ve always wanted to be a great violinist.