Photography is a fusion of technological precision and art. Throughout history, photographers balanced those two elements to create the perfect photograph. Both those are important. However, many people place the emphasis on technicalities and the art becomes forgotten. Others concentrate solely on the art. As in all things, balance is important.
Since the dawn of human history, art has been of paramount importance to humans. Imaging the earliest cave dwellers whose energy during their short lives was almost entirely concentrated on survival. They hunted and gathered food, storing it for the winter. For protecting themselves from predators and for cooking, they had to collect fire wood. Then tools needed to be crafted.
Yet, they still found time to record their lives and express their spirituality in art. They painted on the walls and carved out of bone or moulded out of clay.
At the dawn of photography, the French artist Louis Daguerre worked alongside the inventor of the camera, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. Art and science striving together. On this side of the Channel, inventor William Fox Talbot explored photography too. Although driven by scientific endeavour, art was clearly evident in his outstanding compositions.
Then, chemical engineer Herbert Bowyer Berkeley and polymath Sir John Herschel emphasised the technological side of photography. Meanwhile, back in France, Hippolyte Bayard applied the same careful compositional techniques as artists in creating his images.
Early photography in Britain was mainly a pastime for upper-middle class white men. Maybe that is why Julia Margaret Cameron, with her more artistic approach to photography, using soft focus techniques, met disdain from her technically precise contemporaries. Like many artists whose creativity becomes appreciated posthumously, her work is considered ground-breaking by many people today. However, some do still think of her photographic technique as lazy and imprecise. That goes to show that appreciation of photography is subjective and influenced by our personal opinions.
Leap forward nearly 90 years. In David Bailey’s photographs of Jean Shrimpton for Vogue magazine in 1962, the New York streets added context to the fashion shots. I consider these images far more powerful than portraits of people with plain, smooth white backdrops. He is a photographer who minimises the importance of the technical aspects of photography and concentrates on the art. It was an approach that upset the establishment, although now applaud his groundbreaking approach.
Bailey was quick to criticise the establishment. In an interview with Ephotozine, he said of the late Patrick Litchfield, “[he]was technically great, couldn’t take a picture to save his life.” I’m not sure I would agree with that assertion but their approaches to photography were very different and again it illustrates that our appreciation of art is subjective. Furthermore, any revolutionary movement in art ultimately becomes the established norm.
Claiming not to be technical photographers is something both Bailey and, one of my other favourite photographers have in common. Annie Leibovitz says she shuns the technical aspects of photography too. She concentrates on the lighting and story-telling far more than the camera settings.
In her excellent online Masterclass, Leibovitz declares that she is not a technical photographer. I watched her explaining that she doesn’t think about the way aperture changes depth of field in her shots. Even so, a lot of her portraiture work often includes relevant settings that add context to the photographs. I am sure that isn’t a happy accident.
It was interesting to see that after this course was released, there was a flood of photographers declaring in online forums that they were not technical photographers, as if that declaration of their shortcomings gave them kudos.
Bailey and Leibovitz photograph people and places that most of us can only dream of. We are never going to have a gallery of photos we’ve taken of Jack Nicholson, Whoopi Goldberg, Keith Richards or Michael Caine.
But, that doesn’t matter. We can still learn to create great pictures of people and places around us. There are characters and personalities in our lives we can photograph. It is worth capturing an aspect of their personality and you can create photographs just as captivating as those of film or rock stars.
It takes practice to learn and maintain the skills. If you are stuck for subjects, then you could try shooting images of your friends and family or even shooting self-portraits.
Knowing how our cameras and lenses perform at different settings will make us better photographers. But that must not be at the expense of expressing ourselves as artists.
We often concentrate on getting the cameras settings just right. Then we spend a lot of time thinking about it and adjusting the exposure, focus and composition. All of those become second nature with learning and practice.
That story is essence of the art. Spend just as long thinking about the story your photograph tells. It’s the most important element of photography and it is the last thing most people learn.
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