Photography in it’s truest sense is a form of art. I am quite sure most people would be aware of this. And what exactly is art? According to the Oxford English Dictionary the term “art” means – “The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” Art is such a subjective thing. One persons appreciation of some form of artwork may be the complete opposite to another persons. And when you consider art to be “works produced by human creative skill and imagination”, the ideal behind that indicates some form of creative process, and as is clearly stated, imagination.
Now lets consider the term “creativity”. As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary “creativity” means – “the use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness.” There is that word again – imagination. So lets dive deeper into that – imagination is “the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses.” These are all really interesting terms when you start to dive deeper into what they actually mean. Art. Creativity. Imagination. And seemingly each of these terms all blend together to compliment each other, to assist in the description of each of the other’s meanings.
Where would photography be without the above mentioned “creativity” and “imagination”? Sometimes maybe I think too hard about things, but as many readers or listeners to either the Project RAWcast podcast or article content, or any of my other social channels will know a lot of the topics I write about or discuss are things that come from events or experiences I have personally had. And more often than not, other people have experienced these things too. A recent relevant, topical and quite friendly discussion on a Facebook page I noticed and joined in on started like this –
“It’s hard not to notice the increasing prevalence of over-saturation in landscape photography on social media. Just scroll through your instagram feed (you’d better wear sunglasses) and have a look at how hard many photographers are cranking the saturation slider to 110%. One image in particular that I stumbled across yesterday seriously looked like a nuclear holocaust over an otherwise serene landscape in an iconic Australian location, and yet it received both high praise from hundreds of devout followers and criticism from many who thought it was “over the top”.
I found this quite an interesting topic, and as a person who teaches photography through workshops and events we host as Project RAWcast, and in partnership with many very large photography brands, this type of discussion is the exact opposite of what I personally try to instil into people. The creative process of photography in my personal opinion is being lost as social media continues to grow. Rather than people creating images that suit their own particular tastes, our opinions of what good imagery should be is being formed by what gets the most engagement on social media, or what our group of closely associated peers personally think of a particular photographic or post processing style. There is also a rather large community of people who genuinely believe that their own style and personal opinions of photography is what others should be doing – that rules and foundations should be applied to what other people produce. That you are doing something artistically wrong by stepping outside of what others deem to be “acceptable”. That their own opinion of the “creative” process is more important than others. That in itself is actually an attempt to enforce a limitation of creativity onto other people.
Let’s go back to the above mentioned conversation – “and yet it received high praise from hundreds of devout followers and criticism from those who thought it was over the top“. So firstly you have a group of people that seemingly like the image and are willing to express their opinions as such. And secondly you have a group of people who didn’t. So as an artist (photographer), who should this person be creating their imagery for? Should they be worried about those who don’t like it? Or should this person be happy that there seemed to be a large community that loved it? In my personal opinion, this person should be creating imagery that they themselves like first and foremost. This is again something that I stress so much throughout the workshops and training that I do. If we as photographers are creating content that we ourselves like, that is going to be a massive step in the direction of continuing to grow your own personal enjoyment as a photographer. Something I wonder about this statement as well is whether this is an example of criticising that large group of people who have liked the image? Is this statement actually saying that those people shouldn’t have liked it? Are the people that didn’t like it more right than those that did? Are those people that did like it in some way artistically blind?
Also consider this in regards to the aforementioned discussion – when you do seek out (or even don’t seek out but still receive) the opinions, constructive criticism and advice of others, take into account the experience, success and technical knowledge of the person delivering that opinion. When I personally ask for constructive criticism from people, I firstly want to know that the person I am asking (or receiving from without asking) is in some way qualified to give that opinion, of which I am seeking purely to continually improve my photography. That the person I am seeking that opinion from is truly considering the artistic, creative and overall technical value of the images being judged from the viewpoint of me as an individual photographer (artist). An exact example of this is me being colourblind. Generally when I send my images to my friends (other photographers whose opinions I respect based on their own success) to critique my work they know I am not seeking to perfectly match my colours to nature. They are aware that through the use of long exposure photography I am not attempting to represent a scene “exactly” as it was. They are aware that I am expressing my own interpretation and imaginative process to what I am personally trying to convey, and trying to produce something different, in MY OWN STYLE. What I am generally seeking is to know that I have not turned my sky to green, or have missed patches in the masking of my images where I was trying to remove magenta or cyan, of which I more often as not cannot easily recognise (see this article for more information explaining this).
And there in lies the creative process of photography. If there are creative boundaries being applied to what you are doing either through your own choice or by others around you, your potential is being limited. Some people really like imagery that perfectly reflects the “natural” state of a scene. This is quite typical with wilderness and wildlife photographers. These styles of photography are in my personal opinion on the “journalistic” side of the art – where representing a scene as closely as possible to the way a human eye sees it is in itself an art form. That is how the person creating those style of images imagines and wants to portray that scene through their own creative process. That is that individual person’s style. There are many people who will relate to and appreciate these images. There are also many photographers whose style is a little more on the “unrealistic” side – where rather than representing the scene in it’s purest form, they will introduce longer exposures, more vivid, vibrant and often saturated colours, orton glows and all sorts of other tricks to maybe give their images an “ethereal” look. Or quite possibly rather than introducing more colour, they will produce black and white imagery, or even the more desaturated or “matte” look that has become extremely popular within the travel and lifestyle niches.
Are any of these above things wrong? No. There is a market for each of these styles of images. There are communities of people who will appreciate one style more than another. Where things go wrong in my opinion, is when other people start to criticise one style (or a specific individual, no matter what they produce, which I see happening quite a lot) in the belief it should not be produced, shared or published. That it is wrong for other people to appreciate a certain style of images to have even been produced. I also believe that reading too much into what reactions certain styles of images get across social media will stifle creativity. Images that get your attention on a platform like Instagram are those that grab your attention extremely quickly. Think of your own actions as you scroll through your feed consuming content – how much attention do you pay to each image? What is the likelihood that you are going to read an entire caption of each and every image in that list? You will naturally react to imagery that gets your attention, and this again is partly where social media is limiting the creative process. But this is also part of where some people are also quite successful as well – because their content stands out from the crowd. Their images are different enough, or of such high quality that compared to others, they get viewers attention. Truly quality content will always surface, whether it is “journalistic” or “unrealistic“.
Worrying about what “everyone” thinks about your photography will limit your creative potential. If all you are doing is creating images in the hope of getting a positive reaction from as many people as possible or even just impressing your peers is that really, truly fulfilling as an artist? Here is my advice – focus on the technical side of creating a good photo – composition, sharpness, focus, depth of field, light, initial colour. Then take your imagery to the next level by implementing your OWN STYLE to the post processing process. Your individual touch and artistic style is what will make your content different to other people. If all you are doing is trying to fit in with the social conformity and expectations of what others are doing, you won’t stand out. If you are not trying new things because you are worried about what your “peers” may think of your images, that is limiting your potential. If you are copying what others do rather than expressing your own individuality you are just another photographer in an extremely crowded market.
The best photographers of our time are those that lead the way in either style, process, location or subject. These are the truly creative people that are more often as not copied and looked up to. Why not aim to be a photographer who is being copied and leads the way, rather than giving into the social conformity and creative boundaries that are quite often being imposed by those who are not qualified to give those opinions? Set yourself free and create imagery that you like. Tell a story in your imagery through your own imagination and eyes rather than telling the story others believe you should be telling. Make it your own story. Own it.
Art. Creativity. Imagination. Photography. Don’t let others dictate how your story gets told through your images. Don’t let other people’s opinions of your style of imagery limit your own creative process as a photographer.