From the Water to the Light

She Baths In Lily Pads, originally uploaded by carolsLittleWorld.

The Gulf Coast residents will start to return home (if they haven’t already) tomorrow, and, with the hurricane threat over (for now) I thought it would be a good idea to go back and explore my “what is fine art photography?” series, so this will be part of that installment.

To look at “fine art photography” we should really start by looking at “photography” in general. What is photography?

When you hear the word “photography” you can immediately think of the words “light sensitive.” Photography is working with a light sensitive medium. That’s nice but, some folks don’t really understand the concept of “medium” so lets go on to define that (since we’re being technical here today.)

When you paint with oil paints, you can make your own oil paints by mixing pigment (color) with medium (carrier-in this case, some type of oil) to get an oil paint. When you paint with acrylics, you can make your own paints by mixing pigment (color) with medium (carrier-in this case acrylic medium) to get acrylic paint. In the first case, the medium is oil, in the second, it’s acrylic medium. It’s important to note that, in both cases, the medium is different but the pigment is the same.

So, how does this relate to photography? In the case of photography, the medium is light-sensitive. It might be paper that’s been specially coated with a chemical residue to make it light sensitive, it might be film (which is light sensitive-we know that because we have to develop our film in a “dark room”) or it might be any kind of object that’s sensitive to light. (In digital photography, it’s usually a camera sensor.) The way photography typically works is that you expose the light sensitive media to light for a certain amount of time and then develop (or process) that result into something we call a photograph.

Note that, just as in the case of oil, acrylic, or any other medium, the pigment is not part of the process. You can have colored light sensitive medium or you can have black and white light sensitive medium.

Also, did you notice how I never used the word “camera” to define photography? Cameras, while they provide convenient “resting places” for our light sensitive media, are not actually part of what defines photography. Usually the photographer uses a camera to store the light sensitive media and result, but that’s not a requirement. The photogram, for example, is just one example of “photography without a camera” out there. (Cameras are a convenience, the medium is the message, and it would best serve even the most experienced of photographers to always remember that.)

The key here is that, when you think of photography, think of “sensitivity to light” and you are really there.

As an experienced photographer, something you might take away from all of this is that, well, photography is about light. It’s all about light and it’s about nothing more than light itself. If your work starts to stray, if you suddenly feel the need to document social causes in rural Mexico or picture the stars at night, or take portraits of rock singers, whatever you do-where ever your course of photography leads you-never forget that, if you are practicing photographer, it’s all about the light. You know that old saying about real estate? Real estate is about three things, location, location, and location? Photography too is about three things-light, light, and light. To put it another way, expression, gesture, composition, all wonderful things, and they can be important to making great images but, if the light isn’t there, you’ve missed the boat as a photographer.

The sensitivity to light is the one thing that separates photography from all of the other media out there. Oil paints? Nope, not sensitive to light. Acrylics? Nope, not them either. The best artists around will understand the nature and limitations of their chosen media and work with them to produce the best art. So, even if you are an experienced artist (or photographer) your challenge is to work with that sensitivity to light and make the most of it.

What can light do for you today? That’s the question you should ask yourself each and every time you pick-up your camera to take a picture. It’s not about capturing the world, it’s not about making likenesses of people, though it does that too, it’s about one thing and one thing only: LIGHT.

Up next, we’ll talk more along the lines of the “fine art” and start to delve into the distinctions of “craft vs. art” as well as talk about visual arts in general (another topic I think most photographers, for some reason, could really use a refresher on.)

Until next time…


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