The Impediment of Art


I have a couple of times on this blog been pondering about the relationship between craftsmanship and creative inducements behind an artistic expression – and what promotes a visual strong and compelling image (as you may know, unsurprisingly enough, I believe in the combination). A sidetrack to this debate is the never-ending discussion going on between believers in established craftsmanship and those who wholeheartedly embrace new technologies. The former resist the new possibilities because they believe it makes the process of creation so much easier – too easy in fact. Whatever results from the use of these new technologies no longer have the right to be called art – they think. Likewise; those who embrace new technologies defend themselves by saying that it takes a lot of skills, knowledge and experience to be able to master the new tools. They claim it is not as easy as it looks.

I recall my post Instagram my Backyard some time ago where I wrote about how wonderfully stimulating it is to play around with Instagram and the likes. I think using apps like Instagram makes it fun to photograph and is even able to create stunning images. In a comment, though, another photographer asked why I would exploit apps that any amateur would be able to handle, instead of trusting my craftsmanship (in not quite those words).

I have to admit I have had my own reservations, but nevertheless I believe one doesn’t exclude the other. To take it a little further; just think about how photography was conceived when it came about some 190 years ago. The painters – the old school – criticised the new media for being mechanically reproducing images, and thus had absolutely no artistic value. I think we know better today… But the debate proceeds with new topics – and still the same. It often seems like the fronts are butting heads. I can’t help but think that both camps are missing the far more important point. The hard part of photography has never been technology. Why is it that technical master such as Edward Weston or Michelangelo don’t make masterpieces every time they create a new piece? Or look at you favourite pictures made by whatever masters; how often is the technique the critical factor for your appreciation?

For me this discussion is obsolete and will always be – even when I become the old school (I am already…). To use the words of Brooks Jensen; «the hard part of photography has never been technology, but rather the more difficult process of artmaking – a process that is stubbornly unsolvable through technological means and remains the sole province of the human heart, the human mind, and human soul.» Jensen is editor of the publication LensWork and has gathered some of his essays in the book The Creative Life in Photography – Photography and the Creative Process. It’s a book I wholeheartedly recommend.

One of the subjects Jensen addresses in his book is this general trust in craftsmanship that permeates most of the photography crowd and always has. His answer to what it is that creates masterpieces if not craftsmanship is: «In short, great photographs are never about photography but seem to be about life, and not, generally, the small things in life. The best photographers appear to be engaged in the great dialog of life — the dialog that is usually the field-of-play for philosophers and theologians, for mystics or even political scientists. The great photographers don’t seem to be asking questions about f/ stops or shutter speeds, developers or enlarging papers, but are asking the same kinds of questions that were asked by philosophers Aristotle, Plato, Thomas Aquinas, Nietzsche, or Freud — the same questions asked by the poets Aeschylus, Dante, Goethe, Victor Hugo and Mark Twain. What is man? Who am I? What is good? Why is there evil? How should we treat one another? Why don’t we? Why does suffering exist? These are the questions of art because these are the questions of humankind.»

I think it’s hard to state it any better than this. But how can these somewhat lofty thoughts become guidelines for our own work – us normal people, not the great masters of the world? By photographing whatever we photograph with intention and with our hearts. By engaging in the subject, by asking ourselves why it is important to us to photograph whatever it is we are photographing; and by finding a visual answer to the question. Our work of art becomes important when we search for answers that are important to us. We make self-portraits because we want to understand ourselves and to assert our existence. We make photographs of others so we can understand the community in which we live. We photograph the grand landscape so we can know the context and the planetary stage on which our dramas unfold. We photograph nostalgia so that we can remember; abstracts so we can play with the patterns in our visual mind; flowers so we can marvel at the wonders of creation. These are worthy, soaring pursuits, even if our results remain grounded and somewhat pedestrian.


86 thoughts on “The Impediment of Art

  1. Great article. I feel that a great photographer comes from the passion you have in your work! Everyone has there own ways of creating masterpieces. I also believe that is not the equipment you may carry or spend thousands of dollars on either. For me is my unique style of photographing the object or the angle I may see that someone else may not even consider. We live in times of amazing technology for photographers, artist, painters, etc. I’ve been playing around with this new application that gives my photography a vintage look! Is not the application that may be the difference of my photo, it’s the actual photography I took that gives that application an amazing result!…I’m not hanged up on being a professional photographer, nor the best photographer and neither another ” Ansel Adam”! I’m here to bring my vision of what I see and how I see it through my lens. That makes me the photographer I want to be, MY OWN STYLE!!!..

    1. I think you have a great approach to your art. Be yourself and express yourself and your vision through your work! Thank you for a thoughtful comment, Lazaro!

  2. Otto, I whole heartedly agree with you. To push the argument right over the edge, my pet peeve is when I know an artist has not ever touched a piece of work that said artist has conceived. I am fine with technology, fine with minimalism, fine with found objects, fine with conceptual work, fine with an artist employing helping hands, but I want to know that the creator of a piece, somehow has intimate hands on experience with the creation of a given piece of work. I have little respect for artists who visualize a plan then contract others to literally create and assemble their visions, never personally connecting with or constructing any piece of a non-utilitarian work of art. I suppose I feel that the bottom line of crafting a piece of personal expression should include some element of actual craft.

    1. Very well expressed, Elena! And I absolutely agree with you. The creation of art do involve some kind of craftsmanship and, yes, personal involvement in the actual creation. Thank you for a great comment!

  3. Enjoyed your post…Craftsmanship and creativity, I do believe that some degree of technical mastery is necessary to create good images. That way, it is possible to get the results you want, even if you need to bend the rules, because you know what rules to bend. Otherwise, it might just be luck that you get the desired for result…and luck isn’t always there when you want it!

    1. I agree, you can only bend rules when you actually know them. But I also do see artists that don’t have much knowledge of their craft, but know how to use whatever knowledge they have to create some great art. Great artists not only know their craft but also their limitations.

  4. Great post! I personally LOVE all the photography apps as I’m not an expert one bit! I just see something I like, point and click. I don’t know how to shoot in the raw or how to use anything on my camera really. I want to learn and hope to invest some time especially since I have a nice camera now that allows those features. However, I’ve truly enjoyed using Lightroom, Snapseed and Instagram to process my photos and play around with them. I enjoy creating entirely new perspectives to photos. By the way, your photo above is AMAZING! Wow.

    1. The point is not to become an expert, but be able to use the tools you have at hands to express you vision. And it seems like you have a good understanding of how to use both your camera, apps and programs to make images that speak of your vision. Thank you for an insightful comment, Nicole!

  5. What an excellent post! Brooks Jensen, (whom I’d never heard of before) is a very wise man. And so are you. Thanks for the inspiration!

  6. What do you think of photographers who photoshop everything… making the sky so blue, the sunset so unrealistically orange, etc. that it makes an image look so fake.

    1. It’s hard to say in general. But I tend to see a lot of overkill done in Photoshop. If there is a purpose to intensifying or saturating colours I am fine with that, but most of the time it seems to be used in order to make a initially boring picture look more interesting. Needless to say I don’t think it makes it any better. Fake is often bad, but again used with a purpose it may express a point of view. Thank you for the interesting question you raise, Renxkyoko!

  7. Wow. Thank you for putting to words and into the fore this collective unconscious, that rings true to me. Photography as “a great dialog of life.” Maybe even as a “dream of the earth.”

  8. And from my distance, I shout out “Amen!” to your thoughts. You have verbalized this perfectly and eloquently. Certainly, your thoughts give some substance to the feelings I’ve been having about my own photography for some time–i.e.: the search, attempt, and desire for expressing greater things, deeper feelings, etc. Thank you, Otto.

  9. Great write:) Did someone not say “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder?. I say if I create a piece which looks beautiful or interesting, evokes emotion and people love it I have done my job well. I met a photographer at one of my fine art shows several month ago. Oddly he was a bit critical of a few of my pieces. He started to lecture me (I mean talk to me) about how he taught a few photography classes. He said the first thing you must master is the technical side of photography and then focus on the artistic aspects. My jaw dropped and I said “Well I guess I’ve been doing things all wrong” (LOL in my head) I was not afraid to admit…. I create art first and then worry about the technical stuff later. Yes I have screwed up some things and missed some shots I should have done better with but I am getting better year after year in the technical stuff. I would have dropped what is now my passion years ago if I had to master the technical first.

    1. We all have different approaches to our art, and one way is not better than another. It’s sad, but very often the case, when some people think they know the answer, and their way is the right one. Often their are wrong, those who “know” the best, like photographers who thinks technical mastery most come before everything else. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences, Jo!

  10. Otto, you have managed to create a small masterpiece about the art of photography. Thank you for the introduction to Jensen. This quote pierces my heart in the best of all possible ways: “The best photographers appear to be engaged in the great dialog of life — the dialog that is usually the field-of-play for philosophers and theologians, for mystics or even political scientists.” We engage in the visual landscape of life, we pull from inside, and we capture. For me it’s a momentary decision that is completely the entirety of my experiences, which is what you have said. But each time I am in a learning process that is ongoing and evergreen.

    1. Isn’t that which is great with any creative process such as photography. We can always learn more – and we can always become better. That is for me one of the most rewarding elements of creating. Thanks for sharing your insight, Sally!

  11. I think people often get so swept up in the technology, they forget basics. Craftsmanship is important no matter what tools someone uses to make their art. I also think there’s so much slop out there that viewers often don’t ask for better and the majority settles for okay, but the masters of anything master their skills and use them. Practice makes perfect, and if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!

    1. Unfortunately I think you are right. A lot of times even professionals settle for okay instead pushing the result as far as possible, But, yes, masters do master both their skills and their creative approach. Thanks for your comment, Linda!

  12. i enjoyed reading this post and your last paragraph says it all for me. your words: “…we photograph with intention and with our hearts…” and the mention of our own search for existing…
    wise words – thank you ♥

  13. What a great post, Otto! I love Brook Jensen’s viewpoint and the quote from his book. I always say that there is photography and there is photography as art. When one tries to make photography as art, no artificial limits should be placed on this art making. I bet you, there have been lots of arguments in the art world, too about what constitutes REAL art, whether it is realism, impressionism, expressionism, surrealism, abstract art, etc. Who is to say that one is more worthy to be called art than the other? Artists have been using oil, acrylic, colored pencil, charcoal, etc. And let’s not forget printmaking! Who is to say that one medium or process is more respectable than the other?

    1. You are quite right, there has always been a discussion about what is art. And there is no such thing as a common understanding. The fronts stand firmly against each other. But agree with you, for me it doesn’t matter how an artistic expression comes about, how it was processed or what style it applies. As long as something touches me and evoke an emotional response, for me that is what matters the most. Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

  14. I remember looking at a portfolio of work a few years ago at the photographic society I attend. Some of the older, very experienced monochrome darkroom experts were admiring a large darkroom print of a speeding lifeboat at sea. To them it was fabulous, a technical achievement with a full range of tones that was beautifully printed. But I just saw a lifeboat. I guess that I was looking for something special in the capture of the image, and didn’t see anything, whereas they were looking for something in the creation of the photograph, and appreciated that more than I did. Just goes to show that as photographers, there’s a place for the art and the craft, even if we don’t always appreciate both at the same time.

    1. Photography does attract all kind of users, from the technical wizards to the sparkling artist. Most often they don’t see images the same way, as you experienced. Is one view better than the other? Not necessarily although I agree with you, technical mastery certainly isn’t enough for me either. Thanks for sharing your experience, Andy!

  15. Otto, this portrait has always haunted me, it’s perfect. I think art is to communicate a feeling through an image be it photography or painting, sculpting etc. – however we get there is fine with me. I agree with everything you said here and as always, you make me think about part of the puzzle, well done as always.

    1. I agree with you, Christina, it doesn’t matter how we get there as long as the art work is able to evoke emotions in me. Thanks for the lovely comment!

  16. What a thought-provoking post. I remember your post on Instagram, and I was so happy to see it. The take-away message that I got from that post was that you are someone who truly enjoys your art. You are able to find happiness and fulfillment through any lens. It’s not about having the best equipment or learning all the new technologies (though of course that has its place), rather, it’s about this line from the passage you quoted, “The best photographers appear to be engaged in the great dialog of life.” And you, Otto, are one of those best photographers.

  17. I’ve been missing visits to your blog for far too long–this post is precisely the sort of thoughtful and inspiring stuff I value it for, so I am determined to get my blog feed to send me your posts on time again instead of falling off the queue as it apparently did quite randomly.

    Meanwhile, it’s good to be reminded here that I’m not alone in thinking that one’s intent and point of view and distinctive choices in selecting and shaping an image can nearly always trump the value of technical skill. While I deeply admire those more knowledgeable and practiced than I am and will always try to improve myself in those regards, it’s as a mere *person* that I really dare to call myself an artist, in truth.

    1. It’s nice to have you back, Kathryn. Many technical masters don’t necessarily have a distinctive voice, and for me that voice is always the foundation of any artist. Technical skills can be learn along the way – as you do – but it’s takes a lot more insightful work to find your artist’s voice. In that respect I don’t think you have to be modest in the assessment of yourself as an artist. Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

  18. From the very beginning when I first found your blog I fell in love with the photo you’ve shared today. There is something so compelling about the woman’s smile and her open demeanor. And I think the entire discussion of why or why not to engage with apps and other photography “tricks” and short cuts must divide artists, but doesn’t need to. You’ve been able to create sound examples of why at times it’s simply fun for you to break away from the professional methods and the results you have learned to expect, and instead just have fun. It would be like one of the Master’s delighting in the color and texture of finger painting. Just a nice change!

    I have a wonderful time using a good camera and relying on its stability with a degree of photographic success because it has “built-in” processes that assist me, but it takes more than a good camera to produce art! I am forever challenged to try to think of different ways to take photos so they aren’t static and ordinary. An artist-photographer has the eye! You can’t find that “eye” in an app! Oh I wish you could! 🙂

    1. You are very in that an app does’t give you an eye. That comes with practice and being conscious about your own creative process – and at the same time letting go and get out of that box everybody is talking about. Apps and the likes are fun tools, but only that. They don’t create art by themselves. Your approach is good, this way you will keep expanding your vision and your art. The day we believe we can’t learn anything more, that’s the day we stop being creative. Thanks for the wonderful comment, Debra!

  19. Tänkvärda ord och många gamla sanningar som du lyfter fram…(kunde inte ha sagt det bättre själv)
    har gång på gång tänkt skriva längre inlägg om bland annat dessa frågor men det har stannat vid några stolpar då jag känner att det blir så långt att ingen orkar läsa.
    Framförallt tror jag inte att de som verkligen borde läsa och ställa frågor till sig själva kommer att förstå och orka genom alla stycken.
    Som sagt, jag håller med dig i det mesta, jag har samma funderingar själv och jag är tacksam för att du tar upp dessa frågor…och även många andra aktuella både vad gäller konst, foto och inte minst livets orättvisor och rättvisor…om det nu finns någon “rättvisa”…tror inte det:)
    Sitter just nu i Kamloops…varit där?…en liten gudsförgäten, men vacker plats på vägen mellan Vancouver och Banff.
    Ditt porträtt som du har som illustration här ovan är skönheten personifierad…den skönhet som kommer sprungen ur livserfarenhet, mod och självkännedom…den sanna skönheten.

    1. Takk for din tankevekkende kommentar, Gertie. Ikke minst takk for dine vakre ord om portrettet. Som jeg skrev annetsteds tror jeg ikke jeg kan forandre verden, men om mine ord kan være til inspirasjon for en og annen, så er jeg fornøyd. Men som du peker på, noen ganger kjennes det ut som å gå i en tung suppe av fordommer og utvitenhet. Som deg tror jeg heller ikke det finnes noen rettferdighet som sådan. Jeg har ellers aldri vært verken i Kamloops, Banff eller Vancouver, bare padlet langs Vancouver Island.

  20. Great article – interesting. I actually enjoyed reading the comments too. Sometimes on blogs comments are a great read!

    That photo of that woman’s face, Otto, it’s just priceless.

    1. Thank you, Noeleen. And yes, you are right, comments are sometimes very interesting too, and I think particularly comments for this post have been so.

  21. Nicely put, Otto. I do believe that the end result is much more important than how you got there. If there is an image you want/need to share then you use what you have at hand. Sometimes you miss the moment by searching for a better way to capture it.

  22. Before I got to the part where you used the word “hear”, Otto, I knew already that I was going to say that for me, it’s about constant observation and heart. (As you would know, the technique has to to internalised, so as to not get in the way at the vital moment.) Thanks for the very stimulating post.

    1. Yes, you are right; how important technique is in the creative process, is one think, but however proficient one is, it’s has to be internalized, you have to be able to use your technical skills almost instinctively. Thank you for the comment, Andrew!

  23. Some tools are better than others, without a doubt. But the artist’s play outshines both the media and the tool. And part of the artist’s job is to find the appropriate expression for the tool at hand. I am sure that many of the great masters might have enjoyed playing with the apps. Nice article, Munchow.

    1. I believe that would be the case, that many of the great masters would have played with apps. But, yes, in the end it comes down to choose the right tools for expressing the artist’s vision. Thank you for the comment, Shimon!

  24. A wonderful approach. I believe that we should carry these thought while we live and photograph and they will affect us each time, like that, temporary answered, for ever. It is the constant doubt that makes us move forward, see the world through different eyes, never reaching the absolute. I guess reaching it (or feeling we had achieved it) would make us stop creating.

    1. I certainly agree with you, Vassilis, if we stop developing, if we feel we have reached whatever our goal is, we would stop being creative. Thanks for your comment!

  25. fine words, especially those last paragraphs,

    and thank you again for the words of Brooks Jensen; «the hard part of photography has never been technology, but rather the more difficult process of artmaking – a process that is stubbornly unsolvable through technological means and remains the sole province of the human heart, the human mind, and human soul.»

    (thanks for stopping by earlier!)

  26. Hello munchow, thanks for coming by my fresh blog. Great article!
    To me the media used to create an image is not important as the final result. The most important thing is to do images because you want to do so. Always from your hart and being your self no trying to being someone else or copy somebody´s work. And of course never create trying to please some one else´s expectations on what is good or bad. what we do might is not suitable for every ones taste but if works for you that is the main thing to me.

  27. I don’t have a camera that allows a lot of “tinkering” with settings, and the post-processing of the images for my photoblog is limited to increasing sharpness, adjusting brightness/contrast, and, on rare occasions, the color balance. My “tweaking” is not to make the photo more professional; it’s to make it more closely resemble what I saw with my own eyes.

  28. “By photographing whatever we photograph with intention and with our hearts. By engaging in the subject, by asking ourselves why it is important to us to photograph whatever it is we are photographing;” This is great Otto. It helps with my question I asked you earlier today via FB. Thanks!! Melissa

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