Accidental Works of Art


As obsessed with photography as I have almost always been I have as well always been interested in finding out what makes photography different from any other media or expression of art. I have blogged about it a great many times. It’s partly been looking at how the technical aspect of photography defines its expression, for instance in posts such as The Essential Property of Photography, The Inherent Property of Photography and The Uniqueness of a Gradient. I have also explored the subject on a more principal or philosophical level, such as in the posts The Heart of Photography, What Does It Matter! and At the End of the Rainbow.

But there is at least one more aspect of photography that I find very intriguing. Photography is the only medium in which there is even the possibility of an accidental masterpiece. You won’t find that in other arts. You cannot make an accidental masterpiece if you are a painter or a sculptor. It’s just not going to happen.

This is simultaneously photography’s great advantage and its Achilles’ heel: It’s the easiest medium in which on some levels to be competent. Anybody can be a marginally capable photographer, but it takes a lot of work to learn to become even a competent painter. With this much said, I think at the same time while photography is the easiest medium to become competent in, it is probably the hardest one in which to develop a distinctive personal vision. It’s the hardest medium in which to separate yourself from all those other people who are doing reasonable good stuff and to find a personal voice, your own vision, and to make something that is truly, memorably yours and not someone else’s. A recognized signature style of photography is an incredibly difficult thing to achieve.

The fun part, though, is that even without a distinctive voice, we can all happen to make captivating images, through accidents or incidents or just by pure luck. And, yes, we may even be able to produce a masterpiece. The stimulating outcome is that sometimes those accidental works of art that are capable of engaging beyond the simplest recognition, offer us a new view on our media, give us new ideas and provide us with a fresh approach, that we may utilize next time – and by so doing starting to develop our distinctive voice. It has always amazed me that just when I think there is nothing left to do in photography and that all permutations and possibilities have been exhausted, someone comes along and puts the media to a new use, and makes it his or her own, yanks it out of this kind of amateur status, and makes it as profound and moving as formally interesting as any other medium.

101 thoughts on “Accidental Works of Art

  1. A thoughtful piece Otto. For most people who don’t make their living from photography, I think the fun element is the most key. Just having your camera with you makes you feel as though you might just capture something good. And if you don’t, then you can still have a wonderful day!

    1. Of course there is a big difference between different people’s way of using the camera and their attitude towards photography. And fun is indeed a essential part of it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Mary.

  2. In the beginning the problem with photography was to make a properly exposed image, possibly with the subject in focus. Than the technology came to help, exposure meters, autofocus and other possibilities. Digital increased the possibilities adding the immediate review of the pictures. Nowadays to make a “good” photo id easy. But to make an excellent image, which conveys a feeling, which has a “soul”, which stands out among the (too)many others we already see daily is very difficult. When this is the goal you have to work very hard and be ready to reject part of your work. And yes, I fully agree some happy accident can happen and this could be a satisfaction but also a starting point for additional work. Great post, thanks Otto.
    PS: now I’ll have to look for the happy accident among my files …

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Robert. And, yes, happy accidents can very well be a starting point or additional work. It’s always fun to look for happy accidents in one’s files. 🙂

  3. An interesting concept and mine would have to be accidental… Saw the documentary film on Vivian Maier a few weeks ago and loved it! Her art was far from accidental but her discovery, after death, as an artist was…Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    1. The fate of Vivian Maier is definitely accidental, particularly since she seemed to do everything possible to stay out of the spotlight. It’s a different kind of accident, yes. 🙂

  4. Two things come to mind while reading your post, Otto. I had a friend who was a wonderful photographer – she attributed her photographic point of view to being very short – she simply saw things from a different physical perspective than the rest of us. However, her skill in capturing that vision in both the camera and the darkroom was evident in her images, so I always thought it a combination of both craft and creativity. The other is a photo I took years ago in Madrid. I shot one roll of film in the Sunday flea market in the plaza and almost every shot was a keeper. I went with intention and was prepared with a camera and lens at the ready. However, my favorite shot – a boy walking his dog encountering another dog in the street – was a happy accident and honestly I don’t even remember shooting the image. It now hangs on my wall, a testament to being prepared to capture the experience of the happy accident.

    Thank you for such a thoughtful and thought provoking post!

    1. I love the story about your friend and why she has found her own approach and photographic voice. And then, don’t we all have had that experience you tell about from Madrid. We deliberate try to do a good job, but the one shot that stands out is one we hardly even noticed taking. Thanks for sharing your experience, Lynn.

  5. While I agree that there are moments of happenstance and serendipity in photography, I believe that happens in all creative endeavors. I’ve seen it in abstract art and impressionism and realism. Maybe it’s the sudden mixing of color on a palette that is not intended, but turns out to be the spark of the image. Maybe it’s the slip of the knife on a piece of clay that takes the subject in a whole other direction. It happens and we are its recipients. It’s also one lesson of the creative process.

    1. I agree that there are moments of happen-stance and serendipity in all arts. And they are all important lessons in the creative process. But hardily can you pick up a brush and paint a masterpiece as the first thing you ever do, while that could happen with photography.

  6. at the end of a three-day road trip, i returned to my home town in the later afternoon. quite hungry, i ordered a late lunch at my favorite restaurant and tapped into their fast internet. as i was feasting, a young lad about four or five years old brought me a dish of strawberry ice cream. his mood was surly – he often had little temper tantrums, and i always teased him about his unruly moods. he stared at me with zero words as he served the ice cream, and he lingered with his hands on the footing of the ice cream dish. i took a few photos and snickered/babbled in english, ‘what are you upset about today? do you miss your aunt? (she’s interning in the usa) did you get in trouble? do you wish this ice cream were yours?…’

    tacked onto those photos were images from the rest of my day, of people in canoes, of the frigates coming home to roost, and of an injured pelican.

    i dreaded the time it would take to wade through the photos from the past three days, but i was delighted to see a glistening tear on ‘Unruly’s’ face, caught in the spotlight of a ray of late-afternoon sunshine. masterpiece, no, but it taught me to look even more closer while taking photos.

    thanks for great food-for-thought… now – may i have ice cream with that?


    1. Maybe you can send an ice cream over to me, too. We can share… You say at the end of this delightful story about the surly lad that the incident taught you to look closer while taking photos. But sometimes you just have to let go and let the pictures take you instead of the other way around. That’s part of what I love about photography. That you can enter a complete unconscious state of mind and create delightful photos. Thanks for sharing your experience, Lisa.

  7. Otto!
    Always enjoying reading your posts. Photography is a lot about communication, the process before, under and after. Its about being present “now” and enjoying life. I like David Alan Harveys statement: “Don´t shoot what it looks like. Shoot what it feels like. ” So simple and so difficult…you need to be in the right flow!!!

    1. You are so very right. And I too, agree with the Harvey’s statement. If you don’t shoot with you feelings – what it feels like – you will never be able to engage the viewers. Thanks for comment, Nicolaas.

  8. Another great and interesting post, Otto. The Happy Accidents are what keep me coming back to photography. It’s funny how I’m sometimes not even aware of what I captured until I look at the images later. This part of your post spoke to me: “A recognized signature style of photography is an incredibly difficult thing to achieve.” I used to work so hard at trying to figure out what my style is, or if I even have a style. Now I just go out and have fun. 🙂

    1. And I am most certain that you will find you distinctive voice by having fun. It’s really not something you can consciously make choices about or figure out intellectually.It comes with time and knowledge about the photographic process.

  9. Very interest subject, Otto. I enjoy reading this post and comments from all these experienced photographers. As a beginner, and a current student in your “Finding Your Photographic Voice” e-workshop, I have been wondering what my photographic voice really is, and questioning (in my heart 😉 if this is something I can “learn” from anyone. Nothing personal 😉 I’ve learned a lot from the workshop already and I know I am a better photographer now, which I can’t thank you enough. (And the workshop is not over yet.) But “Photographic Voice” has no contour, form, color… You can’t see it, touch it… It’s hard to grasp. Anyway, I am so happy to read this post. What I get from it is: if I go back to look at those what I consider as my “Accidental Works of Art”, I will find a hint (maybe even more than a hint) of what my photographic voice really is. Thank you! Helen

    1. The best way to find your distinctive voice is through a lot of work. Yes, happy accidents certainly can give you a hint, but in the end it’s through hard work the distinctive voice slowly starts to crystallize. There aren’t really any short cuts – just be patience and keep shooting. 🙂

  10. Of course, one has to be able to recognize a shot when you see it. But sometimes one doesn’t recognize the happy accident until you’ve uploaded the day’s shoot to the computer. And when you’re shooting things that move rapidly – birds, or people skate-boarding – there’s a combination of skill and luck involved in getting anything useable at all, much less a masterpiece.

    1. Most of the time of course those happy shots won’t be masterpieces, but still images that could stand out. Yes, one still have to recognize the shot when you see. Thanks for the comment, Bill.

  11. Interesting as usual. “But sometimes you just have to let go and let the pictures take you instead of the other way around.” I love that one. This is what happens when I feel no stress – when i have no exact time schedule – on vacation or an ordinary day without work the day after. I have to be totally relaxed to get there. But that’s my moment.

  12. A great post and dialogue…..its true and what happiness when yo are looking at an image you’ve shot and there in front of you is another image captured . Quel supris!!

    1. I agree, but it won’t happen without knowing the craft, because you won’t be able to paint or make sculptors without knowing the craft. You may take up a camera for the first time ever and be lucky to capture a masterpiece with your first try – at least there is the slightest possibility.

  13. I am sure there are many accidental masterpieces to be viewed from a pizza shop at NYC. You have to sit at a counter that is facing the street with slice of pizza, soda and camera.

  14. Such wisdom pouring from your fingertips. I truly enjoy your perspective and the different approaches you get me thinking about… rather than just the usual how-to stuff. I’m not sure that I ever really tried for a ‘style’. The shots that I’m usually most pleased with seem to come from times when I’m in “the zone” (don’t know to explain that) and I’m never quite sure what I have until I load it to the computer.

    1. When you get in the zone or in flow as it is called to, is when things start to happen that you have no control of. You lose yourself in the process and get absorbed by it. It’s the place where a lot of accidental great work comes out from.

  15. I love the photo…it makes me feel like it just ‘rained’. Plus the little girl looks like ‘Matilda’ (one of my favorite movies) 😉
    I agree that there are more ‘accidental’ masterpieces with photography. I think perhaps because there is more room to ‘tweak’ and edit things versus say, painting or sculpting.

  16. I understand about the accidental photographs but I keep pondering the idea of an identifiable photographic voice. If for example an established portrait photographer with what most people consider to have a recognizable voice now switches to landscape photography, will that voice still be recognizable? So what determines this voice? Interesting stuff!

    1. A distinctive voice is quite an intangible characteristic. Looking at one single photograph you may not see it, but by evaluating a collection of photographs from a photographer it may be more apparent. If a photograph changes his subject, his or her voice may still be recognisable or it may not. Yes, quite vague…

  17. An interesting piece Otto. I think finding a voice is something that all artists strive to achieve and think you are right that in photography this is probably the hardest medium in which to do it. A ‘voice’ is an intangible beast and I think the harder we strive for one, the further away it is likely to be. Keep taking photographs and a style, voice, personality, whatever you like to call it, will out. Excellent article.

  18. It’s true that it takes work to be a good artist, but after all the time spent practicing to get good it helps to remember that the accidental things can often be the part of a painting that makes the whole thing sing. The accidental/spontaneous things are the truest parts of who we are, therefore who we are as artists and photographers, isn’t it? Good post.

  19. I love how positive this is. It reminds me of golf. Even the lowly amateur can have a miraculous golf shot and feel like Tiger Woods once in awhile. It’s what keeps me going in photography. I also feel that people either have the artful eye or they don’t. It’s also like music which is my first hobby and the one I’m most proficient at. You can teach people to play piano but you can’t teach them to create music. It comes from the heart…the intangible artistic viewpoint. Thanks for a great post Otto.

    1. Thank you for the nice words, Laura. I think your analogue with the miracles of golf is a good one. On the other hand I am not sure if the artful eye is something you have or not. I think you can train you eye – by connecting it to your heart – as you point to.

      1. Maybe you’re right Otto but I do think the most powerful art comes from the spiritual side of ourselves rather the intellectual side. But perhaps superimposing my own belief here.

        1. No, I think you are right, but the spiritual side of ourselves aren’t something with either have or have not. Do you think so? The spiritual side of us – as the creative side of – can be awaken. At least I believe so.

  20. Otto, I do love “happy accidents” — the perfect split-second timing or catching a detail that I didn’t notice when shooting. I believe that a good photographer practices “the art of seeing” every day…mentally composing, mining details, seeking light and looking for a unique perspective. “Knowing where to stand” as Ansel Adams says, is half the battle. Finding one’s voice is the ultimate creative challenge. A lot of food for thought in your interesting post. Love your image and it works very well in monochrome.

  21. An accidental masterpiec; a very good observation. Glad you explored that idea, and put it out there for further consideration. I don’t think anyone has thought of that before.

    What a tradeoff; the technology mixed with individual creative vision results in the almost certain loss of anyone’s ability to create a distinctive aesthetic style but gain of the ability to make an accidental masterpiece.

    I really think that you’ve hit on a breakthrough observation!

  22. I really relate to what you’re sharing here, Otto, as an enthusiast more than as a photographer. I have been enjoying attending some photography exhibits this summer and I am really drawn into the story that a great photo offers. I do think there are “accidental” masterpieces and that perhaps sometimes the audience to that photo doesn’t really comprehend the work that went into the setup or the skill level that was practiced on thousands of photos that didn’t make the same impact. Today’s cameras make it quite easy for many of us to capture really nice photos, but when I am at the exhibits I’m so aware of the technical detail that brings the photograph to such a high level. I love this photograph!

  23. A very interesting idea, Otto. Photography does make a “fluke” of a masterpiece possible, but not probable. Work like your photo at the top of your post is impossible to equal (your vision is clearly your own), and it has years of diligent work and practice and heart to recommend it.

  24. Well said, and I think as other commenters have pointed out, having the ‘mind of a photographer’ as you have, your accidents are composed so well that makes the magic easier to see. The number of times I’ve been out shooting and I return to LightRoom with anticipation on shots I worked hard for ~ only to be disappointed can be offset by the number of times I’ve returned and looked through my shots and found the hidden treasures on shots that I had figured to be throw-aways. Cheers, and happy travels!

    1. Thank you Randall. What you describe here I think is a common experience. When we think we haven gotten something special, too often we end up being disappointed. But then we find the gems among those images we didn’t expect anything from.

  25. I can totally relate to what you wrote in the last sentence. No matter how much you think you’ve already seen in photography, there’s is always the possibility to be surprised. I love that. As for happy accidents, I think I had a couple of those last year when I played with new lenses, perspectives, light and reflections. Usually they lead me into the abstract which is something that I’d never considered or really been interested in before I picked up a camera. Makes me feel a bit like a painter sometimes 🙂

  26. This is a very interesting topic, and so well explored by you, Otto. I don’t know about “masterpieces” exactly, but what I can say is that when I’m out shooting in the street, it’s very often the less premeditated shot that turns out to be a compelling image for me, rather than the ones that are a result of a desire to produce a particular type of photo that I have in my head, and have then actively sought out based on the general surroundings.

    1. I think it’s an interesting observation, Andrew. I often find that the more unconscious I work, the better the result, while on the other hand the more deliberate I am in the shooting process the less exciting the result gets,

  27. What a brilliant read – thought provoking too – I am constantly thinking how do I get to the next stage, I feel I have moved forward in some areas but not others. I have started watching film in a much more critical way as I believe I can learn a lot from cinetographers we shall see

  28. The idea that the ‘accidental masterpiece’ distinguishes Photography from all other artistic media is something that had never occurred to me – but how right you are, Otto. I think the other distinguishing feature is its immediacy – a product of the digital era. That immediacy allows us to evaluate work ‘on the fly’ and use it to drive our creativity. Finding a distinctive voice or style is harder with each passing year. I struggle to understand the merit in consciously seeking that unique ‘style’, mainly because I feel that my photographic eye is focused on expanding my vision and the concept of style implies a narrowing of that beam.

    1. Your thought about the immediacy of photography is very interesting, particular for those of us who grew up with a film based photographic process. On the other hand I don’t really agree with your last point. I don’t think expanding one’s vision will take away anything from one’s voice. On the contrary. I think the more you allow yourself to expand the more your distinctive voice becomes evident. I don’t like to use style as meaning the same as voice, because style is really a limitation to one expressive output, which could be technically depending. So the way I see it, we should try to work to find our distinctive voice, but that one voice can be expressed in many styles. Does that make sense?

      1. I was really equating voice with style, which on reflection and reading your reply, was wrong. If by ‘voice’ we mean personal creative vision and its scope then I agree with you entirely. The extent of my personal vision has expanded considerably in the last few years – due to retirement providing almost unlimited time and and an inquisitive streak. I don’t think I will ever have or want a single style, but the concept of multiple styles applied to discrete threads within one’s voice is an interesting concept. It’s always good to hear your observations, Otto.

  29. Thought provoking post Otto; and I’ve certainly learnt form my happy accidents! Also from those photographs that I didn’t hold out much hope for as they didn’t turn out as I’d hoped and yet they come alive when you see them for what they are and not what they’re not.

  30. Hey Otto. This has happened to me over the years, but I’ve never given it such specific thought. It’s true that photography offers us this opportunity and after reading your post I think I’ll loosen up my grip on the camera and shoot more. Thanks for the inspiration. JT

  31. Photography as a medium will always be rejuvenated by the fresh ways of seeing that each individual or generation can bring. I am continually astounded by “brilliant flashes” of creativity in photography today.

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