Photographic Development

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Most artists go through different stages of development. So, too, do photographers. Their development, maybe more clearly than for other artists, proceeds along two parallel lines—due to the dual nature of photography. One of those lines is related to technique while the other is related to a more artistic aspect. These parallel developments do not always keep pace; one may progress faster—or slower—than the other. Some photographers don’t even realise or care about the lack of the development of one of the skills. I know successful photographers who have no clue about how to use aperture or exposure time in their shooting, and certainly don’t know a thing about post-processing. Their technical development stopped at an early stage. On the other hand, some of the best photo-technicians I ever met wouldn’t know how to make an interesting picture if their lives depended on it. Their artistic development never got off the ground.

In my own photographic development I started out with more emphasise on my technical abilities than artistic growth, but today I care much less about technique. For me the content and the story the pictures tell, particularly on an emotional level, is of much more importance that the technical appearance. I certainly don’t mind if both work together to form a higher unit. On the contrary. But nothing is more boring that a technically perfect, but purposeless picture that doesn’t evoke any emotions, simply because the photo is all about technical proficiency—and maybe composition—than content and purpose.

With my own development—and others as well—in mind, I clearly see that photographs often change their attitude in regards to both subject and the way they shoot as of a result of their technical and artistic progress. In his book Photographic Seeing the late and former Life-photographer Andreas Feininger distinguishes between three different photographic approaches, stretching from an almost pure technical focus to a complete artistic impetus. He talks about objective (which I prefer to call factual), subjective and expressionistic approach.

The factual approach is when a photographer tries to make his or her picture render as much as possible the visual facts, being careful to express neither bias nor personal point of view. Clarity of this rendition is of primary importance, colours should appear natural and the subject must be instantly recognizable. Prime requirement for this approach is photo-technical competence, whereas artistic talent and imagination are of lesser importance. This is often stage number two in a photographer’s development, following the stage of the happy-go-lucky snapshooter. (Personally I’d rather call this factual than objective approach, simply because the latter implies some level of objectivity in the rendered photo, and I don’t believe objectivity exists in any photograph).

The subjective approach is when a photographer makes a deliberate effort to express her or his personal opinion or point of view. It means showing in the picture what the photographer felt in the presence of the subject rather than what the eyes told him or her. In essence this is an emotional approach requiring a high degree of sensitivity, feeling, compassion, imagination and courage of conviction. Usually this approach is the third stage in the development of a photographer, when the photographer starts to realize that there is no objective rendering of any subjects and that an imaginatively seen and expressed photograph can be more stimulating than a purely factual, correctly rendered image. This approach requires are strong personal conviction and vision coupled with sufficient technical abilities to realize this vision.

The expressionistic approach is when the photographer goes all out of his or her effort to present his or her personal point of view, even if this requires a form of rendition which makes the subject partly or completely unrecognizable. As in modern abstract art, feeling is everything. It takes about the same abilities as for the subjective approach, only to a higher degree. Often the expressionistic approach is merely a more revolutionary form of the subjective approach. And some times expressionistic photographers rely on photo-technical abilities to a lesser degree. It’s all about feeling, intuition and being present with the subject.

Where do you feel you are along this continuum between a factual and a expressionistic approach?

39 thoughts on “Photographic Development

  1. I think I am mostly in the ‘subjective’ section. I rarely ‘go abstract’ but now and then have a play with ICM or double exposure, but it doesn’t satisfy me as much as making a photo look like how I felt when I saw it.

  2. The stages of one’s creativity take most of us years to experience and even understand. Each adds to the next, but sometimes we get too comfortable with one. To continue experimentation is to help find one’s path as you have done.

    1. I can see that point. On a different note, and despite having described three different categories here, personally I don’t like to be put in one particular category. There is a fluid transition between them.

  3. After some years of being more technical, eventually I turned to what is really the Me as a photographer, meaning what I feel and sense about my subject, that may be a beautiful bride, or a beautiful flower, taking those choices to the extreme to what I’m trying to say. My work has become more and more of capturing the soul of my subject, where I don’t really care so much about technical rules. Of course certain rules will always apply, but they are set to a minimum on my approach. It’s like once you got down the technical part , you are kind of set free, doing what ever feels right.

  4. I think I’m in all three, depending on whatever crosses my path and; for some reason… ; draws my attention. What draws my attention is my special connection with the outside world; inside out and outside in.

  5. I think it is very natural to start anything with developing basic skills needed for the craft (just like learning mathematics to be come a physicist). Once the person have sufficient skills for going at his goal craft then the focus shifts. I have not seen anyone mentioned these 3 approaches before. They are interesting and you are right that the development depends on level of technical skills as well. I also think they also depend on personal personal preference as well. Some might prefer to stay at one stage as their main creation (but that does not mean in some occasion objective can be the others).

    Love those 3 analogous pictures of this article.

    1. Yes, natural preferences are important too, in both the development of one’s art as well as how one approach the subject itself. And of course you are right, one preferred way of shooting, doesn’t omit other approaches.

  6. As with you and most others, becoming technically proficient was the first order of business. Just like learning the “rules” of composition or ways to achieve the best exposure and then moving on from there. And as a nature photographer more or less exclusively, that takes me far. But interpretation is important and just letting the camera make decisions doesn’t work most of the time. I expand into abstraction at times but look more for the beauty in nature and often unseen patterns that generally go unnoticed. I understand what you write about those who are good technically and those who are good with expression but not able to do both at the same time. It can be challenging to accomplish both and is a lifelong learning process. I enjoyed your thoughts in this post and, as always, they provoke some thought from us readers.

    1. Thank you for the feedback, Steve. I am glad you could enjoy my writing. Yes, nature photography is quite different compared to what I usually do, but I still think it’s possible to think in the same way with regards to the approach, as you also indicate. Even a technically perfect nature photo without any emotional investment from the photographer ends up being pretty boring. For any photograph to stand out it needs intent from the photographer – a personal touch.

  7. From personal experience I can relate closely with the phases you describe – though I have never had an appetite for technical perfection.
    I particularly like the first of your pictures. It has qualities that remind me very much of the paintings of Edward Hopper.

  8. A very interesting post, the comments make good reading too! I don’t know how I would class myself. I feel that with some of my subjects I’m improving and am pleased with my results. Other topics like landscape for instance I just can’t put what I feel into the image, so lots to learn! Difficult not getting despondent when shots don’t work out, it would be easy to fall back onto doing what I think I’m better at.

    1. I agree it’s easy to fall back onto what we already master. However, it’s critical to push beyond the comfort zone and yes risking not always getting captivating images. That’s the only way to keep developing.

  9. It seems to me that being able to master each of the modes you described here is important. There are times when a more factual approach to nature photography is critical, as with illustrations for an article. On the other hand, finding ways to present nature in unusual ways, including abstraction, allows for fresh ways of seeing the world around us.

    Being able to evoke emotion and engage a viewer is an even greater challenge, particularly when the subject isn’t one generally considered “cute” or “pretty.” Most people love kittens and puppies, but not everyone loves a spider or salamander. One of the greatest compliments I get comes when I post a photo of an alligator and someone says, “Those things give me the creeps — but I like the photo.” It’s a balancing act for any photographer, I suspect: keeping both the subject and the intended audience in mind, while finding the point where our creative energies begin to bubble.

    1. I am not sure about the latter, that about keeping half an eye on the audience while photographing or doing any other art for that matter. Yes, we want to communicate with others, but I think the more genuine and from inside oneself, the more likely we are to be able to strike a cord with an audience. If you emotionally engage with the subject – talking about photography but similarly for other creative activities – it will transcend to the audience.

  10. Interesting points you mentioned.I feel oscillating between the subjective and the expressionistic approach, depending on the mood of the moment and the reason for which I take (make?) photos.
    One reason is that at my age (71 now and photographing since I was 15!) I took so many photos in a conventional way (factual approach) of almost everything that this is no more interesting to me. Therefore the desire to make something different. The interior need and the freedom to take risks, sometimes it works other times it doesn’t. But when it works the satisfaction is superlative!
    I’m lucky my wife is a passionate photographer as well and she has a real factual approach. When traveling I feel free to experiment and I know that anyway we’ll bring back home something “visible” thanks to her work.
    A continuous development is what keep us alive 🙂 even in photography! Thanks for the food for thoughts!

    1. You and your wife sounds like having a perfect photographic partnership. As for myself, I am pretty much in the same stage as you. I find the factual approach less and less interesting and although I still have to do so when working on assignments, most of my personal projects these days are about expanding into the more subjective or expressionistic approach.

  11. Your post today gives me lots to think about as I’ve been wondering about my own photography and what I’m doing with it. Or not doing. Thank you, Otto.

  12. Interesting breakdown however I really don’t know where I would fit in here. I like my photographs to look like photographs but I use my intuition rather than thinking about the process too much.

    1. Being able to use your intuition indicates that you are not only working with a factual approach but rather towards the subjective approach. I see your close connection with nature in your photographs.

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