Skills versus Creativity – One More Time



I have previously written about the seemingly inherent conflict between technical skills and creative expression. If you have read the posts, you know that I don’t really believe there is such a conflict, but think that craftsmanship only broadens the artist’s expressive abilities. Some time ago I read The Creative Photographer by Andreas Feininger. Feininger was a late staff photographer at Life when the magazine was at its heights. In the book he has a passage that goes straight to this duality I have focused on in my blog-posts, which makes for a very strong statement. Let me quote a few passages the book:

«Although, according to popular belief, photo-technical knowledge and skill are first among the qualifications of a good photographer, in my opinion they rank last. I say this because I have met too many photographers who literally knew all the answers in the book, were experts in photo-technical matters, owned the finest equipment, and never made a worthwhile photograph. On the other hand, I know for a fact that several of our most successful photojournalists have only the sketchiest ideas about photo technique – and that the laboratory technicians [remember this was written before the age of digital photography] assigned to do their work suffer whenever they have to print their films. But these photographers know how to make good pictures. They know how to see, they feel for and with their subjects, and they know how to express their feelings in photographic form. Any competent photo technician can make acceptable prints from technical poor negatives, but if feeling and sensitivity are lacking, then obviously, there is no remedy».

«This should not be interpreted to mean that I condone bad technique. I don’t. But if I had to choose between the two – a meaningful picture that is technically poor, and a meaningless picture that is photo-technically unassailable – I unhesitatingly would choose the first. However in this age of foolproof cameras, […] there is really no excuse for bad photo technique. Technique can be mastered by anyone who cares to make the effort. And once mastered, it should be taken for granted and not used as a measure of the value of a photograph – or a photographer».

The Creative Photographer by Andreas Feininger was first published in 1955. Since then photo technique has only become easier to get grip on and to master, thanks to digital imagery and cameras that are so much more advanced compared to back then. Andreas Bernhard Lyonel Feininger – as his full name was – (1906-1999) was a German American photographer, and writer on photographic technique, noted for his dynamic black-and-white scenes of Manhattan and studies of the structure of natural objects (according to Wikipedia. The photograph to the left, «The Photojournalist», may be Feininger’s best-known photograph. The now-iconic image of photojournalist Dennis Stock was taken for Life Magazine. Picture also from Wikipedia).

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A Good Photograph, What is that?


What is that makes a photograph good? Photographers through all times have pondered over this question as have artists in any other creative fields about their kind work. There isn’t really a simple answer to the question, and the opinions are definitely divided. But some time ago I came across a book by the renowned, late photographer Andreas Feininger. The Complete Colour Photographer from 1969 is quite a thorough and remarkable book, and despite the title of the book it only has a handful of colour plates. Mostly the book consists of Feininger’s thoughts about photography, and he is expressing them very clearly and with sincerity.

One place he writes about what makes a photograph good. For him it comes down to four components: Stopping power, purpose and meaning, emotional impact and graphic quality. Let me quote a few phrases from the books, since I think Andreas Feininger has a very profound understanding and a useful perspective on what it is that makes a photo good.

«Stopping power: To produce any kind of an effect, a photograph must first of all be noticed. Unfortunately, today, people are so satiated with photographs that a picture must have some rather unusual qualities to receive attention. To command it, a photograph must have stopping power.

Stopping power is that quality which makes a photograph visually unusual – “outstanding” insofar as it stands out among other pictures. Its essence is surprise or shock effect. Without stopping power, photographs easily go unnoticed – and an unnoticed photograph is a wasted statement.

Purpose and Meaning: To make a photograph good, more is needed than stopping power which, in essence, is merely the equivalent of a blinker light – a device to attract attention. Having caught the observer’s eye, a photograph must have something to hold his [or her] interest. It must say something, give something, make the viewer think and somehow enrich the experience. It must have purpose and meaning.

Although the terms “purpose” and “meaning” are often used interchangeably, their connotations are subtly different, and I feel that this fine distinction can be of help to the photographer. As I see it, in photography, purpose is equivalent to the intent of the photographer – the “why” of the photograph; meaning is equivalent to the content of the picture – the “what” of the photograph.

Emotional impact: In a similar way that a photograph’s purpose and meaning are aimed at the viewer’s intellectual faculties, a picture’s emotional impact is directed towards the heart.

In order to create pictures with emotional impact it is essential that the photographer himself feels the emotions which he wishes to convey to others through his work. It is for this reason that I consider genuine interest in a subject the first condition for making good photographs.

Graphic Quality: In order to communicate, a photographer must express his intent with graphic means – the lines, forms, colors, and other marks which form the picture, the instruments of visual representation indispensable to expressing ideas, concepts, and images through the medium of photography which in combination give a photograph its graphic quality.»

Andreas Feininger’s work has delighted millions of people all over the world. His pictures appeared in many European and American magazines – notably in Life, for which he was a staff photographer for nearly twenty years.

Photographic Development

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Sven fotograferer på Playa del Este

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Most artists go through different stages of development. So, too, do photographers, but their development more clearly than in other art forms proceeds along two parallel lines – due to the dual nature of photography. One of those lines is concerned with technique while the other is concerned with art. 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 of it. 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.

Skills versus Creativity – One More Time



I have previously written about the seemingly inherent conflict between technical skills and creative expression. If you have read the posts, you know that I don’t really believe there is such a conflict, but think that craftsmanship only broadens the artist’s expressive abilities. The last couple of days I have been reading The Creative Photographer by Andreas Feininger (thanks to danitacahill who made me aware of the book some time ago). Feininger was a late staff photographer at Life when the magazine was at its heights. In the book he has a passage that goes straight to this duality I have focused on in my blog-posts, which makes for a very strong statement. Let me quote the passage from the book:

«Although, according to popular belief, photo-technical knowledge and skill are first among the qualifications of a good photographer, in my opinion they rank last. I say this because I have met too many photographers who literally knew all the answers in the book, were experts in photo-technical matters, owned the finest equipment, and never made a worthwhile photograph. On the other hand, I know for a fact that several of our most successful photojournalists have only the sketchiest ideas about photo technique – and that the laboratory technicians [remember this was written before the age of digital photography] assigned to do their work suffer whenever they have to print their films. But these photographers know how to make good pictures. They know how to see, they feel for and with their subjects, and they know how to express their feelings in photographic form. Any competent photo technician can make acceptable prints from technical poor negatives, but if feeling and sensitivity are lacking, then obviously, there is no remedy».

«This should not be interpreted to mean that I condone bad technique. I don’t. But if I had to choose between the two – a meaningful picture that is technically poor, and a meaningless picture that is photo-technically unassailable – I unhesitatingly would choose the first. However in this age of foolproof cameras, […] there is really no excuse for bad photo technique. Technique can be mastered by anyone who cares to make the effort. And once mastered, it should be taken for granted and not used as a measure of the value of a photograph – or a photographer».

The Creative Photographer by Andreas Feininger was first published in 1955. Since then photo technique has only become easier to get grip on and to master, thanks to digital imagery and cameras that are so much more advanced compared to back then. Andreas Bernhard Lyonel Feininger – as his full name was – (1906-1999) was a German American photographer, and writer on photographic technique, noted for his dynamic black-and-white scenes of Manhattan and studies of the structure of natural objects (according to Wikipedia. The photograph to the left, «The Photojournalist», may be Feininger’s best-known photograph. The now-iconic image of photojournalist Dennis Stock was taken for Life Magazine. Picture also from Wikipedia).

A Good Photograph, What is that?


What is that makes a photograph good? Photographers through all times have pondered over this question as have artists in any other creative fields about their kind work. There isn’t really a simple answer to the question, and the opinions are definitely divided. But some time ago I came across a book by the renowned, now pasted away, photographer Andreas Feininger. The Complete Colour Photographer from 1969 is quite a thorough and remarkable book, and despite the title of the book it only has a handful of colour plates. Mostly the book consists of Feininger’s thoughts about photography, and he is expressing them very clearly and with sincerity.

One place he writes about what makes a photograph good. For him it comes down to four components: Stopping power, purpose and meaning, emotional impact and graphic quality. Let me quote a few phrases from the books, since I think Andreas Feininger has a very profound understanding and a useful perspective on the issue.

«Stopping power: To produce any kind of an effect, a photograph must first of all be noticed. Unfortunately, today, people are so satiated with photographs that a picture must have some rather unusual qualities to receive attention. To command it, a photograph must have stopping power.

Stopping power is that quality which makes a photograph visually unusual – “outstanding” insofar as it stands out among other pictures. Its essence is surprise or shock effect. Without stopping power, photographs easily go unnoticed – and an unnoticed photograph is a wasted statement.

Purpose and Meaning: To make a photograph good, more is needed than stopping power which, in essence, is merely the equivalent of a blinker light – a device to attract attention. Having caught the observer’s eye, a photograph must have something to hold his interest. It must say something, give something, make the viewer think and somehow enrich his experience. It must have purpose and meaning.

Although the terms “purpose” and “meaning” are often used interchangeably, their connotations are subtly different, and I feel that this fine distinction can be of help to the photographer. As I see it, in photography, purpose is equivalent to the intent of the photographer – the “why” of the photograph; meaning is equivalent to the content of the picture – the “what” of the photograph.

Emotional impact: In a similar way that a photograph’s purpose and meaning are aimed at the viewer’s intellectual faculties, a picture’s emotional impact is directed towards the heart.

In order to create pictures with emotional impact it is essential that the photographer himself feels the emotions which he wishes to convey to others through his work. It is for this reason that I consider genuine interest in a subject the first condition for making good photographs.

Graphic Quality: In order to communicate, a photographer must express his intent with graphic means – the lines, forms, colors, and other marks which form the picture, the instruments of visual representation indispensable to expressing ideas, concepts, and images through the medium of photography which in combination give a photograph its graphic quality.»

Andreas Feininger’s work has delighted millions of people all over the world. His pictures appeared in many European and American magazines – notably in Life, for which he was a staff photographer for nearly twenty years.