What makes a good photo Art?
Every morning when not out shooting somewhere, I sit down with my morning coffee and one of my favourite photography books. I love the stillness of the early morning; I enjoy bathing in dawn light and enjoying the colours as they develop and evaporate as the sun rises. Here in Scotland in June it is hardly dark at night and by 3.30am the light glows on the horizon. At around five or so the light is soft and gentle with hints of pink and peach in among the pale grey and misty blue tones, it's like a watercolour painting. Nothing harsh or contrasting, just harmony and peace.
By five this morning I was sitting in my favourite spot on the front doorstep, with a copy of Mountain Light by Galen Rowell, my treasured possession. All I could hear as I browsed the images was the sound of the waves lapping on the shore across the road and the oyster catchers overhead.
Of all the inspirational photographers out there I believe Rowell's images remain visionary even now, many years after his untimely death in 2002. He transports you to the Himalayas, Yosemite or wherever is to be there with him as he takes each shot. The shot below, Clearing Storm over El Capitan, Yosesmite, California is a perfect example of how Rowell raised the game in photography from standard duplication of nature to an artwork full of expression and emotion.
Rowell focusses the eye on the clearing mist and the shape of the mountain using the vertical straight trees underneath to give the "visual sea level". Other photographers would shy away from converging trees but Rowell embraces them and uses them as part of the framing for the central subject. It makes this image visually stunning.
Rowell echoes my own feelings about photography, that it is not about technique or how big a set of lenses you have but about personal vision. As artists we have to trust our personal vision otherwise our photography will not create that magical connection with the viewer. 'Seeing' the image as you stand there with you camera and having the proficiency in technique to capture it are only two of the three components required for a successful image, the third is expression, how you convey the emotional response you had when taking the shot to your viewer. The translation and distillation of the various components into a final image is what makes the image a success. Several photographers can stand in the same place shooting the same scene but what distinguishes them is that mysterious and often elusive combination of elements and personal style that make one shot different from the others. Creativity and artistic vision rather than the nuts and bolts of the process are the key.
As Rowell says, "Each time I pick up a camera I'm trying to say something. I'm trying to communicate my view of the world and to share those high moments when what I see and what I feel are a single experience. Mechanical competence with a camera is just half of the equation. The best images come from a blend of technical discipline and creative thought, a meld of left-brain/right-brain action. Only then can a photographer merge, for an instant, his camera's way of seeing the world with his own".
To the point Rowell was making, when I started out in landscape photography I lacked confidence and I was strongly influenced by those around me as to what to shoot and how to shoot but no one could tell me why shoot it, that was down to me. My early photographic expeditions had a strong focus on technique and proficiency with lenses, trying to get the tripod up, down etc and most of my work used traditional compositional rules - often involving big rocks! I rarely found much time to consider harmony and composing using the colours of the light. Those trips were incredibly valuable to me and I would strongly recommend anyone starting out in photography to go on workshops and learn how to use the tools. Everyone needs a thorough grounding in the basics, after all, you have to know what the rules are before you can use them or break them.
I realise now as I look back at some of my early images made that only a few were the result of my personal emotional response to what I saw. In many of them I was concentrating so much on the technique and the compositional elements that the vision simply did not come across. However, when I look at some of the images that I discarded at the time, I remember what captured my attention, what it was about the scene that I wanted to convey. Many of those early images are not technically very good but they did capture the emotion of the moment. The image below is a good example. For a long time I have loved this image, it was taken on my first amazing photography workshop with talented photographer Bruce Percy (thanks Bruce!). It was the first time with my Canon 5D Mark II, it was the first time I had ever used a tripod, it was one of my earliest long exposures at 25 seconds and the first time I ever used Lee Filters. I had no expertise whatsoever at that stage yet this image is very popular with my viewers. I have until recently dismissed this image as a little short of the mark but the more I look at it the more I feel it is actually more of it an indicator for where I am heading than many of my other images. Some of my most recent successes (Foggy Day on the Clyde) are in the same vein so I seem to have gone full circle.
"At the heart of all photography is an urge to express our deepest personal feelings, to reveal our inner, hidden selves, to unlock the artist." Galen Rowell, Still Vision, Mountain Light
We cannot ever hope to duplicate Nature in a photograph so why try? When looking at Rowell's book I am reminded to keep developing my own personal style, not to be distracted by the work of others and to strive to create something new and fresh.
As Rowell says "If we limit our vision to the real world, we will forever be fighting on the minus side of things, working only to make our photographs equal to what we see out there, but no better".
Happy to hear any thoughts on this topic, particularly from aspiring photographers!
Mountain Light is published by Sierra Club Books
You can read about other photographers and artists in my blog series Rare Species? The Female Landscape Photographer in the Wild!