HOW TO TURN PHOTOGRAPHY INTO ART?
CHARACTERISTICS THAT TRANSFORM PHOTOGRAPHY INTO ART
How do we turn photography into art? How do we transform the act of taking a picture into creating a work that can inspire and trigger an emotional response in the viewer? How can we move ourselves and those coming in contact with our images and thus transition from recording reality to interpreting it subjectively?
If you read the first part of this article I published a short while ago, you know that I have identified eight characteristics that can turn photography into art. I talked about the first four in the first article, and I will be talking about the other four in this article.
I have concluded that these characteristics are important, on the one hand, through personal experience working with photography for the past almost three decades. I cannot even believe it is that long – but yes, photography has been my companion already from my early teen years. I also reached this conclusion after working with my mentoring and workshop students for many years and striving to decipher together with them those magical elements that would make their images a form of artistic expression.
And last but not least, I have gotten to this conclusion after studying and analyzing the work of the outstanding photographers of the past and present who have paved the way for us to take this art further.
When I think about what turns photography into art, these eight characteristics come to mind over and over again. They are related not only to photography but also to art and to artistic creation in general.
Elaborating on the things that transform photography into art is not meant to present a stiff analytical point of view or make a bullet point list to record something. Having this conversation is important because it makes us aware of what it takes to create art when we make photography. And awareness is wisdom – wisdom that can bring us inspiration.
Art is a deeply personal form of expression, and the truth is that you can create art in many ways, not only in the mainstream accepted ways. Literature can be art, architecture, music, and of course, photography.
I would even go as far as to say that thinking can be a form of creating art, particularly as long as the outcome of those thoughts finds its way into the world in the form of an artistic expression.
This is what we aim to do here with this discussion: create awareness that will unlock our creative potential.
But let’s first remember the characteristics discussed in the first article on this topic. The four characteristics were:
Photography as an art is about seeing the world in a different way.
Your originality is your personal style. This is why it is important to find a personal style in photography and a unique artistic signature that differs from others.
Surprise is what sparkles the interest of those looking at an object of art or a photograph. Surprise makes us want to come closer and spend more time with it.
MEANING – STATEMENT
The meaning of a photograph is the idea you want to integrate into that visual representation, the story you want to tell, or the feeling you want to express. It is your artistic statement in front of the world.
If you want to read more about these first four characteristics, go back to my article What Makes Photography Art and read more details. And if you want to make sure that you will get a heads up every time I publish a new article or tutorial, or every time I have a special surprise for my subscribers, go on and subscribe right now to receive my fine art photography newsletter.
So, let’s see now what the other four characteristics of your photography into art are.
“Great photography is about depth of feeling, not depth of field.”
– Peter Adams –
As we see above, the last thing we were talking about in the previous article was meaning.
Right after meaning, or right next to it, stands emotion. You could even argue that emotion comes first. It may come even before originality or anything else if you consider that this is what we aim for the viewer to feel. We want the viewer to feel emotion when they look at our work. At the same time, this is what we as photographers and artists want to feel when we create a photograph.
Emotion is a huge part of art. Thus it is a huge part of fine art photography.
It is such an essential characteristic because emotion is a huge part of life, and photography is about life.
Fine art photography is about life and how it feels to be alive.
If you do not have emotion in a photograph, that photograph as an act of creation does not exist. If it does not touch you when you create it and it does not touch the viewer when they look at it, a fine art photograph has no reason for existence.
The best way to create emotion in photography is to feel that emotion yourself, so you create from a place of experience and sincerity. When you feel that emotion yourself, the first step of creation is made, and all you need after that is to find a way to put that emotion in your photograph. That happens by finding the subjects that will express that emotion and thinking about the story that you can incorporate into the image to make people resonate. It may seem abstract when you think about it for the first time, but in time you develop a specific personal fine art language that you can use when you make photographs to be able to communicate that emotion to others.
Fine art photography exists through the emotion it triggers.
You don’t read a fine art photograph with your eyes; you feel it with your soul.
There are three aspects of creating emotion, and the best images are born when these three aspects are tightly intertwined.
ASPECTS OF CREATING EMOTION
1/ The first aspect of creating emotion is finding the right subject.
2/ The second aspect is to find the right way to capture it, the right technique, angle, moment etc.
3/ The third aspect is to know how to edit that photograph.
When you know what you aim for, these three steps are much simpler to make than when you try to find inspiration outside. Of course, finding inspiration outside is important. But defining what you really want to say and how you want to say it, so it triggers emotion, is even more critical.
THE FOUR STAGES OF CREATIVITY
A very interesting, albeit quite an old book that treats a subject tangent to the subject we are talking about in this article is psychologist Graham Wallas’s book The Art of Thought, published in 1926. The book talks about creativity and the process of creating new ideas. His theory is quite well-known and states that there are a few distinct steps in the act of creating new ideas, or stages of the creative process.
The stages he identifies are four they are: Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and Implementation. You probably have heard something about this theory as it has become quite popular lately, but what is interesting is to actually read the book where they were first presented and see the reasoning of the author. Here is an article on The Marginalian website (Former BrainPicks, if you are familiar) written by Maria Popova, where you can get a bit more details about Wallas’s theory of the four stages of creativity.
This is where sincerity comes to play. We are talking here about your sincerity as an artist. Of course, you need to be sincere always, but we are not talking about your sincerity with other people but your sincerity in expressing yourself. As I said above, if you sincerely feel that emotion, you will be able to transmit it through your photographs more easily.
So, you first need to feel it to be able to express it.
First, sincerity means to know what you feel so you know what to express in your photography. Thus it means looking at yourself and understanding who you are and what you stand for. Sincerity also means being ready as an artist to express your inner world and present it to others. It is not an easy step to make since it may make you feel vulnerable, but it is a vital decision to make that step because opening your mind and soul to others through the art you make will bring you closer to them so you can communicate.
Photography is an act of sincerity.
In art, you need to find a channel to communicate with others, and that channel is mainly based on emotion. So if you don’t express what you really feel, either because you don’t know what you feel, or you don’t know how to express it, or you want to say what you think people want to hear, your message will not be as strong as it would be if it came from an authentically felt emotion.
In art, you need the courage to be yourself and express that in your work. That will make your work more powerful and open the path for you to communicate with those who look at your images. That is one thing that can turn photography into art.
I still haven’t yet decided how to call this quality of fine art photography, so bear with me until I find the best word for it. However, the name is not important. What is important is that, in fine art photography, the fact that we present a different world from what we see at first glance has to be evident. We have to make it obvious that the photograph is not a recording of the reality in front of us but an interpretation and a recreation of that reality.
A fine art photograph is the dream, not the reality that triggered it.
The way we can make that characteristic evident, besides how we capture the image, is by how we edit it. When editing a fine art photograph, we need to use the tools we have to re-create the reality in front of us, to make it tell the story we want to tell and express the emotion we felt when we decided to make that image.
Making all these things clear means that most of the time we will make extensive changes to our initial capture, changes that have to do with the light, the color, the shapes etc. It is not enough to capture the image and do it well; it is also important how we transform this image to become something more, to become our own expression.
“Photography, as we all know, is not real at all. It is an illusion of reality with which we create our own private world.”
– Arnold Newman –
These changes from the initial capture to the processed image should be evident not only in terms of improving exposure, colors etc. but in terms of creating a different world in the photograph than what we see in front of us when we shoot. Making a beautiful scene look even more beautiful by editing it is not enough – we need to create a different reality for the viewer and us to interact with.
Making fine art photography means creating a different world in your photograph than the one you see in front of you.
I could compare this with the emphasis the theater actors add to their interpretation of a role. This theatricality makes the meaning of what they want to convey more obvious and clear for the spectators, just like we want to make things clear for the viewer of our photograph.
I left craftsmanship at the end not because it is the least important but because it is the easiest to learn. Craftsmanship is not so much about inspiration or inner research. It is not so much about expression or artistic statement. It is rather about how you present all these things in a photograph.
Craftsmanship is about creating the highest quality in your images, from the capture to the final image.
It is about a more practical quality that can be learned easier, as with all practical things. It doesn’t mean it is easy. On the contrary, it requires a solid amount of time and practice to become proficient, but it is about more quantitative actions than, for instance, finding an idea and expressing it.
Editing is the aspect of creating a photograph where you can truly be yourself.
However, you cannot think about fine art photography without thinking about craftsmanship. When you want to present an idea that moves and inspires, the way you present it has to be perfect. Otherwise, the dream dissipates.
How can you make people dream if your images are not in focus, have bad exposure, have dust spots, or if your post-processing is sloppy and you can see clearly that the image has been processed? How can you invite the viewer to make the journey with you when you don’t even have a proper vehicle to transport them? Your vehicle is the technical quality of your image. That is the skeleton of the image that will sustain the idea and the story.
When you create a fine art image, the result has to be perfect. It is even more important to be aware of this when doing extensive post-processing of your images. Processing a fine art image can be a complex endeavor and is not always easy to achieve. This is why you often see images where the fact that they have been post-processed is visible in the artifacts or imperfections due to the photographer’s lack of experience or knowledge. That immediately makes the image unappealing, and instead of inviting the viewer to immerse themselves into the story, it makes them wonder about the imperfections.
You never want that to happen. Ever! Even the most original idea and the most beautiful subject can go to waste if the presentation of the image is not of high quality. High quality and craftsmanship are intrinsic characteristics of fine art photography. You need to consider them as a top priority, together with finding the best ideas and capturing the best images.
Maybe some of you will not consider this so necessary. I’m a perfectionist by nature, and I believe that fine art photography requires a generous dose of perfectionism to be created. You need to have the passion and the stubbornness to push the quality of your images as high as possible. You need to be a perfectionist when it comes to crafting your photographs.
That is the moment when you will be able to create that perfect world in your image that people will be happy to immerse into and experience. That is what can inspire people. That is what can change people’s lives. And what can make an artist happier than the knowledge that their art has changed somebody’s life?
If you are wondering about my workflow when creating black and white fine art photography, and especially as for the editing part, you can see how I process an image from start to finish in my 5.5+ hour-long video course From Vision to Final Image – Mastering Black and White Photography Processing. I go there into a lot of detail about both the creative and the technical aspects of creating a fine art photograph. And, of course, to go even deeper into this subject you can join me at one of my upcoming workshops or my online and in-person courses.
I hope that my analysis of these aspects of what transforms photography into art gave you some food for thought that you can use to take your photography further on the path of creating art. I hope it inspired you and that it made you think about your photography and generally about photography in a different way. If you haven’t already, you can go back and read the first part of this article, where I talk about more characteristics of photography as an art.
If you have more ideas about what can make photography art, feel free to share them in the comments for everybody to get more inspiration. And if you’re curious about my further thoughts on this subject and many other photography-related subjects, subscribe to my website and join our community, where we talk extensively about these things.
If you want to read a related article, the article From Art to Photography and Why will be an interesting one that will add to the things I analyze here.
If you are interested to know more about black and white fine art photography, inspiration, (en)Visionography, long exposure photography, architecture fine art photography, and many other subjects, feel free to read my other tutorials and have a look at my books and courses.
FURTHER STUDY RESOURCES
FINE ART BLACK AND WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY, ARCHITECTURE PHOTOGRAPHY, LONG EXPOSURE PHOTOGRAPHY
Find more resources about fine art black and white photography, (en)Visionography, long exposure photography and architecture photography in Julia Anna Gospodarou’s extensive collection of photography tutorials. To receive free future tutorials, you can subscribe here.
Learn more about how to create fine art photography, from vision to processing and the final image in Julia’s video course From Vision to Final Image – Mastering Black and White Photography Processing, in the video tutorial Long Exposure, Architecture, Fine Art Photography – Creating (en)Visionography, and the book From Basics to Fine Art – Black and White Photography, or by attending one of her highly appreciated workshops.
Find Julia’s recommendation for the best software and gear to create fine art photography and curated deals and discounts for these tools.
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