Over the years I have seen various definitions of photography described as a Craft vs Art. I remember reading a story where a publisher referred to someone (Edward Weston I think) as an Artist and he scratched through the word and wrote Photographer. So what is the difference? There are countless websites and opinion pieces describing why photography is or isn’t art. But how we label ourselves is just as important as the label the public, critics, gallery owners, publishers, and piers might put on us. For me the difference is how we practice and pursue our end goals.
When we work solely to reproduce something as realistically as possible with the perfect exposure and darkroom/computer techniques, I believe we are working as craftsmen or artisans. Our goal is to master the technique and process of chemical conversion of light to silver/pigment on paper. We spend countless hours determining development times, contrast, and tonality. Our opinions may change as to what is aesthetically pleasing over time as we change our process and mature. I consider most commercial and portrait photographers to be craftsmen vs artists. They are trying to create a socially acceptable rendition of the subject as dictated by others needs, even if they do have a unique look. Even artists who use photographic techniques as part of a mixed medium may only be practicing craft and not really making Art.
At some point we begin to formulate ideas of what the work itself means and how we can expand on those thoughts in the images we capture. An image of a tree is no longer a representation of the tree, but stands as a reminder for something else. Perhaps the photographer chose a different technique creating an abstraction of the thing or is able to express his views of the subject based on what he felt at the time the image was first visualized. His “Art” may be local to himself only. Others may not understand. A body of similar images with a coherent theme may lead one to better artistic expression. When we think of the self portraits of Cindy Sherman and consider the depth of thought that goes into her productions we can begin to see photography as Art. The social message is what defines her photographs as Art. In my opinion, Art occurs when we move beyond the “craft” of photography.
So when you or I photograph a tree as millions have done before us, is there a social message or meaning behind what we do? When we work to show the world a piece of forest in our corner of the world that they might not otherwise see is there importance to our work? If we capture the same tree over the passage of time and express what that tree means are we then practicing a craft or attaching artful meaning to our series? If a painter captures the very essence of our tree and is heralded for his realism or abstraction as art, what does that say about our representations?
Part of the crossover from craft to art lies in the life we lead. Beginning the creative journey is a conscious decision that must be nurtured while at the same time becoming experts in technique so we can free the mind and spirit to the point that we become artful. There may be many stages we pass through in our quest. It is not a linear pathway but a curvy confusing path with many branches and choices to be made. We must understand the tools of our trade but not be limited by them so that we can one day express our inner selves in a two dimensional medium. If necessary, place reminders in your path to think outside of the normal box and take that alternative path . At some point we hope our images become the story teller and story, much as the practiced dancer becomes the dance.
As photographers we capture life in brief moments of time. So go live creatively and produce the work you wish to produce, become an expert craftsman or artist as you see fit, and show your work or keep it to yourself for your own enjoyment. Life is art, experience it.