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  • okeefethomasw

I was told this wasn't art

Or how an insult inspired me.

The other morning, I was in my front yard showing a neighbor this photo, on my cell phone, which I was about to share on Instagram and Facebook. I just hadn't decided what to title it. This is a good image, but it is in no way unique. I have seen similar images of hot air balloons. The morning I photographed this; others were positioning themselves to get the same shot.

Another neighbor, whom I barely know, was walking by, stopped and saw the image on my phone. Her comment was that cell phones have such good cameras now. I told her that this was just saved on my phone to show my neighbor and that I had taken the image with a camera and had spent several days editing it to get it to look like this.

What followed was a complete surprise. She informed that she was a painter and a real artist. Photographers were not artists. They only manipulate pictures on their computers. Karen, dare I call her Karen? Okay, it's Karen (names have been changed to indict the guilty). Karen launched into a lengthy, loud, insult laden and ill-informed diatribe during which I could barely speak and doubt that I was heard when I attempted to do so.

When Karen told me that Ansel Adams was a realistic photographer and never manipulated any of his photos, I let out a small chuckle. Karen, incensed at that, informed me that she was done and wasn't going to stand here (in my driveway) and be laughed at. She stormed off.

I posted the image with the title "I was told that this wasn't art". I spent the rest of the day thinking about what constitutes art and came across an interesting definition: "Art: noun, has no definition". Friends, photographers, artists, non-artists, and even a professional harmonica musician responded in support that I wasn't really looking for. It seems that Karen's comment upset quite a few people.

I decided to respond to the two main thesis of Karen's argument:

  1. Photography is not art because anyone can pick up a camera or a cell phone and take a picture.

  2. Ansel Adams was a realist. Today, photographers just manipulate pictures on computers. The computer is making the photo, not the photographer.

Anyone can pick up a camera and take a photo.

True. It's done hundreds of thousands of times a day. However, Ansel Adams would say you don't "take" a photo, you "make" a photo. I'm reminded of that every morning because the coffee cup I bought at the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite says "Go Make a Photo". Take/ make may sound like it's just semantics. But it truly matters. For now, I am going to let Ansel rest while I make my first point with a concert grand piano.

I once stayed at the Dorland Mountain Art Colony near Temecula California. The Dorland provides cabins in a rustic setting affording resident artists a peaceful atmosphere to work on their art. Many of the cabins, that are used by musicians, include a concert grand piano. The piano in my cabin had been obtained from Carnegie Hall. Before I go on let me explain. I was not one of the artists in residence. This was during my fire service career. A wildfire was threatening the colony and I was responsible for preparing the colony's defenses. The colony manager was kind enough to let me stay in a cabin during that assignment.

When I saw the piano, I could not resist. I sat down and played it. I played every composition I knew. Which consisted of only one. Not even chopsticks. It's the one where you roll your knuckles over some black keys and so on.

Just as anyone can take a photo, anyone can play a concert grand piano from Carnegie Hall. In terms of talent, skill, craft, knowledge and expertise developed over decades through study and practice there exists a great gap between the pianist that played that piano in a concert at Carnegie Hall and me who rolled his knuckles across some keys in a cabin.

I do not mean to diminish the enjoyment or value that comes from taking a snapshot or those who are early on their photographic journey. On the contrary, that's how I started. I just started in 1969 with film and a darkroom. I've just been at since the Gobi Desert was just a small pile of dust. It's taken me this long on my photographic journey to progress from "I enjoy it", to "It's my hobby" to "It's my passion", to "I am a photographer". Not everyone who takes a photo is a photographer, at least not yet.

Ansel Adams was a realist and photographers just let the computer manipulate their photos.

Ansel Adams was not a realist, and all art is the result of manipulation. Adams photographed in black and white. Black and white does not depict reality. When was the last time you drove through the Yosemite Valley and marveled at all the monochromatic tones?

He was the master of manipulations in the darkroom in order to achieve the tonal range that he visualized while first making the photo. (For those of you that may have read the 3-part series Camera, Negative and Print, I am focusing only on the print for this argument.)

My favorite photo of his and favorite photo of all time is "Moonrise over Hernadez"

This photo has been called the most difficult photo to print. This is due to all the darkroom techniques, dare I say manipulations, that Adams utilized to bring this photo to life. The contact print (a contact print is made directly from the negative with any edits) is dull and lifeless. The crosses on the church and adjacent graveyard, that are illuminated by the about to set sun, are barely noticeable. The clouds are washed out and the night sky is washed out grey. This image from the internet does not do justice to a print made by Adams. In an Adams print, this photo is so dynamic that when you look into that dark night sky you can watch the stars some out. Adams edited. Adams manipulated. Adams used his craft, skill technique and artistic vision to bring this photo to life.

Do other artists manipulate? Of course, they do. Art is a result of skillfully applied manipulations within the parameters of the medium by the artist. Dante manipulated rhyme patterns in order to write the Divine Comedy. If Michaelangelo did not manipulate his medium, the Pieta would still be slab of marble in Carrara, the Sistine Chapel ceiling would be just plaster and in order to see Mona Lisa, you would have to time travel back to Florence and sneak into her villa. As soon as he put chisel to stone, or bush to canvas he changed the medium to conform it to his vision.

I use editing software on my computer to manipulate my images to realize my vision. The reality is that no matter how powerful my computer and software are they are actually dumb. I can load an image into the software, and nothing will happen. I can wait years and nothing. Not until, I tell the programs what to do.

When I started editing my photos, I was told it would take five years to learn photoshop. I have been at it thirteen years and am constantly learning and improving my craft. Just like the real concert pianist from earlier, I dedicate time to practice, develop, improve and learn.

Gary Shepherd, the professional harmonica player, response to this was a succinct definition of art "... I play harmonicas professionally and everything I play comes from my heart and mind." Thanks Gary, that is where are comes from, no matter the medium.

I am a photographer and I am an artist.

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