In 2008, I decided to take a formal photography course at Raritan Valley Community College. A major required element of the course was the preparation of an "Artist Statement." This is what I wrote.
I am not an artist.
This is the inevitable conclusion I must come to, having examined and researched and pondered the topic of the “artist statement” for the past two months. I am not an artist, not by how the “art community” defines art.
I am not about making the viewer uncomfortable. I don’t look for the “edgy” content or viewpoint. I am not forcing the viewer to question their basic values or ideas, or to pursue some sort of political or cultural judgment or policy. I am not pushing an idea via imagery.
I don’t do exhaustive studies of a single subject under all sorts of lighting, at all the phases of the moon or changes of season. I am not collecting photos of old buildings in rural Mississippi, or real-estate shots of housing construction. I am not making a collection of Photoshop textures or a catalog of textile designs.
From time to time I do photograph within a specific subject area. I have photographed about ninety lighthouses. I have photographed more than six hundred eighteenth and nineteenth century churches. There is a collection of more than a hundred railroad stations. But this is just a measure of diversity; I also photograph birds, gardens, old forts, old mills, bridges, agriculture, Anastasi ruins, and so forth. I don’t work in a particular niche; I will not limit myself to a perspective; I don’t care about the latest fashion or trend.
I am recording what I see around me, finding those parts which I find interesting or pleasing or unique or just plain fun. I am more in the photo-journalist tradition.
The photo-journalist records what is seen at a moment; capturing and freezing time and/or place. To the extent there is art in this work, it is the pride of craftsmanship, of performing the assignment and summarizing the event.
My impression is that many of the “recognized art photographers” were only recognized and denoted as such well after the fact. The celebrated WPA photographers Evans, Lange, etc. are part of this tradition. They were far from the only photographers working and documenting the Great Depression; every Farm Security Administration agent was issued a Graflex camera and took pictures of local conditions as part of the job. Few of these people considered what they were doing at the time to be “art” – they were performing a task. The various photographers working for Life magazine were primarily journalistic in nature; art was declared afterwards.
When I look at the books on photography that I’ve purchased, and the books which appeal to me, they fall into one of two broad groups. Either they are technical in nature (how to do this that or the other thing) or they are written by a photojournalist or writer (not a professional photographer), explaining how he (or she) came up with the composition for the image, or why this was the best representation of a subject.
The technical books include works by Sean Duggan, Scott Kelby, Bruce Fraser, Harald Johnson and others. I’ve had the pleasure of taking workshops with Kelby and Duggan, and of working professionally with Bruce (on color calibration systems).
The photography book authors include J. Parker Lamb, Joe McNally, Allison Jones, Don Imus, Michael Yon and others. In a few cases the appeal was based on subject matter (Lamb with railroads, Imus for the Southwest) but generally it was a single specific image which caught my eye (McNally: Empire State Building lamp-changing; Yon: Farah).
I work professionally as a software developer and thus am quite at home with advanced technology; indeed a significant part of my income is derived from being a research laboratory, experimenting with (and sometimes abandoning) technologies before they reach the broad public eye. What some might consider “nerdy” I find to be quite familiar. Thus I’ve worked with the tools of digital photography for fifteen years.
The photography interest goes back to childhood (I’m the son of an engineering father and an elementary-education mother). It’s always been about recording the place or event; I’ve never had a darkroom or significant post-processing capability, at least until the digital era.
Even with the digital, it has mostly been about getting the best quality image printed (I am allergic to darkroom chemicals). Few of my pictures have any manipulation done beyond simple crop and straightening. Five of the pictures in my personal “sweet sixteen” list are prints directly from the camera original – no cropping or changing of any sort has taken place. My final output is most often prints, though sometimes the electronic easel (website) is the destination.
A small number of prints I make have been significantly altered via software trickery; most commonly to change colors (with no traditional darkroom experience, all of my black-and-white photography has been digital) though there are a few with detail smoothing/sharpening and/or burn/dodging work. On my photography website, only one image (of 993) has been heavily “Photoshopped” – I removed a communications tower from Hertford Inlet Lighthouse.
Photography is often classified as a “decorative art” – something you can hang on the wall and find pleasure in. That is what I’m after – a pretty picture, a good print. If others find one of my images pleasing, fine. If not, so what? I will continue to snap away.
I just might not be an artist.