Nowadays, it would be difficult to walk down a busy street anywhere in the United States and find someone who does not own a smartphone with a quality camera. With their own camera phones and platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and VSCO on which to share their snaps, everyone can be a photographer these days. So where do we draw the line between taking photos for fun or memories and photography as an art form? There must be ground rules on what is considered “art” in photography- for otherwise it could no longer be considered an art form to be taken seriously. While it may seem pretentious to give art any kind of rules or boundaries, it is absolutely essential in maintaining it as both a vocation and a centerpiece of culture anywhere. Keep in mind while I write this article I am not using entirely my own opinions, but rather additionally factoring in what I have learned from books such as “Read This if You Want to Take Great Photographs of People” by Henry Carroll, and the advice and wise words of my older peers and teachers in photography.
So what must a photo do to be considered art, and better yet- interesting art? I should think that it should tell us something meaningful. For instance: a photo of a family at a beach is not photographic art if they are all smiling at the camera, poised to look and grin on “cheese”. That is capturing a moment, yes, but it is not art, and it is probably not interesting to you if you are not a member of that family. On the other hand, a photograph of the same family- perhaps unaware that they are being photographed until after the fact- all relaxed and doing what they enjoy- framed nicely and assuming good lighting and composition… that could be art. Why? Well, putting aside the essentials of good photography (light, angle, depth of field, etc.)- this photo could tell us something interesting. Perhaps the son in the photo is building a sand castle, and the daughter is behind him, staring enviously at the back of his head. Perhaps the father and mother are caught in the middle of exchanging newspaper sections, as they do and have done the same way for years of matrimony. Looking at this imaginary photo, we are told some version of a story about this family, and because of that, it shifts from just a well-shot photo to… art.
Knowing this, I am careful when I set out with my camera to take photographs on any given day. Of course, I can’t help but to take the obligatory photos of the sunset or a pretty tree against the sky- but each day I am trying more and more to tell a story with my photos. I took a picture of an old lady, struggling to carry her grocery bags through a snowstorm- because that tells me the story that she does not have someone to help her. I took a picture of a couple, kissing at a train station- because that tells me a few stories… like perhaps they are saying goodbye, or hello. There is a world of stories out there waiting on its tippy-toes to be captured, and anyone can say something meaningful with a lens in hand.
The photos that accompany this article are by Maya Martinez. My photographs can be found on Instagram @fiona.dimensional.