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Is Photography Art?

I will deal with this question repeatedly in this blog, and the answer will be YES every time. At a lit center or at a dark corner of every photography gallery lurks the question: At what point does photography stop being photography and become something else? What would that “something else” be? Art is defined in many different ways, and I will use these definitions alternately. MY blog, MY privilege, right? However, whenever I select a definition, I will do it with a reason. For this post I chose a comprehensive descriptions of art that includes three important components: Representation (Plato: “Mimesis” – The replication of something that is beautiful or meaningful), Expression (Caspar David Friedrich: “The artist’s Feeling is his law”) and Form (Kant: Aesthetics and the judgment of “Beauty”). After making all this lengthy introduction, let’s dive into the creation of a photograph. Ever since I photographed irises in nature, I have acknowledged their both resilience and fragility. The post’s leading photograph was taken on my first trip to photograph the Lortet’s Iris, in spring 2011.

Why Black and White?

Because it emphasizes my concern regarding the impact of man. As I sat with this beautiful flower, I noticed the presence of only a few iris plants at the reservation, which is no more than a hill’s slope of about three hundred meters long. I was also aware of the human interference all around the habitat, which, judging from archeological sites nearby, is almost as old as civilization itself. At about 1 pm I put the camera on a tripod and waited for the modern man to show his presence on the road. I wanted it to be in a form of a white car to create a visual tension with the white flower. It took about 8 minutes, 6 cars and 40 photographs to get what I wanted. Meanwhile, a cloud moved in to cast almost the entire scene, which made the photograph flat. As it turned out, this served me well later, in the black and white version. Here’s the photograph, unprocessed (i.e., rejecting default handling in Lightroom) except for the use of “Bicubic sharper” during resizing in Photoshop.

The flower is gorgeous, but in colors, the relationships between the flower and the car leave much to be desired. It is nothing more than an OK photograph. However, I knew in advance this photograph calls for black and white. At home, I transformed to black and white simply by choosing (copy-paste) the Blue layer:
The effect is instantaneous. Blue sensors are blind to yellow, hence all of the yellow flowers carpets turned black. Green, being rich with yellow, became dark gray. What remained brightly illuminated were the iris, the car and the scenic’s highlights, namely the paved and the dirt roads and the hills in the background. What was left to do was just to dim some whites and highlights in the vegetation, adjust contrast and make final local sharpening. Following this simple procedure I achieved the tension I was looking for.

Is it art?

The image replicates something beautiful or meaningful, satisfying Plato’s requirement. It does it in black and white though, which is loyal to Nature’s shapes, but it lies about Nature’s true colors. Black and white, however, do a much better job than colors in telling the story and expressing my feelings, fulfilling the Romantic movement’s requirement for art. Now, we’re left with Kant’s very tricky requirement for aesthetics. Is it beautiful? This photograph was chosen to be a finalist in the ‘Environment’ category of the 5th Pollux photography contest. This is no proof, but I hope it is a sign that Kant’s requirement is at least partly fulfilled.

Is this a Photograph?

This is not as silly a question as it sounds. One should not undermine the fact that I completely changed the photograph’s original colors. Relatively to this major operation, any other Photoshop manipulation that I used seems negligible. I think that the only reason I can get away with such a major color change is the fact that photography was born and spent its infancy in black and white, so black and white has become a totally acceptable photographic technique. However, I only used the blue layer, hence there was supposedly no equal representation of all colors in the photograph. How much of a problem is that? Some people may feel uncomfortable with that. I don’t. Should we really be loyal to the way that certain, or even most black and white films rendered colors? After all, black and white photographers in the film era, including myself, have always used filters to manipulate tones of grey. A most common use of filters was to darken blue sky with yellow, orange or red filters, depending on the desired effect. Some fashion black and white photographers used filters to manipulate grey in clothes, not to mention the magic of infrared films. Hence, I don’t care how you call it. I am just happy with the tools I’ve got to create art. MY art. I’d call it photography.

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