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Vocabulary & Communication in Art Photography

The truth is that the vast majority of photographs I’ve ever made have come into existence within the last six years. And they’ve mostly been rubbish from a technical perspective.

All but a small handful of those better photographs haven’t had anything to say. They’re disjointed pictures. Photographic practice. Pictures of strangers having coffee or technical explorations of light on still life objects.

I know people will argue with me about the difference between photography as art and general photography (particularly commercial work). However, I live in an artist household where painters paint and printmakers print; where cupboards are filled with drawings, shelves are covered in ceramics, walls blossom with remnants of past exhibitions and drawers are a tinderbox of ideas in the manufacture of expression.

Art has something to say. Art is about ideas.

If you’re making art in any form you might be a genius like Picasso; I strongly doubt it. Most of us are more like the hard working Cezanne with a need for patronage and a good deal of luck. And art is usually about hard graft over many years and comes from a delicate balance between absolute self-faith and self-doubt in equal extremities.

Art is communication. Artists develop a vocabulary to encapsulate their ideas for an audience. Vocabularies inherently have order.

Artists think a lot about what they want to say. Artists can talk about their art for hours – why, where, how, when, what? Not the tools, the brush or the pencil. Those are a given. No, they spend a lot of time thinking about what they need to say and how that can be said with this thing called art.

I’m a late-comer to the field of photography. Like nearly everybody, I find it difficult to articulate within the pictures what I really need to say. I’m like a novice writer who sits down to write a first novel but discovers the difficulty in explaining the trivial. These are muscles untraveled.

And just as design isn’t art; neither are photographs without meaning. And I know some of you will split hairs on this and look for scapegoats like abstraction and landscape. But, no, those artists you’re thinking about also had something to say. Ansel Adams didn’t focus on stock photographs of beach balls; he had a passion for the environment. Neither did Man Ray; he explored the meaning of things using techniques not generally considered in that context. And copying those artists for the sake of creating pictures might be great practice, but it’s not art.

Well, not until it recedes into being an influence that you draw on for your own art.

So, yes, you really do need something to say. Who are you? What are you doing here? What makes your message different than every other message in the art world? That’s pretty big when you consider it – all those technically correct photographs having to justify themselves. Most people really don’t have anything to say. And there’s nothing at all wrong with that; making great pictures for the sake of the doing is a noble thing. It’s just not art.

And I’m not entirely sure why so many photographers, in particular, require an art validation. Commercial pictures are perfectly valid on gallery walls because galleries like to make income, if nothing else. Photographs are products that galleries sell to cashed up punters. That’s the gallery business.

It’s a big thing to say you make art in our household. Or to be called an artist. Or to self-identify. It takes qualification and you won’t go unchallenged.

Don’t get me wrong, there really is no problem with making and selling beautiful pictures and being a successful photographer. After all, that’s the photography business.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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