I’m not a photographer, I’m an artist

Last week I got into one of those late-night red wine conversation over dinner. We were talking about the definition of contemporary art within the context of photography, and I was trying to define what I do. After a long meandering “drowning-man” grab for a definition, I said “I’m not a photographer, I’m an artist.”

And then I stopped, and laughed, and realised that will sound awfully pompous if taken out of context. But then again, life is just a bunch of crops, isn’t it? To be clear, my statement was meant as a compliment to photographers.

The Galerie Camera Work opened a large retrospective of the photographer Martin Schoeller over the weekend. It’s a magnificent opus, nicely summarised in a new teNeues book simply entitled “Portraits.” It shows his work over the last fifteen years, including the wonderful larger-than-lifesize portraits of every celebrity you can think of, but also great environmental portrayals. These pictures are shot in kitchens, living rooms, or on location. There are also intricately staged photographs, in which he places his subjects in whimsical situations. The point is, Schoeller has substantial photographic skills. It takes aptitude and experience to walk into a room, find a light set-up, make your subjects comfortable, and to knock out a shoot with limited amount of time. Martin Schoeller is a great photographer.

I am not a photographer, not in the sense that Martin Schoeller is. I know how to use my gear, and I use a camera as my primary tool when I create my work. I don’t believe art is possible without craft. But my work is growing increasingly more conceptual, and my skills are built around what I need to make my art. I usually create my images in my studio, because I know how that works. I have my particular lighting set-up, but will prepare sketches for a lot of the depictions before they ever get shot. The image I make doesn’t simply come to me as I enter the space for the first time, nor is it a location I scout before the shoot. I build my sets, I arrange the styling and the look of the model, and I know which poses I’m aiming for, and all of it is tied to the image being created that day. It’s a very deliberate and pre-conceived process.

Nor can one simply argue that certain photographers only succeed because they’re shooting celebrities or naked super-models. Martin Schoeller and Russell James are brilliant photographers. Would the same images work if they were made using “regular” people in the frame? Absolutely, though it would be harder to get a viewer’s attention. More to the point, the same stars and babes shot by lesser talents would make for some very boring photos. The pictures work so well because they’re good photographers, and great craftsmen.

But are they artists? Where is the transition between photography, and contemporary art? I’d venture a partial definition: Photography is capturing the key subjects as they express themselves. Art is arranging the subjects in way that expresses something entirely different.

My images are not supposed to capture the essence of its subjects, they are an expression of my feelings and thoughts. As an artist I can’t simply captures something, I need to initiate it, and I need to be responsible for the final result. If I rely on circumstance or outside forces, then I’m simply documenting the moment. I realise the word “art” is laden with sanctification, though I find it overblown. After the whole twentieth century reappropriation of “art for the people/by the people”, everybody is an artist, and it seems like that has become an unassailable descriptor, a carte-blanche, akin to “belief.”

I have stated my art manifesto before. It’s been a few years since I first posted it, and I still feel the same way.

Art must have four things to matter: concept, craft, discourse and aesthetics.

Art without concept is simply decoration. The world is filled with pretty pictures, clever drawings, and cool stencils, but without an underlying concept it is meaningless. Conversely, art cannot live by concept alone. The idea must be graspable. Hyper-conceptual art may curry favor within a very select circle of art crit MFA candidates and those seeking to justify the curatorial choices they have made, but it does not stand the test of time.

Out of this concept must arise discourse. The viewer must engage with the piece. It is not enough for it to be clever. Art must be a trigger, it must elicit an emotional response, an intellectual response.

Art without craft lacks respect. The coincidental arrival at a strong piece of work is not a deliberate choice. It reflects the moment, not the artist.

Art must make an aesthetic choice. It should appeal, or repel, or intrigue – on purpose.

I’d love to hear from you what you think. It’s an interesting conversation, and I’m nowhere near finished with it. Here’s an image from a tribute to Christo and Jean-Claude that I shot a few years ago. The idea behind it was very specific and deliberate, but it’s hardly a studio image.


3 thoughts on “I’m not a photographer, I’m an artist

  1. Interesting thoughts!

    My first spontaneous reaction to this: Art or Photography, this is not a black or white question with a clear decisive answer. Well at least not in any but the most extreme cases.
    When you create Art using a camera, then part of that process is clearly Photography – and this makes you a Photographer at least partially. I would not go as far as defining percentages now of course. So in the end what you are – Artist or Photographer – is maybe best decided by what you yourself believe you are or at least strive to be.

    More formally, my first question would be “Do I capture or do I create?”.

    – To capture you need to know your craft.
    – To create you need a vision/concept or at least a goal you want to achieve.

    If you work in a studio environment or at a set outdoors, then you actively create. But you can also passively create, by choosing the time of the day, the weather, perspective and framing. You can even create something by simply selecting different captures and discard others from a series.

    For me, being an Artist starts where you create something, which was not there before you created it. Of course you might set a threshold how intense that fraction of creativity has to be to call it Art. So the question might not be, if a specific piece of work is Art or not, but how much Art is in it.

    In your argument you mention “capturing the essence of the subjects in an image”, you could probably even widen the term subjects to include objects, features of environments and more. When you are a good Photographer by your definition, you will make that essence more visible, more obvious. However, by defining what really the essence is, do you not interpret your subject? Is this not the moment when you bring in yourself, your thoughts maybe even your visions and reflect it onto the subject – hence creating something which was not there in the beginning?

    I do not have a solid opinion on all this, so I just did some quick brainstorming with myself. By the way, all that on this grey morning while watching the dunes and the sea from my desk. So please excuse the confusion of my unsorted and unedited thoughts as I had some distraction while typing.

  2. I call myself a photographer.

    A neighbor called me as an artist, as she has for the first time seen my photos. The term was uncomfortable. And so all I still can not get used so myself.

    Yes it is true that the word “art” is always used for images that will be many people used in galleries and museums. The word is sacred to many people.

    So I leave it to others to describe myself as an artist.
    I call myself a photographer with an eye for the mundane.

    And I have done the following sentences:

    Und Kunst ist der Moment, den es sich lohnt festzuhalten.
    Kunst ist der Moment, der uns den Atem anhalten lässt.
    Kunst ist das, was aus dem Alltäglichen herausragt.
    Kunst ist das Alltägliche, aus einem anderen Blickwinkel betrachtet.

    The english translation is:

    And art is the moment it is worth noting.
    Art is the moment that makes us hold your breath.
    Art is what stands out from the ordinary.
    Art is the everyday, viewed from a different angle.


  3. his written discourse hit the nail on the head Yoram Roth. At least for me. For very famous photographers the camera is the tool of choice to freeze a moment for eternity, to document historical events, to show the beauty/cruelty in this world, etc. For others its the tool to express their vision. Reading your words reminds me a lot of Michelangelo’s approach to Art and Vision. Michelangelo was a sculptor, painter, architect (for you is the Camera) and used those capabilities to express his vision. His statement “…David was already in the marble. My Duty was it to release him…” represents to me his approach to Art. He used his craftsmanship to express his ideas and visions. If he would had a camera at that time he wouldn’t have taken snapshots. Pretty sure about it. So in my opinion, creating pictures like you do cannot be done without a clear vision, strategy to execute and the preciseness to achieve the final frame which matches the picture your carrying around in your head. Having said that – this for me is like using the camera in the same purpose as a painter would use his brush, a sculptor his hammer and so on. Therefore following your argumentation – the artist can be a photographer – as a craftsmanship – but a photographer can but must not be an artist and still creating wonderful, exciting, touching, etc. pictures but in a separate context. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us and helping me to make my mind up which path I should follow. At least it helped me to improve my current struggle I am in.

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