I used to get offended when I would find calls for art shows that would appeal to “artists and photographers”. As though the two were mutually exclusive. However, in the last few years, I find myself shying away from the term “photographer”, as an unexpected sympathy towards this distinction which I shunned in years past has surfaced. I now instead refer to myself as a “photographic artist”.
I use the term because I am describing the tool with which I choose to use to make art. Painters and sculptors do not have to explain themselves. No one in my city introduces themselves as a painter and is then asked “what kind of houses do you paint?”. Yet if I were to call myself a photographer, I am asked whether I would shoot someone’s engagement photos. The word association goes straight to the commercial aspect of the profession, not the artistic medium. And I am empathetic as to why — I do understand most people use photography for its practical purposes and not its expressive ones.
I am not attempting to construct a hierarchy by separating commercial from art photography. But what I have developed a sensitivity to is that the term “photographer” lends towards the act of taking rather than making. It appeals to those who believe they have to travel to some exotic location to make good images, those who need to be directed on what to shoot in expensive workshop outings, who want to talk about their lenses until they are blue in the face. They have to capture. They need a portfolio of items to collect and claim as their own: the peak fall foliage, the swaddled baby with the angelic expression, the skillfully HDR’ed sunset, the tasteful black-and-white nude.
In short, photographers, by my definition of the word, go out into the world and take images of that which they think strikes others, who may possibly pay for said images. Photographers are not fueled by personal meaning, and then explore how a camera may or may not be able to embody that meaning. That is what photographic artists do. They are curious, and they experiment. Photographic artists are not obsessed with pinning down every possible variable imaginable in order to achieve success in their pre-determined vision. They celebrate mistakes and their potential, they embrace process.
The digital photography revolution was the blessing of the photographic artist. It freed the photographers from their unwanted labor of the darkroom, and allowed them what they really find joy in — shooting — more more and more. No more film to inhibit the photographer, simply make more images and hand the card off to someone else to print from — or not. A computer screen might just suffice. This isn’t to say that photographic artists must work in darkrooms. But I can attest to the fact that 0% of the people who work in my darkroom are trying to meet a newspaper deadline, and pretty much 100% are there in the spirit of discovery.
A photographic artist is concerned with the final physical object. Even a 2D artist is still making an object. It could be pigment on inkjet paper — but the photographic artist still wants to know what ink and what paper. The image capture is, at best, half of the journey.
Were Henri Cartier-Bresson a young photography student today, I feel he would choose to shoot digital. It pains me a little to say that with my traditionalist tendencies, but I know it’s true. “The photograph itself does not concern me. What I want is to capture a minute part of reality,” said Cartier-Bresson. He didn’t care to print his own photos, he just wanted another roll of film so he could get back out into the world. But I get giddy when I have the opportunity to flip through a book of his images. The ambiguity of the moments he captured created images that have kept me thinking for years, kept me revising my thoughts and interpretations of his compositions. Some are awkward in their subject, unlikely in their configuration, or even — gasp — undesirable to hang over a couch.
He created for himself. And he didn’t have a checklist of items to capture, to consume, to piss on and claim “mine”. He wandered into the world, sharpened his intuition, and learned to press the button at the perfect moment when the compositional stars aligned before him. He may not have cared to make his own prints, but he honed a skill that was not born of any consumerist practice of photography.
The consumer knows what he wants to buy, and when his product doesn’t arrive in the format he anticipated, he gets angry, he complains, maybe he even sues. He doesn’t play with the circumstances of what mistakes could beget. He thrives on the accuracy and promises of the latest technology.
The artist knows technology is a waste without a message, or worse, that technology is an embarrassing excuse to get out of needing one.