State of the ART: 20/20


Figure 1, Tornado Ranch," © 1994, Peter H. Myers

Early in 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of my work as a fine art photographer by profession. The image above, “Tornado Ranch,” was the photograph that launched my career, and it remains an all-time favorite of print collectors worldwide. Kodak scanned the photograph, which originated on color negative film, to a professional Photo CD. Postproduction was completed in PhotoShop 2, on an Apple Mac FX. I would be embarrassed to remark how little RAM was present in the 16-bit machine, but I would imagine my current computer has 1000x more memory.

To demarcate this moment in my career, I have a few observations to share from my journey.


Figure 2, Cadillac Snack Attack," © 2009 Peter H. Myers

First and foremost, fine art photography—or great photography in general—is not about the equipment. This seems to be a “lost” concept in our current era. During the past 20 years, so much of photography has gotten sucked into the technology sector that it has blurred the function of both the camera and the photograph. It is important to remember, photography is not a technology, but a means of conveying feeling to the viewer as an artistic expression. The equipment we use is just a tool of the trade—as a paintbrush is to a painter. It is worth having good tools, but not at the exclusion of focusing on telling a story to the viewer by what we see through the lens. In great photography, we make images, not just take images.

I think all of us had a great expectation that the World Wide Web would greatly accelerate the exchange of photography. After the dust has settled, it seems to me that the small, screen-sized image we see over the web is inadequate in conveying the image as a photograph, and is quite counterproductive to the art form. Perhaps our eyes are becoming dulled from seeing so many images on the web that we no longer have the “photograph” properly in our vocabulary. A photographic print conveys an astonishing amount of resolution that instantly conveys the full meaning—the full truth—from within the photograph. It would seem what we get on the web is an iconic representation of the artistic intent that is so diluted that its usefulness is “limited” at best. If you love photography, then the photographic print itself must be seen directly, and under very good lighting, to understand the artist’s vision.


Figure 3, Twisted Sister," © 1996 Peter H. Myers

A real hindrance for up and coming photographers has become learning how to directly view master works, as what is shown in museums is of another age—the dead, old and moldy—and does not represent the works of our time. Museums are under such financial stress that they dare not show contemporary works for the fear of alienating the few hands that feed them. Further, we have taught the art history majors in our universities (from which namby-pamby museum curators are born) to be highly suspicious of new works and living artists—unfounded conservatism that has all but stifled the modern art scene. It is easy to talk about the past, very hard to see into the future.

When viewers see my fine art prints for the first time, the universal exclamation seems to be, “Wow! Your photographs look so much different from what I saw on your website.” As an artist, I think to myself, “I certainly hope so!” Else, what is the point of the fine art print if not to convey astonishing feeling to the viewer? And why would the resolution and image quality of our equipment matter if it were not necessary for the conveyance of feeling within the photograph?

It was not many years ago when photographic books helped fill the eye of the photographer with gifted works to re-calibrate one’s vision and passion towards the medium. Next to viewing direct prints, books provided a secondary means of seeing great works first hand. But this, too, has been eclipsed by the collapse of the printing industry and the distribution points we all knew as “book stores.” A photographer no longer can walk into a book store, pick up a book of photographic prints, get sucked into the pages with fantastic images, and walk out the door a collector of his or her new found hero. Ironically, the books that can be published today often match the image quality of the master print itself—so there is still tremendous potential for photographic books. But so far in this new age, we have not found a way to bridge the gap towards sales beyond conventional bookstores—which are now few and far between.


Figure 4, Sedilicious Rocks," © 2011 Peter H. Myers

Perhaps it is not just the loss of printed books. Perhaps our society has also lost “the nobility of stability.” One of the reasons to own a fine art photographic print and hang it on the wall to is have a friend for life. Our world seems too transitory today, and fine art is one of the few things we can bring along to make our house feel like a home. Putting the artwork back up on the wall instantly creates an environment that is ours—and it can be there throughout our lifetime. Great art reveals different layers to the viewer, like peeling back layers of the onion skin. Over a lifetime, there is a change of insight, resonance, and understanding of what the artist was trying to convey emotionally within the work—as a sense of what it is to be alive and to see the wonders before us.

It concerns me that people don’t take the time to read, write, play music, take in the arts, and expand their minds beyond what is needed to make a living. Yes, the world has become considerably overwhelming in its demands, and there seems to be neither time nor energy to open one’s self up to new worlds. But again, that is somewhat of a choice. Is it not?

When I lecture, most photographers wonder how art is sold—or more to the point, how they can sell their own works, as if the act of selling the works is the important part of being an artist. The important part of being an artist is doing the work. The work itself is like dropping a rock into a still pond and radiating circles, upon circles out from the source. “Doing” changes “feeling.” The rest is rather an illusion. Today the iPhone is hot, tomorrow it will be Dutch tulip bulbs—or did that already happen?


Figure 5, A Moment of Clarity," © 2000 Peter H. Myers

Being an artist has always been an act of courage. No one gives it to you. Your own talent has to be carefully nurtured and matured, and that takes time—a heck of a lot of time. In other societies, in other times, the social mythology was to make sacrifices to the volcano gods so the volcano would not erupt. In our times, our society’s mythology is money. Art is not in that realm, yet society forces it. The tricky bit for the living artist is to find balance between the two worlds and keep going no matter what. It is the WORK after all. That is what counts, making the images until you and your lens have the vocabulary to show what you feel from the inside out.

I have spent a considerable part of my life in the recording industry, which made its transition to digital about 20 years before photography came off of film. When digital audio came along, there was this immanent sense in the recording industry that we no longer needed great recording studios, with amazing acoustics, and the high price of production that went with it. Forget the expensive producers and engineers—we can do away with their professions! The presumption was that the wave of the future would be recording at home, in your spare bedroom, with a computer and a handful of keyboard interfaces and input ports—and you would be able to make world-class recordings all by yourself.


Figure 6, Green Grows the Machine," © 2011 Peter H. Myers

From this premise, we got what we deserved. Dull, predictable, and lifeless music with an overbearing beat. It has been a slow struggle out the other side of it to find younger musicians (and some older ones too) who are making peace with the music gods through the use of instruments with wiggly strings and squeaky mouth pieces, instead of monotonic, pre-canned, synthesized &$%#.

And so we are going through the same maturation cycle with digital photography. I once wrote an article for another publication that was titled, “Dude! Where is the Ansel Adams Button?” It was rather a tongue-in-cheek poke at the idea that photographers were flocking into the digital realm looking for instantaneous gratification and stardom by the use of the right camera, lens, and piece of software to go with it. I wrote the piece in 2006, and what surprises me is how well the article has played out in reality ever since.

But there are glimmers of a new wave within photography. A lot of young people have grown up with only digital cameras in-hand, and they are asking themselves if something is not quite right in this over-teched era of photography.


Figure 7, “Frisco,” © 2004 Peter H. Myers

But what I would say is that like the recording industry, photography needs to return to a place of “warmth.” Let us forget the notion that a digital camera and a pack of software are going to generate successful photographs. No, photographers make great photographs, and the only way to become a good photographer is to practice, practice, and practice. Like anything else, the only way to be great is to give your life to it.

When I was growing up, everyone wanted to be that person who photographed for National Geographic who went to the far mountaintops or deep into the jungle and opened up new worlds. Today, even National Geographic is not what it was, and certainly anyone with enough money for the plane fare can go explore the far reaches of the world. But what I have learned over the decades is that the greatest stories are right under our own noses, and exactly where we live. We are the ones put there to tell that story at hand. It is when we take a common object, and make a beautiful photograph based on the mastery of light and composition, that our work transcends the norm—not just signing up for an adventure to Antarctica or Namibia to fulfill our National Geographic fantasy with “exotica.”

There are no simple solutions to making great photographs. Hard work and long hours of learning are the bedrock that fuels the possibility that our work will transcend us as photographers. There are no guarantees. There are no promises. Photographers just have to show up and do their best. And when they do, it changes the world around them—through vision, spirit, and awe of what we see in beauty, what we see within.


Figure 8, “American Grasslands Homestead—Image 8” © 2014 Peter H. Myers


Photo.net member, Pete Myers, is a fine art photographer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This is the next installment of his series called State of the ART. You can visit this artist and explore his captivating portfolios at www.petemyers.com

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    • This is a well written article and nails the difficult balance felt by artists, of all genres, on the head!

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    • I read this article no breath from top to bottom and felt it no only very interesting but more than this, way is written clear,sincerely by author after whole experience did resonance to me.

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    • Beautiful and very interesting article!

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    • The comment about art history students never studying contemporary works certainly doesn't apply to my university--where students would find it difficult to study anything BUT contemporary art, after the obligatory first-year survey course.  We have a lot of misconceptions about how education is "stuck in the past"

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    • I guess I must be on a different plane of existence, but these thoughts seem to me so profoundly wrong as to not know where to start.

      It concerns me that people don’t take the time to read, write, play music, take in the arts, and expand their minds beyond what is needed to make a living

      Where ever does this come from? Where is your evidence? What are you talking about?

       

      I am no digital optimist, but your piece seems so backwards looking as to be drilling into the ground.

       

      I think you are lamenting the fact that new technology has indeed made it much easier to make great photos - hence you sense an erosion of your privileged status as an "Artist" with a capital "A". Well this is true, but I don't see how this article really helps except by turning off all those who have not spent "long hours of learning" to appreciate the greatness of artists such as yourself: which is probably most people under the age of 40.

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    • "First and foremost, fine art photography—or great photography in general—is not about the equipment." 

      "The presumption was that the wave of the future would be recording at home, in your spare bedroom, with a computer and a handful of keyboard interfaces and input ports—and you would be able to make world-class recordings all by yourself. From this premise, we got what we deserved. Dull, predictable, and lifeless music with an overbearing beat."

      How is this not a contradiction? Equipment? Everything you've indicated in this entire article depends on equipment. Who defines what's dull, lifeless and predictable in photography and music? You? 

      "One of the reasons to own a fine art photographic print and hang it on the wall is to have a friend for life. Our world seems too transitory today, and fine art is one of the few things we can bring along to make our house feel like a home." 

      "It concerns me that people don’t take the time to read, write, play music, take in the arts, and expand their minds beyond what is needed to make a living."

      I'ld say it's because technology has allowed them for the first time to see themselves as artists and not have to rely on a small group of well connected folks to tell them what is and isn't art and whether they qualify as an artist. Thank free thinking, the education system, the internet and digital technology for that.

      With all the work that's required to become an artist I'm pretty sure they're spending what's left of their precious time coming up with their own vision of the world to create something that hasn't been seen or said before which involves not having their original thought consciously tainted by Ansel Adams tone mapped interpretations of reality hanging on their wall 24/7.

      Maybe what you're seeing in the creative world is a huge sea change shift in how folks learn and create which may involve throwing everything out that's come before and starting over from scratch. It doesn't mean they're not aware of the past, it's just no longer going to define who they are and how they see and create in the world.

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    • Personally, I feel this essay would have more weight if I liked any of the photographs. I couldn't see the "Fine Art" in any of them. Of course, prints are dying and this is a bad thing, but any good image comes to life printed out well.

       

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    • ...what you write is one of the most beautiful things i have ever read about the true soul and purpose of photography...

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    • I would like a definition of "fine art photography." How is fine art photography different from other forms of photography (e.g., nature photography)?

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    • Peter, the difference seems to be in the marketability of prints.

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    • If it's a question of marketability, what type of photography is the most marketable? For example, is it easier to market "fine art photography" than "landscape photography?" Also, other adjectives we attach to the word photography (nature, wildlife, photojournalistic, etc.) are indicative of the subject matter. Not so (I don't believe) with the phrase "fine art." So, what does "fine art" really mean?

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    • The comment was sort of tongue in cheek, but true none the less as far as I can tell. I think any genre of photography can be considered fine art if you can hang a print in a gallery and find someone to buy it at a substantial profit.

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    • Why do you love art but hate Art History majors? If you are trying to say photography is an art why would you not like to have someone with art background enjoy your art? My degree is in Art History and I am insulted by your remark! If you are going to call what you do art then you had better be ready to compete with all the other art forms, and stop calling someone that doesn't like what you do silly names.

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    • As much as I adore a good print, in my view a seriously good photo already can convey its meaning even in a small internet file - a good quality print is icing on the cake. If the photo only manages to impress as a print, am I not maybe more adoring the quality of the materials used, rather than the content?

      The overkill of images we all see daily - you could also argue it only sharpens our sense for those really great images. In a very large see stuffed with fish, it's still about getting that really tasty, fat salmon and not the skinny little one. So, isn't the problem there more one of a challenge to the viewers, rather than about the actual state of the art of photography.

      It all has a bit a smell of the "Ah, ye' ole' days when all was still great" sentiment. Those sentiments tend to be either false, or lacking in argumentation. In this case, I'd say it's the second. Competition has grown fierce; it has become easier to showcase yourself. The channels via which you can publish yourself have changed, and have different target audiences. The article seems to imply that only prints make "fine art" (what is "fine" about it?), and I find that notion quite outdated. There is great work on Instagram, on Flickr and a site as this, which will never be printed. Will never be sold via a gallery. Does that exclude it from the "fine art", or are we just building something new? Since when does art have to be a physical object you can sell?

       

      There is enough to argue against what is written in this article; at best it is a fine opening statement for an open-minded discussion on the state of the art of photography. But it does not describe the state; it's just one view on it - a glass half empty one. It would be nice to read about the other half of the drink as well.

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    • It sounds to me that the premise of this article is to justify that just a generation ago, if you wanted to be a photographer, you had to put in countless hours and hard work in a dark room using chemicals and enlargers. And the fact that someone had that skill automatically made them an "artist".

      But me a 27 year old "photographer", who took one year of photography using the traditional film method, and has since switched to digital simply for the convenience, has the same exact thing that I believe defines what makes someones photography "art": PASSION. I have just as much passion and love for this medium as anyone else who does not use digital. 

      True there is an unbelievable amount of soulless crappy music being made today. But there are still  talented musicians out there that learned to adapt to the new ways and put a lot of thought and creativity into their craft. Same goes for photography. 

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    • Excellent article and excellent photographs. This is what I am currently striving to produce as I call it 'Photographing Rural America', catching the 'who, what and why' of times gone by.

      Chris Moon

       

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    • Excellent article and excellent photographs. This is what I am currently striving to produce as I call it 'Photographing Rural America', catching the 'who, what and why' of times gone by.

      Chris Moon

       

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    • For the most part I completely agree with the author, just a little too bad he puts himself out as a "fine" photographer without evidence to support such a claim. This is not to say his photographs are bad, but they all do fall into the "dullish" category he seems to dislike just as much, which by extension kills the many arguments he makes (if one can see past the images, the message is quite strong though). But, if someone (from comments) says:

      "I think you are lamenting the fact that new technology has indeed made it much easier to make great photos"

      then I have a problem with it. As great as digital has been to allow people to take photographs, it has created a completely new approach to making the "good" ones. And that, unfortunately, is: keep shooting because it does not cost much, then see what you got in post processing, then perhaps you can pic a  few from a thousand and "fix" them up in an editor.

      To be fair, I think photography should be divided into: what it used to mean and to what it has become. There is to much disconnect between the traditional process and the digital one. Even if, in principle, only the way of recording an image has changed, the whole process (thanks to the garbage "advice" from countless  books, magazines and internet, all supported by the greedy manufacturers (except Fuji, Olympus and perhaps Ricoh/Pentax), the creative process has become gear dependent without any supporting evidence.

      Pixel peeping has become a norm in evaluating quality of an image. Most discussions focus on the gear or process used, not the message one was trying to convey. I just recently read a comment about how gear is limiting possibilities (how is that possible?). Most of today photographers have become hostage to what manufacturers put out, they continue to think that their photography isn't what it could be because they do not have the latest bells, hence they must upgrade. It is a madness that only plays into the beancounters' hands (who conveniently happened to be at the helms of, especially, Canon and Nikon).

      I personally hope that film based photography will not only continue to coexist, but will actually grow. Grow in terms of material demand (to adequately support the industry) as well as in terms of general recognition of not only its historical relevance, but especially as a healthy approach to image creation. The many lessons one can learn from it can easily be transformed into digital, with immense positive impact on the final image. 

      My advice to the inspiring young photographers is to:

      1. stop focusing on the gear and technology, it is the last thing that will make your images true to your soul

      2. learn composition, light and perspective from studying the great photographs (and I do NOT mean the cliches of the medium, including many of Ansel Adams' and the likes, but rather those who have made an important impact in the development of the medium like: Kertesz, Cartier-Bresson, Salgado,  Sieff, Brandt, Bassman, Evans and many many more, list is all over the net, or you can just get an album of what it's called "the great photographs" or something to that extent, this would give a quick overview of who made what).

      3. learn the image making principles by studying the traditional methods (without necessarily getting wet)

      4. learn to take photos that require little editor work, if an image was shot as intended, it should look pretty good when you open the file, if exposure is way off or lots of cropping must be done to get an impact, then you had not done your homework prior to taking the shot

      5. shy away from photo magazines (except Black + White Photography), Scot Kellby & Michael Freeman books (I don't see how either can help with developing good skills), and use your photo editor as means of basic manipulation, not as a tool that is supposedly creative (you will have time to use it that way once you learn the image creation base line)

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