Turning Photographs Into Art - Part 1
This is the first essay in a new series focused on turning photographs into art. My previous series focused on collecting art. This new series focuses on creating art from photographs. Not all those who collect create and not all those who create collect. However, there is a connection between the two. Creating means, among other things, admiring the work of other artists which in turn often leads to collecting their work in one form or another, be it books, reproductions or originals.
This series focuses on my definition and my approach to turning photographs into art. For me art is being different, innovative and focused on aesthetics. The motivating factor behind this series is that creating work that is different is important now that photography has become a global medium and that thousands, if not tens of thousands, are embracing this medium every day. Being different means being you and creating work that is yours, not work that is the copy of someone else’s work. Saying this is easy. Doing it is difficult. The goal of this series is to help you along in this endeavor.
At the core of this series is the belief that we are all unique and that we can all create unique work. To learn how to achieve this we will explore technique, practice and purpose. It will be a long series. For that reason, I have not set a number of essays for the series. It will grow in an organic manner. It will also be theoretical as much as practical. Each essay will feature two main parts: first a discussion of a specific aspect of turning photographs into art and second examples of artistic photographs. Each essay will feature a variety of artistic concepts and techniques that will help you turn your photographs into art. These concepts will be illustrated with photographic examples from my work.
I turn my photographs into art and I teach students how to turn their photographs into art. One central aspect of my practice is that I make no secret that my photographs are not representing reality, that they are ‘manipulated’ if you will, and that my goal is to express my artistic vision and not document the subjects or locations I am photographing. Honesty is central to the legitimacy of my approach. While ‘what is art’ can be debated ad infinitum what I do with my artwork has to be crystal clear. In other words, someone may or may not like what I do but there can be no doubt about the nature of what I do.
It is my hope that this series will help you find your own unique approach to turning photographs into art because this is how the process of creating artistic photographs begins, is nurtured and eventually becomes reality.
What is letting go?
Letting go means releasing what is stopping us from being creative. It means engaging in the process of regaining our creativity.
We are all creative because creativity is a fundamental aspect of being human. We are born creative but as we move through life our creativity is often put aside for various reasons. However, whatever our peregrinations may be, our creativity does not disappear. It does not go away. Rather, it is stopped or put on hold for various reasons. What these reasons are, how we are going to bring our creativity back and what stands in the way of doing so is the focus of this series of essays. This is a process which is called creative recovery.
My letting go journey
In my letting go journey one aspect of my creative recovery consists of freeing myself from the limitations of film. Film limited my creativity because there was little I could do to transform the image captured on film into what I saw in my mind. Doing what I call ‘unspeakable things’ to my digital images has been an essential aspect of recovering my creativity. ‘Unspeakable things’ are transformations I apply to my digital images that could not be done with film. Things that were impossible to do with film either in the field or in the darkroom.
I call them ‘unspeakable things’ because for a long time I could not talk about them to others. When people asked what I did to my images I did not mention these things. I did not dare. I was afraid because I believed that if people knew what I did they would no longer like my work. Worse, I feared they would not buy my work.
Part of my creative recovery is now talking about these things. Teaching them. Helping others do them.
Even beginners need to let go
We learn art by emulating the masters, by learning to do what they did or are doing. This is both a traditional and an effective approach to learning how to create art or anything for that matter. However being a beginner and learning from the masters does not mean that we do not need to let go. Chances are some of the masters you admire worked with film. We now work with digital captures and much of what was limiting us when using film is now gone. One of these limitations was cost. Film was expensive. However digital captures are inexpensive, at least after you spend your first $20,000 on gear. With 4x5 film each photograph cost nearly $10 when film, development and shipping costs were added up. With digital the cost of a single capture is equal to the cost of storage which is negligible. This means we can let go of trying to get a perfect capture in one shot. While this was important with film, with digital getting a perfect capture can happen with a multitude of images. We can shoot as much as we want and maximize our chances of success in doing so.
For me today a photograph is rarely completed in a single capture. Instead, it is done with multiple captures assembled in Photoshop in one way or another, be it by using collaging/stitching to extend the composition, or HDR to extend the dynamic range, or focus stacking to increase the field of sharpness or some other technique. These are techniques that I love because they open doors that film photography could not open.
Not trying to capture the final image in one shot is only one of the things we need to let go of even if we are just starting to learn how to create artistic photographs. I mention this specific aspect now because it is related to the example featured in this essay. However, there are many other things we need to let go and that we will look at as this series progresses.
Example: Hoodoo Dance
The photograph I am using as an example started as six separate captures. These captures were collaged, or stitched if you prefer, in Photoshop using Photomerge. The collage resulted in an image with uneven borders. This collage was warped to create a horizontal image. This horizontal image was optimized to a final version in regards to color and contrast. However, the horizontal version did not express my vision of the scene which was of clouds ‘dancing’ over a tall hoodoo in a bright blue sky. Realizing that the image had to be vertical to express this. I reformatted it to a vertical composition by extending the canvas and stretching the top of the image.
What letting go means to this image
Creating this image required that I let go of the following so as to not be concerned with:
- Showing the location the way it looks in reality
- Reformatting the image to a vertical instead of a horizontal format
- Stretching part of the image vertically (or horizontally)
- Modifying the color in such a way that it departs from the colors present in the original scene
- Modifying the contrast level in such a way that it departs from the contrast present in the original scene
- Being concerned with potential criticism from people who favor a traditional approach to photography
- Following a new paradigm that strongly departs from the film-based paradigm
- Creating an aesthetic based on using the entire digital toolkit at my disposal instead of using only the part of this toolkit that duplicates the film aesthetic paradigm
- Being influenced by the opinion of those who are not part of my audience, i.e. those who don’t like my work.
Skill enhancement exercises
What is letting go for you - Looking at your current approach to creating artistic photographs, what do you want to change and what do you want to keep? Make a list of what you want to let go and what you want to keep doing.
Film vs. digital paradigm - Where do you stand regarding the film vs. digital paradigm? How do you feel about manipulating your photographs? Is this OK with you or not? Which manipulations are you doing now? Which ones do you want to use in the future?
Challenges - What is the most challenging thing for you to let go of? Why is that?
Turn one of your photographs into art - Select one of your captures and use the techniques mentioned in this essay to turn it into an artistic photograph. You can use some or all the techniques mentioned here. You can also add other techniques you enjoy using that are not mentioned here.
Turning photographs into art means doing something different, something new, something that has not been done before. Innovation is at the root of art and to innovate we have to let go of preconceptions.
This means that to turn photographs into art we have to learn to let go. Letting go comes after learning. First we learn, then we let go of what we learned that is stopping us from being fully creative, from being 100% ourselves. Often this is something we believe we must do. Letting go starts by changing this belief and clearing our head.
As we go through this process it is important to remember that we do not have to do all that we are taught. We can pick and choose. We do not have to do what others tell us to do and we do not have to do what has already been done. We only need to do what we want to do, what our passion leads us to, what our desire makes us want to create.
Letting go also means pushing aside the things that prevent us from being creative. It can be a single thing but most of the time it is many things. We cannot let them go all at once because we do not necessarily know what they are. We need to let go of them one at a time, as we discover what they are. Just like quitting anything we need to walk them out of our life one at a time. We need to insist that they do leave but we must be patient if they do not leave as fast as we wish. We cannot operate creatively until these constraints are gone because they worry us. To be creative we need to quit worrying about these things and the only way to do so is to get them out of our life.
However, we do not want to let go of everything. We do not want to let go of what is positive. Some of the things we are doing are good and we want to keep those. This selection, what to keep and what to let go of, is personal. It is different for each and every one of us. What you decide to keep and what you decide to let go of is a decision only you can make. The outcome of that decision is an important step towards the creation of artistic photographs that are unique to you.
This series is a suivre, meaning ‘to be continued’ in French. In the next essay we will look at another aspect of turning photographs into art and I will present a new example of doing so.
About Alain and Natalie Briot
I create artistic photographs and I teach students how to create artistic photographs. To this end I teach field workshops and classroom seminars with Natalie and I offer Mastery Tutorials on composition, personal style, image conversion, optimization, printing, business and marketing.
You can find more information about our workshops, photographs, writings and tutorials as well as subscribe to our Free Monthly Newsletter on our website at www.beautiful-landscape.com. You will receive 40 free eBooks when you subscribe to my newsletter.
I am also the author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style, Marketing Fine Art Photography and How Photographs are Sold. All 4 books are available in eBook format on our website at this link: beautiful-landscape.com/Ebooks-Books-1-2-3. Free samplers are available so you can see the quality of these books for yourself.
If you enjoyed this essay you will enjoy attending a workshop with us. I lead workshops with my wife Natalie to the most photogenic locations in the US Southwest. Our workshops focus on the artistic aspects of photography. While we do teach technique, we do so for the purpose of creating artistic photographs. Our goal is to help you create photographs that you will be proud of and that will be unique to you. The locations we photograph include Navajoland, Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley, Zion, the Grand Canyon and many others. Our workshops listing is available at this link: beautiful-landscape.com/Workshop-home