Friday, October 13, 2017

Photo Artistry, Photoshop, and the Question of What Is Art

Young Man at Taos Pueblo by Jeff Valdez
In the world of art, photography, and photo artistry, there is an ongoing discussion about the role of Photoshop. Is it “art?” Is it cheating? 

It reminds me of Jeff Valdez’s recent experience. Jeff is a musician and photo artist who specializes in photos of Native Americans and cowboys such as this one showing a young dancer in front of the Taos Pueblo in Taos, NM. Jeff’s work was recently disqualified by a judge in a photography show because, according to the judge, Jeff’s worked had crossed over into fine art and was no longer a photograph because he had used Photoshop.

I have been making digital art for eleven years and have watched the art world continue to be confused by the techniques of making art. Art shows often refuse photography and the ones who have a separate category for photography, don’t know what to do with the works that fall in between painting and photography, the area coming to be known as “photo artistry."
Living the Photo Artisic Life

Jeff and I are both members of a rapidly growing, private, photo artistry Facebook group sponsored by Sebastian Michaels, known as the father of photo artistry. Sebastian’s main focus is on empowering the inner artist through community, a dedicated magazine for photo artistry, and, of course, by teaching people how to use the incredibly creative and powerful world of Photoshop to capture their vision.

When Jeff posted his experience with the photo show, it triggered an ongoing conversation about the difficulties of being an artist using something other than paint and canvas or a photograph as it comes straight from a camera. One member has succeeded in convincing his local art group to create a new category of photo artistry; another talks about how show rules prohibit the use of anything that wasn’t created by the artist. 

What nonsense!

Andy Goldsworthy: Pebbles
Using that criteria, a painter shouldn’t be able to use a tube of paint; she should have to grind her own pigments. And Andy Goldsworthy would be criticized because he was using someone else's rocks, twigs, leaves, and so forth. Dawn Spears said, "Yep, unless it is a scene you planted, built, cooked or otherwise created with your own 2 hands, it's all cheating! What nonsense."

A common refrain reported by the members was hearing, “It’s not real art.” Or, “it’s not real photography.” That reminds me of the amazing movie, Tim’s Vermeer, about inventor (not painter) Tim Jenison's efforts to duplicate the painting techniques of Johannes Vermeer, in order to test his theory that Vermeer painted with the help of optical devices. In today’s world, no one questions the authenticity of Vermeer as a great artist. We look at his results, how his works make us feel, not at how he created his masterpieces. 
 Nicole Wilde probably summed up the issue when she stated, "I think there is room for all art forms, it's great to explore, and really the whole thing is about expressing yourself anyway."

Nicole's comment reminds me of a recent article I read about the use of AI in creating original art. I have to admit I don’t really like the idea that a computer could be considered an artist. However, what really fascinated me were the rules they plugged into the computer to determine what art is. 

Artificial Intelligence and Art

At Rutgers’ Art and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, they scanned 80,000 works of Western art into their computer, looking for “style breaks,” using a psychological theory of art evolution proposed by Colin Martindale (1943–2008). He hypothesized that at any point in time, creative artists try to increase the arousal potential of their art to push against habituation.

In layman speak, artists try to find new ways to express themselves and communicate to viewers in novel ways that excite the feelings the artists are trying to convey. This theory indicates that the artists we treasure are the ones who have broken ground and found new ways to excite us … from the Dutch with their meticulous detail and use of light, to the Impressionists trying to capture shifting lights and colors, to Dali with his melting clocks, and on and on, artists using anything and everything they could find to express their inner vision and convey it to the world.

Why would Photoshop be any different?

Janet Sipl
Photoshop is a tool. I remember my first painting class. I was working on a landscape and the teacher brought me a brush and said, “Try this.” I tried it and was stunned. Suddenly, that green stuff that looked like mud, now looked like grass. There are now dozens of blog posts and YouTube videos about how to use a fan brush and even custom make your own. (And, by the way, fan brush or no fan brush, my landscape sucked.)

Why is Photoshop any different from that fan brush? (Other than it could take a lifetime to really know how to use Photoshop.) 
This work by Janet Sipl is a beautiful example of photography and photoshop coming together to express her vision ... her art.

Why is art judged on anything except 
it’s impact on the viewer? 

One of my favorite photography stories involves Galen Rowell chasing across Tibet to be in exactly the right place at the right moment in order to capture a rainbow touching a monastery. That is art that takes your breath away.

Galen Rowell
Why isn’t “breathtaking" a criteria for any art show?

Why do we draw all these lines in the sand? Saying “art is… “ paint on canvas, or photography on paper with a white mat and a black frame, or polished marble nudes. 

Why are we so confused about what art is? I recently wrote an article titled: Photography: The critical importance of feedback and how to give it to yourself mainly because I was trying to develop a self-feedback process. What I found was an amazing variety of criteria used by judges of photography shows. Since I like simple things, I synthesized them into five criteria I could use for myself, criteria that have nothing to do with the techniques or tools used to achieve them.

If a room full of sunflower seeds is art (Weiwei) then why are art show judges still creating lengthy documents trying to constrain creative expression? Why don’t we just open the doors and let the work be judged by the impact it has?  
Painting Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds
BTW, Ai Weiwei's seeds, 100 million of them, representing particles and seeds of hope, are porcelain and hand painted. It took more than 1,600 artisans in Jingdezhen (the town that once made the imperial porcelain for over a thousand years), two and a half years to manufacture this huge pile of ceramic husks out of the kaolin from local mountains. What would judges say about an artist entering work created by 1,600 other people? Click here for more about this remarkable exhibit.

Here is the list of feedback criteria I’ve given myself. (I reserve the right to tweak as needed and would expect you to tweak them for your own aesthetics if you wanted to use them.)

 My 5 Self-feedback Criteria

When I finish a piece, I review each criteria and give it a rating between 1 and 10. It's not very objective, of course, but it gives me a starting point for considering my work against what I would like for it to be.

Wow! — images that pop, giving you a feeling of having seen something new, felt something at a deeper level, connected with the essence of the artist and the subject.
Clarity — focus on a subject or intended feeling in such a powerful way that the viewer knows deeply what the image is trying to convey.
Uniqueness — a striking personal style, fresh viewpoint, or a unique way of seeing the world and capturing it in an image. Giving the viewer something he hasn’t seen or felt before in an image.
Mood — a blend of light, subject, color and movement that creates a definite feeling or sense of time or place.
Abundance — a quality of depth where there were constantly new things to be discovered, that keeps attention roaming around the image.

Bottomline: art is not a technique, a tool, a medium or a set of algorithms plugged into a super computer. Art is a feeling, an act of communication, an expression of the uniqueness of one human being* as received by another.

* While it appears that some other species also create art, it only emphasizes the fact that art is what takes your breath away, regardless of how it's created or by whom or what. Which I guess does open the door to that computer thing being considered an artist. ;-(



  1. A wonderful well thought out article, could it actually be a form of art.

  2. Love this article. There always seems to be so many obstacles in the artistic world that become a deterrent at times to creating art from within our hearts.

    1. Thanks, Valerie ... the challenge is not letting all those externals get in the way of our expression. Keep on keeping on.

  3. You have summed up many valuable points in this article. I agree with the wow factor and how a piece of art plays with my emotions. Nicole Wilde expressed it simply and is about expression.

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  5. Joyce you are a philosopher and a painter with words. As always, you are right on target and you managed to say what we are all thinking. I love your Blog and the way you write. Keep writing and I'll keep reading. Thanks for making me part of this discussion. I am honored.

  6. Thanks, Janet ... your work always inspires and delights me so I was happy to feature a piece of your work.

  7. Joyce, I was planning to get out my watercolors today and had no clue what I'd paint. Your 5 Self-feedback Criteria gave me a new way to think about whatever it is. Thank you!

  8. Becky ... I so wish you would start sharing some of your art on FB. I miss you and I miss seeing your art!