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Why try to define things?

Discussion in 'Talking Pictures' started by Roger Hicks, Apr 15, 2016.

  1. Roger Hicks

    Roger Hicks Well-Known Member

    From http://rogerandfrances.eu/photography/fine-art-photography

    The most puzzling thing about so-called Fine Art photography is how many people have really fixed ideas about it; who want to define it; and who even think that there are only certain things it is allowed to be. The last camp often have fixed ideas about what photography is or isn't or should be, and range from die-hard supporters of the worst of old-fashioned camera club judging standards to those who reject everything as old fashioned, dull and predictable if anyone has ever done anything remotely like it before. They don't care if it's done well: they care only that it is new to them.

    Why are so so many people so desperate for definitions, limits, permissions? What's wrong with taking pictures, and letting others define them if they want to? Do they really believe that Ansel Adams woke up one morning and said, "I'm going to be a landscape photographer"? Or that Sebastiao Salgado said, "I'm going to do reportage"? What sort of idiot says, "Being a Fine Art photographer would be a good career move"?

    Is it not more likely that the great photographers took pictures of what fascinated them, and that because they were fascinated by the subject as well as being good photographers, they took good pictures?


    Andrew Flannigan likes this.
  2. Ffolrord

    Ffolrord Well-Known Member

    Agreed. Let the viewer decide if it is fine art (which it never is) rather tell the viewer what they should think. Does the same apply to fine dining? probably.
  3. Geren

    Geren Well-Known Member

    It's not just Fine Art Photography though, is it? There seem to be constant conflicts over what constitutes Street Photography for instance. People like definitions. It helps them feel like they belong, or that they are better than those not conforming to their own ideas of what's what.
  4. nimbus

    nimbus Well-Known Member

    It's perhaps not so much that people like definitions, many like to compartmentalise, and not just pictures. They don't tend to like things that challenge either definitions or the things that they have compartmentalised either. Unfortunately many things tend to overlap!
  5. PhotoEcosse

    PhotoEcosse Well-Known Member

    Why try to define things?

    The last time I suggested that the thread title used by Roger did not seem to relate to what he subsequently wrote, he explained that he acknowledged that, but had been unable to retro-change the thread title.

    Is this another example of the same malady?

    In replying to the question posed, I am not going to disagree with any of what has been suggested in the body of his post, because I don't think it relates directly to the question. But here are my thoughts, based on the thread title.

    This website is a discussion forum within which we use a common language to talk about a wide range of subjects. Either we use terminology which does have a reasonably universally accepted common meaning or, alternatively, we define the terms we use. Sometimes we can merely refer to dictionary definitions; sometimes that is not helpful. Sometimes we might use particular nuances but, when we do, we should be prepared to explain them. Sometimes we use jargon in the expectation that, in a photographic forum, contributors will share the same photographic jargon.

    In a lot of cases covered by those observations, the definitions will be implicit. But, where that is not the case - or where there is dispute about meanings - then meaningful discussion is facilitated if we do "try to define things".

    That is not the same as categorisation, compartmentalisation, labelling or suchlike. It is simply an aid to effective communication.

    In another recent thread, there was disagreement about the meaning of the term "fine art". No agreement on a mutually accepted meaning was achieved and, as a result, the discussion faltered. Sometimes, when that happens, it is better to abandon the disputed terminology and seek an alternative (which may involve a greater number of words - because jargon is often employed as a shortcut) which can be mutually understood.

    I am reminded of (and I quote from a 50-year memory) a sentence in the preface to a book called "The Social Construction of Reality" by Berger and Luckman which read, "Not being convinced, however, that theoretical lucidity is necessarily enhanced by terminological ponderosity, we will attempt to avoid the use of jargon for which sociologists and phenomenologists have acquired dubious notoriety."

    I would submit, therefore, that we should try to define things in order to enhance theoretical lucidity.

    Last edited: Apr 16, 2016
  6. RovingMike

    RovingMike Crucifixion's a doddle...

    And then we have a chance of teaching it, which, even when it comes to "art", is something people want to learn about, even if not to do. As long as definitions don't become self-perpetuating restrictions or inhibitions I guess.
  7. Roger Hicks

    Roger Hicks Well-Known Member

    Dear Mike,

    This, to me, is the heart of the problem. On thinking about this further it seems to me that most people want definitions for one of two reasons.

    The first is to be told what they "should" do, and whether they're doing things "right".

    The second is to tell others what they "should" do, and whether they're doing things "right".

    Neither is a recipe for encouraging creativity. The example in the first paragraph of the first post is fine art, but I immediately adduced Adams and Salgado as exemplars of how good photographers are simply good photographers. The vast majority of divisions and definitions are either so broad as to be useless -- "Portraits" or "Reportage" -- or made up to suit the whims, needs or prejudices of critics and theorists: the Bechers' Duesseldorf School version of Neue Sachlichkeit or Sally Eauclaire's New Color spring to mind.

    Most pictures, once they have been taken, can be retrofitted into one category or another. If not, a new category can be invented, whether needed or not. Sometimes, categories can be subverted: Swen Renault's Killing Becher is a brilliant example. But good pictures stand as good pictures, and don't need categorization. In fact, they don't even need to be good. Some people will like my Recycled Religion series; some won't; but they're quite hard to crowbar into a category.

    Now, it is entirely possible that categorization is an example of what the late Sir Terry Pratchett called "lies to children", simplification for didactic purposes at the lowest level of skill and appreciation, but my concern (based on many of the questions and responses on this forum and others) is that too many people are looking to limit themselves and others too much by an excessive adherence to categorization.

    Note to PhotoEcosse: No, this time I stand by the title. I am not saying that there are no reasons for attempting to define or categorize certain types of photography, but I am saying that we should carefully examine our motives for doing so, and be careful when we do so.


  8. RovingMike

    RovingMike Crucifixion's a doddle...

    Could well be, but the same is true I think for almost every walk of life.
    Stuff gets distilled and codified by students of it (who may or may not be practitioners) and that cuts both ways depending on how used. If people keep the "rules are made to be broken" thought in their heads, it provides useful mapping and the vocabulary referred to earlier. In my own area of advertising, there is a constant tension between the received "rules" of effective communication and creativity, but really good creativity has little difficulty in winning most arguments. But since following the "rules" usually beats poor creativity, people fall back on the tried and tested, because of the pressures to produce that they are under. But that's commercial creativity, not art for art's sake.
  9. Roger Hicks

    Roger Hicks Well-Known Member

    Dear Mike,

    Indisputably true". On the other hand I'm not that sure about the distinction between "commercial" or "applied" art and "fine art", and I'm even less sure about the nature of "commercial creativity" and "art for art's sake".

    Perhaps my underlying point is that until you've produced the "art for art's sake" and indeed "commercial creative work", you really don't know what category it is going to fall into. In other words, don't ask "Am I doing street photography right"? Rather, ask "Am I making good pictures"? If so, you can worry about categorizing them afterwards.


  10. Footloose

    Footloose Well-Known Member

    I'm inclined to think that the term 'fine art' was cobbled up by artists and members of the art world who felt threatened by photography, and is then perpetuated by photographers who feel they need to take on board many of the 'rules' that traditional artists employ relating to composition in their images and also employ a range of printing techniques so that their work, can be seen to be different from that produced by the vast majority of other photographers.

    One can of course take a photograph, and then like Canaletto and members of the Dutch school, convert that into non-photographic artwork; one could also say that the as forementioned, probably went to a lot of trouble to conceal the fact that they had used a camera obscura! Some photographers, such as Adamson and Hill did not conceal the fact that their Deed of Demission oil painting, was made up of a huge number of photographic images upon which presumably* translucent oil paint was applied.

    So, is some 'fine art photography' more about photographers wishing the gain the same level of social status that is heaped on 'traditional' artists?

    I'm certainly not saying that there is a place for fine art photographs, it's just that some members of the art establishment, still snootily look down on the work of photographers.

    * To date, this painting has yet to be x-ray scanned to ascertain exactly how this 'painting' was produced.
  11. 0lybacker

    0lybacker In the Stop Bath

    Science obviously needs definitions. Art? Maybe not so much, if at all. Both science and art seek to break conventions (definitions) but in the case of the former, it then creates new definitions, does it not? Art might create a 'movement' and a new one at that but at its edges, will it not be always fuzzy, less clearly defined than the mainstream, as it reacts and interacts with old guard and new?
  12. RovingMike

    RovingMike Crucifixion's a doddle...

    We don't have the luxury of working out afterwards what category it fits into. It is designed to be commercial creativity, with whatever artistic compromises that entails. If it ends up being valid as art as well, everyone's happy. But it goes through too many hands and levels of approval to retain much purity. But as for "street", certainly it has to be good pictures first, then label if you need to, but why has to be the question, except as I said, if it needs packaging for some other valid purpose.
  13. Terrywoodenpic

    Terrywoodenpic Well-Known Member

    Why try to define things?

    This is not a question that just applies to photography.
    At a basic level it is what makes language understandable.

    Every speciality be it trade, engineering, scientific or Art has its own language.
    This allows everyone in that field to communicate with the minimum of misunderstanding.
    It also allows complex thoughts and ideas to be transmitted with single terms.
    This is especially useful in education and specialist writing or while "experts" are talking in a form of shorthand.
    Photography has a wealth of special language.

    The difficulty comes where two specialist fields overlap.
    Fine Art Photography is a case in point. Fine Art is hard enough to define...adding Photography to the mix exacerbates the problem as there is almost no meeting of minds between the man in the street, general photographers, artists and academics. The result is that they are no longer talking a common language.
    "Fine art photographer" has a different meaning in each of their lexicons.

    Fine Art needs no addons. Fine Art includes all media...
    To add photography to it is just saying me too ...don't forget us photographers.
    If Photographers are producing Fine Art, they Are Fine Artists.
    As are painters, potters or sculpters.
    Last edited: Apr 16, 2016
  14. Learning

    Learning Ethelred the Ill-Named

    Is that poetry or does it just look like poetry?
    Have I just fallen into your trap of encouraging someone to define whether a piece of text is poetry?
  15. PhotoEcosse

    PhotoEcosse Well-Known Member

    I think that you are very wrong about that. There may be some occasions when, for perverse reasons, people do use definitions for the purposes you suggest. Frankly, if they are in that camp, then they are not worth wasting time over.

    But I believe that, by a long way, the principal reason that people want definitions has nothing whatsoever to do with "doing things right". It is simply about achieving a shared understanding so that they can meaningfully relate to each other.

  16. EightBitTony

    EightBitTony Well-Known Member

    I do a bit of street photography.

    I wander the streets, sometimes moving around, sometimes standing still, and take candid photographs of people in public spaces. Often there is an element of juxtaposition, or some feature which makes the image more than just a simple documentary shot or a record shot, but not always. Some element of humanity tends to be involved.

    That's why people classify stuff - at every level of life.

    The problem is not classifying stuff, the problem is believing that stuff can only fit within one classification structure.
  17. 0lybacker

    0lybacker In the Stop Bath

    16th April 2016 BBC Radio 4 Front Row last segment 7.50 approx to 8pm.
  18. Roger Hicks

    Roger Hicks Well-Known Member

    Dear Mike,

    First sentence: I think we do, or at least can. My gaffer when I started as an assistant in advertising in the 1970s (the late Colin Glanfield) was notorious for shooting his own interpretation of the (verbal) brief as well as of the visual brief or scamp -- and for the client to choose his version. I've known/met quite a few with the same talent, including (for example) the late Terence Donovan. I fully understand what you mean by " it goes through too many hands and levels of approval to retain much purity", but my argument is that this is true only if the concept and the organization is mediocre to begin with. It doesn't really apply outside advertising or the very lowest levels of e.g. portraiture.


  19. Roger Hicks

    Roger Hicks Well-Known Member

    Dear Eric,

    What is the colour of a kiss? The smell of deep blue? The taste of a flat surface? We disagree fundamentally on the concept of "meaningfully relate to each other".

    I speak as someone whose trade and livelihood has been words; and as someone who firmly believes that wordsrun out of steam completely in the contexts I am discussing.


  20. Roger Hicks

    Roger Hicks Well-Known Member

    Dear Tony,

    Certainly. But frighteningly many people do not seem to have moved beyond that belief.



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