Notebook, 1993-


Making Art / Photography

Art Does Not Apologize
By Tony Long
02:00 AM Aug, 17, 2006 - WIRED

Before I decided to make wordsmithing my career, I considered a number of other possibilities: Major League Baseball player, professional scuba diver, porn star, merchant marine. None of them panned out and at least one was sheer fantasy. I mean, really, could you see me working in the engine room of some stupid freighter?

There was one other career I seriously considered before slipping on the copy editor's green eye shade and consigning myself to professional obscurity: photographer. Not to brag, but I was pretty good with a camera. I have an eye for composition, I didn't mind schlepping the gear around and I loved working in the darkroom. In fact, I liked the lab work as much as the fieldwork.

In many instances, the darkroom was where the real art was made. The negative was your raw material -- I worked in formats from 35 mm to 8x10, depending on the subject matter and the equipment at hand -- but what you did with it once it was in the enlarger determined whether or not you walked out of there with a "photograph" or merely a "snapshot." What to crop, what to retain? Burning in here, dodging a bit there. Damn. How did that lint get on the negative? Feeling the stop bath sear your cuticles. Choosing the right paper stock.

In other words, it was hands-on. It required some honest sweat. It required time. When you were finished, and assuming you had done sterling work, you had produced a piece of art.

Which is why it's so hard for me to work up any passion for digital photography.

The advantages of digital are plain enough: easier storage, the ability to upload photos straight to the computer, no need for film, being able to take a mulligan on images you don't want to keep and, if results are all you require, no need for screwing around in a darkroom. Digital makes sense for the photojournalist, where mobility and simplicity are key, and it's useful for taking those casual snapshots of besotted friends down at the neighborhood local.

But for "making photographs"? For making art? No.

It's like "painting" a picture using your computer. It's kind of fun to do and what you have when you're done may be superficially terrific, but unless you've actually applied brush to canvas you're no artist. You are merely a technician with a good eye.

How many so-called graphic artists out there can't draw a straight line? Plenty. Certainly, in some cases, graphic "artist" is a misnomer. Maybe they should be called graphic "facilitators."

Picasso, the guy who could never seem to remember where the nose goes, summed it up thusly: "Computers are useless. All they can give you are answers." I know this because that's what it says on my refrigerator magnet.

But Pablo was right, at least when it comes to the creative process. The very act of making something easily achievable, and achievable by great numbers of people, diminishes the creation.

Maybe Monet could have painted those water lilies on a Mac. Maybe Ansel Adams could have uploaded a boatload of pictures from his trip to Yosemite, then fiddled around in Photoshop to make 'em real purty. But it wouldn't have been the same.

I know two professional photographers and have friends who dabble in photography as a serious hobby. All have a good eye (still the ultimate skill for this particular pursuit); all produce quality. None do their own lab work, however. A few use the computer exclusively while the pros send their work out to professional processing labs. That eliminates 50 percent of the creative process, as far as I'm concerned.

So, sure, nice picture, but don't call it art.

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Tony Long is copy chief at Wired News



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