A Snapshot, or Art?

This semester I decided to take a Digital Photography class, both for my own enjoyment and to help me better understand Hugh Morton’s photos. The class has been very beneficial in teaching me about aperture, shutter speed, and film sensitivity. I’m now able to look at a Morton picture and say “Oh, that’s how he did that!” (Well, sometimes). For example, the three pictures below show the same full moon rising over the same mountain at different exposures.

Three exposures of full moon over rocky mountain face, circa 1980s-1990sBut, which one did Hugh prefer? Did he want the darker picture that reflected more of the natural setting or did he like the lighter picture that showed more details? These are just a few of the questions that have arisen from taking this class.

For my first assignment I went to Grandfather Mountain to re-capture some of Morton’s photographs. Of course, mine came nowhere close to his. However, my photographs did start a debate in our class about whether a photograph can be a piece of art or just a pretty picture. Personally, I look at a photo and think, “Would I buy that to put on my wall?” (My professor didn’t have quite the same opinion).

Spider with trillium, circa 1980s-1990s

When you look at a photo, are you going to give it much thought? Will you look at it a second time? Does the image make you question what is being captured? For example, the picture of the trillium above is a pretty picture. The first time I looked at, that’s what I saw — I might not have given it a second look. But I did, and that’s when I noticed the spider sneaking around on the leaf, how its coloring blended in with the petals, and how its body mirrored the stigma (center) of the flower. Does that mean that this would be considered art?

Two sunrise/sunset images, circa 1980s-1990s

The two sunrise (or sunset) pictures above are definitely thought-provoking. One is very ethereal — light, airy, and promising. The other is more foreboding, dark, and sinister. Side by side, they are definitely striking and provoke contrasting images of good and evil. But if they weren’t next to each other, I don’t know if I would have looked twice. Does that make one a snapshot and the other art? Are they both just pretty pictures?

Waterfall, tree with red fungus in foreground, circa 1980s-1990s

And here’s another thought regarding the art debate. If I told you that I took the above picture, and not Hugh Morton, does that make it less artistic? What if Ansel Adams had taken this picture? This debate could probably go on for quite a while. Everyone has their own definition of what makes a photograph a piece of art. I think the picture above is art — I would gladly put it on the wall of my living room. Others will look at it and just see a pretty snapshot. What do you think?

6 thoughts on “A Snapshot, or Art?

  1. The trio at the top are a reflection of a practice called bracketing, I suspect, to ensure one gets an acceptable photo of the three. In digital nowadays, the three can be combined in an HDR image for quite striking results.

    Good and evil? How about just contrasting pictures.

    And did you know it can be a violation of copyrights to attempt to reproduce a photographic image produced by someone else?

  2. @Anonymous: I’m curious, can you provide a reference for your assertion regarding the attempt to reproduce an image?

    I’m assuming you’re talking about taking my own photograph that is framed and set up similar to one someone else took – and I can’t see how that can be a violation since I took it myself with my own equipment.

    If I decided to try to pass it off as the other persons’ work, that would obviously be fraud, but if I don’t then it’s my own work and my own copyright I would think – although I’m willing to modify my opinion if someone provides an accurate reference to a statute which says otherwise.

  3. Amber your digital photography class sounds really interesting. It brings to mind my photography class at UNC. Long before digital, back in the Dark Ages of the fall of 1961, I took Professor Ross Scroggs’ photography class…in those days it was part of the physics department and met in Phillips Hall. The course designation was Physics 45. I recall many discussions about photography as art and Professor Scroggs had his own view of how the two related.

    Ross Scroggs came to Chapel Hill in the late 1940’s from Rochester, New York, where he was a chemist with Eastman Kodak. (He is credited as one of the inventors of Ektachrome. Bet that name has turned up on your light table many times as you sort through the Morton slides).

    A favorite Scroggs story tells of his coming in on the first day of class, carrying a rock. After placing the rock on the table at the front of the room he turns and writes on the board, “The Distinction between Humans and Apes….” He then tells the class that the rock is an ax, one of the first human tools. He also says that art, demonstrated in cave paintings, evolved simultaneously with tools. “I do not need to teach you art,” he said, “because, if you are human, you will produce art as soon as you have the tools. I intend to give you the tools. I will not mind wasting my time with the overwhelming majority of apes in this class, because the handful of humans here will certainly listen to me and that makes it worth my time.”

    So Professor Scroggs began class by saying “the camera, no matter how automatic it may be, is just a piece of equipment until a person uses it. It then becomes a unique tool–an extension of the user’s mind and eye. A photographer creates a picture by a process of selection.. what to include from the scene… the distance from which to take the picture and the desired angle….the photographer selects the exact time to trip the shutter. This decision may take hours until the light is exactly right or it may be a split-second decision.” (Remember Julia Morton on “Exploring North Carolina,” telling of her frustration with Hugh taking so long to get just the right sun angle for a shot). “The photographer can expand or flatten perspective by the use of certain lenses. Photographers can freeze motion or record it as a blur, depending on the shutter speed. They can create an infinite number of lighting effects by changing the lens opening. Film type and filters can alter color values.” So the photographer becomes the artist.

    Now the question I ask: If photography is to record a selected scene as it is, doesn’t some of the above alter that scene from reality? Simply put, which of the three Hugh Morton moonrise pictures is an exact reproduction of the scene that he saw when he took the picture?

    If you look back at comments made on the V2H post of November 15, 2007, you see that there are many views on the subject of photography as art.

    By the way, the textbook that Professor Scroggs selected for use during the fall of 1961 was titled “The Science of Photography.”

  4. I would describe myself as an artist but not particularly a photographer – photography has had rather a rough deal in the history of visual arts and for many trying to decipher exactly what is art photography is a subjective exercise in itself. The photographers I have admired in the past include Cindy Sherman, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Weegee although all of these have focused predominantly more on portrait and action shots than landscape, Cindy of course staged her work, I do believe however that photography as photo journalistic art can produce some of the most astounding imagery of modern times. It’s tricky however I would always say that art photography introduces a subtext that most photographic works do not, for me this can be interpreted in all manner of ways and methods but essentially the image must speak of more than what it portrays.

  5. The two images above – the sunset and the distant cloudy mountains. Interesting I think, that if you over-exposed the sunset/rise image you could make it be the light and ethereal image and if you underexposed the cloudy mountains it might be dark and foreboding. So, Morton’s opinion like/dislike of either of the three original images may be different one day than another. You’ve read about artist’s having their “blue period” or their “dark period” or whatever. To look at the scene before us and then to decide how we wish to interpret that scene on film or the digital chip – I think that represents art and the artist.

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