Is it Photography or Not?

The Philomath Open Studios Tour wrapped up on Sunday, and participating as a studio this year was both fun and challenging. Talking to so many people as they came through, I got some interesting questions and comments. The only comment that really stopped me in my tracks came from a couple of other artists participating in the event. We do an artist “pre-tour” of all of the studios, so we can see each other’s work and be able to refer people to the right studios if they are looking for something specific. It’s one of the most fun parts of the whole event, and for me it’s been the way I really get to know the other artists.

“You should call your work something other than photography,” they said, “Your work doesn’t look like any photography I’ve ever seen.” They went on to explain: People may skip my studio because they have an impression of what photography is, and they aren’t interested. I’m losing the chance to get my work in front of them by calling it photography.

I found myself with a pretty strong internal reaction to their suggestion. As I tried to explain my feelings about this as photography, I struggled to find the words. My immediate reaction and inadequate explanation left me uncomfortable. Was there something to what they were saying I should listen to? These folks are my artist friends and peers, and they have my best interests at heart. They respect my work and want to see me succeed.

So, for the last couple of weeks, I’ve had a renewed internal dialogue around this question: Is it photography or not? Should I change the way I position and market my work? I’ve answered this question before. But I needed to answer the question for myself, again, in a way I could confidently explain it to others, especially artists in other mediums.

My answer?

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Yes, my work is photography. I will continue to call it photography, even if there is some fallout along with that. Here’s why…

My work starts as a photograph. The seeing and framing through the lens of the camera is vitally important. My art wouldn’t exist without the starting photograph, and the capture of the starting image is one of my favorite parts of my process of creating in this medium. I spent years and years learning to coax beautiful images out of the camera, from the technical expertise of exposure to the creative expertise of composition, and I use that experience every time I take a new photograph. Even if I’m altering it significantly, it starts with the photograph. I want to honor that.

I also want to honor the medium. Photography has a rich and interesting history. It is a wider and deeper medium than the general public understands. Most people’s interaction with photography is from what they see in the media — photojournalism and commercial photography — or their own experience with snapshots. Mobile photography is even less understood. Most people haven’t necessarily seen or explored fine art photography. They don’t know the range of art that the term “photography” truly covers. Why not help educate them, just a little bit? Why not expand their definition? We are never going to get past the limited perception of what a photograph is “allowed” to look like, if some of us don’t stand out there and push those boundaries.

This is where I had to stop and examine myself closely. Am I hurting myself, my ability to get my work in front of people to connect with them through my art, through taking on some one-woman crusade to expand the definition of photography? Am I hurting my sales by sticking with the “photography” moniker? I don’t think so. I’ve had many photographers tell me in the past that you can’t sell photography. People don’t want photographs. Given my results as I ventured into art fairs this year, I’ve not found that to be universally true.

But that fundamental belief — people don’t want to buy photographs — must be a driving factor behind some of the practices I’ve seen a few photographers use. I’ve witnessed people who are using altered photography techniques selling their work as nebulous “fine art prints.” No acknowledgement of the starting photograph. It’s not a lie, per se, because they truly are fine art prints, but it’s an omission that leaves the medium up to the imagination of the viewer. Let the viewer think it’s a reproduction of an original in another medium; what they don’t know doesn’t hurt them. That may be ok for other artists, but it would feel dishonest for me. Almost self-negating, as if I need to hide my medium in order for the work I produce to have value. And also not respectful of the artists who have spent years to hone their craft in other mediums. My work may end up looking a bit like a watercolor or some other medium, but it’s not. I don’t want to claim it is.

I want my work to stand on its own, for what it is. A photograph. An altered photograph, sure. But it starts as a photograph.

My art is a piece of me that I put out in the world. So when I make a sale, I want it to be an honest and heartfelt transaction. How I put my work and myself out there really matters to me. I want to connect with people openly and with integrity. I want to have a dialogue about what I’m creating, how I’m creating and why. I want to hear what the viewer has to say, how my work makes them feel. I want to honor all of those who came before me, who taught me, who paved the way for me to create in this medium, too.

So I will continue to call my work and my medium photography. I’m a photographer, and I’m proud of it. I’m happy to have the dialogue about what makes it photography. I relish a good discussion about the art of photography, and like the idea of opening some minds to new ideas about what a photograph can be.

And the folks who aren’t interested, who chose not to come to my studio because of their preconceived notions of what photography will look like? It’s their loss, not mine. They don’t know what they are missing.

Photo-Heart Connection: October 2014

It starts with seeing.

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Every photograph, every finished image, they all start with that spark of seeing.

Seeing beauty. Seeing possibility. Seeing whatever it is I see in life.

Whether or not I take a photo, whether or not I process a photo I’ve captured, I’ve still seen. Borne witness. Captured a moment in my minds eye.

No matter how busy we are, no matter how much of a hurry we are in, we can still see and acknowledge the world around us.

That’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.


One of the things I am most grateful for is how photography has taught me to see. I notice things that others don’t notice. The curve of a branch, the color variation in a leaf, the impression of a heart in the empty space. Amazing, beautiful things fill the world around us and we just have to open our eyes to see. I’ve been reminded of this as the last few weeks have been busy. Rushing to and from work and evening activities, Philomath Open Studios (come by this weekend!) and short days have meant little time for photography. But I’ve still been seeing.

My Photo-Heart Connection is a reflection of this month’s seeing, from one of the times I did have a few minutes to spare as I walked to my car in the parking lot at work, pulling out my camera and exploring the lines and colors of the autumn trees. I had been seeing them all week, and finally got that chance. The seeing for myself was enough, but capturing and sharing it with you makes it even better.

What is your Photo-Heart Connection this month? What have you seen, how has it touched your heart? Share it with us here.


Creative Display

I’m always looking for creative and easy ways to display 2D art. For many years, above my computer I’ve had multiple magnet boards to hold art cards, postcards, tickets, receipts… any little bits and pieces I wanted to see regularly or keep handy. Every so often I would clear off the magnet board and start with a clean slate, but most of the time it was a messy mismash of stuff. Kinda like life, huh?

Over Spring Break we stayed with some family in Washington, DC, and our cousin Kate, an artist herself, had an awesome solution for displaying 2D art. After arriving home I found myself looking askance at my messy magnet boards, dreaming of a solution like hers. So I emailed for the scoop on how she did it, and was extremely pleased to find out that all I needed was a trip to IKEA!

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I bought two sets of the DIGNITET wire hangers, along with the RIKTIG hanging clips. The primary purpose for these items is hanging curtains so you’ll find them in the drapery section. It was approximately $30 total for two sets. It’s a perfect way to cleanly display a lot of paper items, especially POSTCARDS, don’t you think? It would work great for photographs as well, and I think our holiday cards will have a new place for display this year.

Right now, it just feels nice to not have all of the magnet board clutter hovering above me at my keyboard. My husband told me it looked waaaay too neat for my studio. I’m not quite sure how to take that comment. :)

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Next, I just need to clean off my desk. But that’s a project for another day…

Photographer by Choice

How many of us have heard the phrase uttered one place or another: Photography is not art. I have, many times in the past. Surprisingly, most often from others who consider themselves artists.

Or if it’s not explicitly stated, the non-art of photography is implied in some way. Even by the photographers themselves: I can’t draw a straight line, but I can photograph. As if photography is the also-ran art form, what you turn to when you have otherwise no artistic talent. I can imagine an ad: Don’t worry if you can’t paint or draw, you can be a photographer!

Those of us who practice photography know these statements are not true. Photography is art and photographers are artists. I’m not going to belabor or try to prove the point here. Whether you believe it or you don’t, that’s your concern.

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But what I want to point out is that being a photographer, being an artist who practices photography, is a choice. It’s a first choice.

It’s not a runner-up choice. It’s not what you do if you can’t paint or draw. It’s not what you do because it’s easier, or cleaner, or cheaper, or more accessible than your first choice art form.

Photography is what you do when you can help but see the details of the world. It’s what you do when the beauty of the lines around you takes your breath away. It’s what you do when you realize that you can frame things, things that everyone else might walk by everyday, and express yourself through them.

A photographer is an artist who can’t help but speak through the visual language of the lens. We are compelled to see and share the world this way. Those of us who have a deep heart and soul connection to the medium know this. There is no need to prove or justify it to anyone else.

I am a photographer by choice. It’s a choice I make, every day, as I continue to pick up my camera and seek to express myself. It’s a choice I make, as I continue to learn and grow my artistic vision.

But there are moments….

Moments I wonder if I don’t have it the wrong way around.

Moments when the need to create and communicate through a photograph is so powerful, I ask myself…

Did photography choose me?

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I never thought I would see the day. I really didn’t.

I never thought I would see the day my son asked me about photography, wanting to learn seriously. But it happened. Last weekend I found myself supplying him with my old camera body, a starter lens, camera bag and manuals. After reading for a while he asked, “What’s ISO?” and out comes my Digital Photography Basics eBook. Fun.

Sunday when my son suggested a drive to go take pictures, I couldn’t say no, could I? Not only for the photography, but I was dying to drive my just-purchased car a little bit. I wanted to see how my dog Zoey would do riding in the hatch back, since she was a good part of the reason I switched cars in the first place. Turns out regular hiking + exuberant dog + sedan with cloth seats = a giant mess of a car no one wants to ride in, no matter how hard I’ve tried to protect the back seat.

So off we went… Brandon, Zoey and I. With no real destination, we drove for a while, stopping for a break in the woods to let Zoey out a bit and to photograph. And what did we photograph? The new car, of course.

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Brandon is obsessed with the show Top Gear lately, so he worked on getting some of the interesting camera angles they always use on the show. (The show has quite good photography, if you’ve never seen it.) I played around with capturing some abstracts of the forest reflections in the shiny red body. Carleidoscopes, I call them.

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A sunny afternoon, a beautiful drive, a happy dog, sharing time and something I love with my son, and a few interesting photographs. Does it get any better? Why yes, it does. There was no dirty, panting dog at my shoulder, mucking up the back seat. Absolutely lovely!

The Whole Truth

The camera never lies, right? I wonder where we came up with this idea that the camera always captures truth. Where we picked up the idea that a photograph represents reality.

Maybe it’s because the camera gives a representation that seems like reality. Maybe it’s because the edges are sharp and the likeness to what we are looking at is closer than most art brings us. But what we what the camera captures is not truth. A photograph is not reality.

Reality encompasses a much broader range of the senses than a photograph can. Sight and sound and touch and smell. Reality encompasses a three dimensional world that is experienced with more than just the eyes. Reality is everything, everywhere in the moment. The whole truth.

A photograph starts with the photographer. As humans we can’t handle the whole of reality, so we filter. We filter based on our interests and our knowledge and our experience. We decide where to look, what to experience, out of everything that is available in our environment. So right there, we start to alter reality.

Next, we alter reality with our cameras. Think about it, we are taking a three dimensional world and collapsing it into two dimensions. We take the whole of the sensory experience and collapse it to visual alone. That’s a drastic alteration right there. Not only that, but as we study photography, we learn the camera itself is an imperfect tool for capturing even visual reality. It can’t capture the range of light and dark we see with our eyes. It can’t capture the form and the depth that we experience. So we learn to adapt through our exposure and optics and techniques. We make choices about the lens we want to use, the aperture and shutter speed, and what is in or out of the frame.

The photograph, as captured by the camera, is already significantly different from reality. The viewer can’t turn their head left or right and see what is happening beyond the edges of the frame. They can’t walk closer or further away. They can’t reach out and touch. They only see what the photographer has chosen for them to see. A slice of the photographer’s reality; a partial truth.

Then, we get into post-processing. It’s funny that this is often maligned as the part of the photographic process where reality is removed. In my view, post-processing is only a continuation of what we started with our cameras, since the as-captured image is not reality either. In post-processing, we can further adjust the photograph, to try to shift it to what we perceived as “reality” visually or to better express the feeling we had at the moment it was taken. We can create a new feeling with it, if we so choose. We can create an experience that is completely unrelated to our own experience when we took the photograph.

The “reality” that is presented in the final image is all in the choices made by the photographer, from the moment of capture to completion. It is not reality at all.

Take this photograph of light on the leaves in the forest, for example. The camera could not capture the shifting range of light and dark that I saw in those leaves. It could not capture the feeling of the breeze cooling my sun- and hike-warmed skin. It could not capture the rustle of the leaves, or the sound of my husband and son playing with the dog down the trail. It could not come anywhere close to my reality, but I did the best I could at capturing one thing: The light filtering through the canopy of leaves. I could find a scene that framed one single leaf in the light, and filled the background with the repetition of leaves in light and shadow. In my post-processing, I could add warmth through the tone, softness through a texture, and depth through a vignette. I could express my feelings about this one particular piece of my experience of that moment and that day. Beyond that, what you feel as you look at this photograph depends on your own reality and experiences in the past. Your filters and perceptions kick in, altering what I’ve presented further.

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Is this photograph the whole truth? No.
Is it reality? No.
A photograph never, ever will be.

I think it’s time that we leave behind the idea that the camera never lies. It’s time to shed the idea that in photography, alterations to reality come only in post-processing. The alterations to reality start in the photographer’s mind, and continue from seeing to camera to post-processing.

Instead, let’s focus on the one truth that we can express with photography: The truth of the experiences, feelings and emotions of the photographer.

Expressions of the artist, practicing their art.