Embracing Limitations in Fine Art Photography


Photography and fine-art photography in the digital age, when does photography stop being photography and becomes digital manipulation? What is ‘allowed’ and what isn’t? A deconstruction and an analogy with the evolution of painting and the evolution of analog photography resulting in the recommendation of giving clarity in what has been done in postproduction and anything is allowed.

Limitations of analog photography as a point of reference

There was a time when it was easy to determine what photography was: every photo that was processed in the darkroom was considered to be a photograph. It is still a non-discussion if such a photo is indeed a photo. In fact, the process of analog photography still functions as a reference point to determine what photography is in the digital age, and beyond, and what its boundaries are.

Then photographers started using the medium of photography to create art. This took a bit of a struggle, with protagonists as Stieglitz and Steichen leading the way to convince the critics that photography can be an art form. Pictorialism was one of the first attempts to create art with photography. It happened just before the time that paintings became more abstract and less a reflection of reality because for recreating reality, so the painters reasoned, there was now a much more accurate medium: the camera. So while painters moved away from reality, photographers tried to do the same by making their photographs less of a recording of reality and more a personal impression of reality. Just as the painters did. But there were limitations to the extent to which photographers could do that. A limitation inherent to the nature of the chosen medium. And that limitation was a different one than the limitation for the painters. Not more, not less, but a different one. And interestingly enough, it is always limitations that fuel creativity. It’s limitations that are a condition for the creation of true art. Not unbridled freedom.

When Picasso and his contemporaries started Cubism to consolidate and emphasize its definitive departure from realism, this triggered a movement in photography that indicated its way back to recording reality and oddly enough, this was also referred to as Cubist photography. The visual and artistic concepts behind Cubism in painting, however, initially had nothing to do with the visual and artistic concepts behind Cubism in photography. It was only the resolute awareness of Cubist painters of the limitations of the medium they chose for their artistic expressions, to build the Cubist concept on, that served as inspiration for photographers to do the same, but exactly the other way around towards realism. Towards ‘straight photography’ and ‘absolute unqualified objectivity’.  It’s the awareness of limitations that they only had in common. It sounds paradoxical but limitations opened up new ways in painting and photography. *Note 1: there is also ‘real’ Cubism in photography, using the same visual principles as in Cubist paintings such as multiple perspectives, this, however, came later with photographers like David Hockney who created collages with photos to depict one object.

The limitation of painting was that an artistic creation should be created with a brush and with paint on a canvas or any other surface that could depict a painting. So basically the limitation was only in the use of a brush and pigment.

The limitation of photography was that it is a recording of light or absence thereof on, initially plates, then film, and now on a digital sensor.

Then at some point, there were painters who didn’t use pigment but gold leaf for example. Gustav Klimt’s most famous paintings consisted of an important part of the use of gold leaf. And then there was also Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock who used anything besides pigment he could get his hands on to create paintings: from cigarette butts to shards of glass. And when he used paint, he didn’t use brushes only, but large buckets full of paint to pour onto the canvas or he dripped the paint onto the canvas using sticks or knives, anything, besides brushes. Yet, despite the initial critique of his paintings and the way he came to his creations, it has been completely accepted now: a change in thinking has occurred. A redefinition of what painting is, took place. People like Klimt or Pollock embraced limitation and used their canvases as an arena: stay inside the boxing ring ropes and do whatever necessary within those ropes according to the specific rules. If you go outside, you’re not boxing anymore. And if you stay inside and use your legs to hit an opponent, then that’s not boxing either. It would still be a form of fighting that’s legitimate but with other rules. Limitations often define the very essence of things and the rules that come with it aren’t there to restrict your creativity but to have a fair and uniform playing field within a discipline.

And at some point, there were photographers who didn’t just use the recorded light to enhance their photographs but manipulated light by dodging and burning, or more intrusively in the digital age, by just removing objects from their photographs, and sometimes replacing it by something entirely different. Yet, again, in an analogous way as in painting, despite the initial critique, it has been accepted now. Or not? Well, partly as there’s not much clarity or a uniform voice on what the limits are within photography. Everything that could be done in an analog camera, from single exposures to multiple exposures, was allowed. Its only limitations were the technical limitations of the camera, there were no other external limitations imposed by the public and critics in particular. But not only in-camera anything was allowed, also anything that could and can be done in the analog darkroom was allowed. This principle applied to the type of post-processing photographers like Ansel Adams did, with dramatically darkened skies through dodging and burning, but also to what photographers as Jerry Uelsmann did when he created his photo composites in the analog darkroom. Similar to what can be done now in the digital darkroom but it was clear and evident that some manipulation and montage took place. And this clarity wasn’t there because the artist mentioned it explicitly. It was obvious. Obvious, either due to the fact it didn’t look as natural as it would look these days or due to the fact that it was so absurd and surreal that this could not be a ‘normal’ image that hasn’t been manipulated. Still, Uelsmann was considered a photographer, albeit that many would add to that he ‘was an early exponent of photomontage’. Everything that happened in the analog darkroom was allowed, again, only limited by the technical limitations in the analog darkroom, there were no other externally imposed limitations.  Technology in the analog era was simple and had its limitations and anything that was possible was allowed. But when we enter the digital age, suddenly this becomes quite the question mark. Advanced technology is all-encompassing now and dominating our everyday lives. Not everything that can be done in the digital darkroom, on the computer, was considered photography. Suddenly, photography in the digital era wasn’t limited anymore to its own technical limitations but limited by what external critics thought of it. And all too often those critics aren’t authoritative critics, the likes of John Szarkowski or John Berger, but the average photographer whose own creative, art historical and technical limitations were the same limitations they thought they could impose onto others and onto the medium of photography itself. An analog photograph without any contrast adjustments or a straight out of the camera digital photo aren’t the only true photographs, that’s what many great artists before us already proved, in the analog era. So who’s and what’s right? Why was it undisputed for photographers like Adams and Uelsmann to do anything in the analog darkroom, including photo composites, and those very same adjustments in the digital darkroom, today, are often subject of fierce disputes?

I don’t claim to have a definitive answer, not by far, since we are right in the middle of this change, of this redefinition what photography is. And therefore it’s hard to perceive when and if the change or any discussion has ended and to assess what the final verdict is. But I do have an opinion. A sincere opinion to contribute to a discussion that should take place, and is taking place albeit in a less concerted effort compared to art movements in other art forms, to determine what photography is, or should be. Acceptance, or non-acceptance, without polemics and discussion, is a form of ignorance and self-imposed artistic dictatorship based on the loudest voice of poorly informed influencers whose objectives are different than the objectives from serious artists: attracting viewers versus authenticity and maturity in art.

Before trying to formulate my opinion on it, let’s try and learn a bit from the history of painting, again, and how it evolved to what it is now. After all, painting as an art form existed many centuries before photography was invented. So there’s something to learn for us, photographers.

Going back to the initial limitations of what a painting should entail, a brush and pigment and a canvas, and how it later evolved to anything you can paint with, a brush or a bucket or just your hands, anything that can replace pigment, like glass, cigarette butts, gold leafs, human excrements and what not, and to anything you can paint onto like a canvas, paper, stone walls, tarmac, glass, and what have you. Anything is possible and there actually isn’t a limitation to the materials used, to call it a painting. So the main elements of the medium have changed, but what is ‘it’ that remained the same to still call it a painting? I think it is the human expression on any type of surface that can sustain that expression for a longer time, using any kind of substance that is more permanent once applied to the surface in a meaningful and intentional (the human expression) way. In other words, the medium of painting isn’t determined by its materials, nor by how it should be applied, only that it is a human expression through the use of any substance on any surface that once applied, makes for the artwork. Conclusion: the inherent limitation and challenge, that induces creativity in the art of painting is the ‘substance-to-surface’ that is more permanently.

With photography, it shouldn’t be that difficult to come to a similar conclusion in an analogous way. Don’t forget there’s a close relationship between painting and photography in the way it evolved, first separately separated by time and then simultaneously over the last 150 years and how they’re being perceived. Let’s try.

Light gives meaning to the material world, and the material world gives a purpose to light. What else do we need light for, other than to see things out of the material world?  Light would have no meaning without a material world, and a material world would be virtually nonexistent without light. The same light recorded onto a light-sensitive surface like film, or a digital sensor creates a scaled-down duplicate of a part of the material world, of just one infinitely small perspective. In photography, light is the substance with which photographers express themselves on any type of surface. This surface can be film, a sensor, something new in the future that can record light, and then transferred onto paper. Or a metal sheet, or a canvas, or a wall. It shouldn’t matter. In painting, it is the application of any sustainable substance onto any surface that makes it a painting, in photography it is the recording of light onto any surface that makes it a photograph. But that’s not all. There’s another limitation to call it a photograph that is absent in painting. And that is time. Time is the big differentiator in photography: a longer time, a shorter time, the exact timing, the right time. It’s for that reason that no 2 photographs are the same. And it’s time that dictates how light will be recorded on a light-sensitive surface to give form or no form to shapes. So here’s the inherent and, again, challenging limitation, the arena we have to stay in to truly create meaningful photographs: light to surface within a given time-frame.