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Philosophy & Reflections

Photographer or Photographic Artist? – by Billy Sanford

November 5, 2021

This article began as a post in the Photography Books and Theory group on Facebook. It is a friendly and informative group and as the name implies, it is a place to discuss books and theory related to photography. I referenced an observation from Holly Gilman in that post and she encouraged me to expound on the idea a little more here at 35mmc.

Holly’s work had recently been included in an exhibition. She made a brief tour of the space for a video on her YouTube channel (which I encourage you all to subscribe to) and she was discussing the various work on display. It included some cyanotypes that had been made on eggshells. It probably seemed awkward to refer to it as photography, so she pondered a bit about photography and photographic art. This observation was the genesis of my post to the group.

My own experience with photography seems like a typical path.  I grew up using film to capture memories of family and friends. As an adult, after digital had taken hold, I began practicing photography as a hobby. While I still do shoot digitally, I have primarily been using film since the beginning of the pandemic. I will touch on some of the reasons later in the article.

While photography has been my own outlet, I believe the impetus for it was seeded through my family. Particularly my mother’s side. My grandfather grew up on a farm during different times and life circumstances. They had to work with their hands. Consequently, he was skilled in many areas including carpentry and woodworking. My grandmother was a proficient seamstress. My mother still enjoys quilting. My sister enjoys all types of arts and crafts. They both enjoy gardening. My sister’s daughter painted and originally wanted to focus on that in school. My cousins from that side of the family all played musical instruments. It might seem as though I would have a firm understanding then about the compulsion to create, but oddly I don’t necessarily feel as though I do. Hence why I posed the question to the group to get their thoughts.

Quilting

An image of my mother working on a quilt. The image was taken with a Hasselblad 503CX on Delta 3200 at 1600.

On my photographic outings, I may see a tree I like and take a picture of it. But why? It’s not as though I feel some sort of sentimental attachment to the tree and want to preserve the memory. I’m not building a project around tree images or selling my work. In fact, no other human being is likely to ever see it. It may have been the lighting that caught my eye, but what is the goal for capturing it?

Whatever image I capture of it will be straightforward – here is an image of a tree, this is what it looked like as I was standing there and what an average person walking by would experience. Others can apply creativity to such an image to make it more than a document of the moment. Maybe they take a long exposure with the limbs swaying to imply a windy day. Maybe they shoot from a low angle and utilize distortion from a wide-angle lens to make the tree seem larger.

Steel wool on fire

A long exposure (5 seconds) of steel wool on fire, captured with a Canon 5D Mark II. One of my more “artistic” images.

But the larger point I’m building to is that some may not take a photograph at all. They might make a sketch or a painting including elements from their imagination. Still others may take a leaf from the tree and create a cyanotype. And still others may not create visually at all. They might compose a haiku or write a poem about what it felt like to be there. And the bigger question still is why would any of us do any of those things? Why not stay at home and relax in the garden or go out to the cinema or any of the other countless things we could do with our time that don’t involve expressing ourselves creatively? So we really have two questions – one about why we do it and the other about why we choose the medium we use to do what we do.

The answers to those questions are different for everyone and for many of us there are nuances. And it also evolves over time. I mentioned earlier that I returned to analogue photography at the beginning of the pandemic. There were many factors. They were unrelated to the pandemic, but the timing and subsequent lockdown created a perfect time to evaluate my photography and what I hoped to get out of it.

Much of my photography in 2019 involved attending workshops. I was also considering purchasing my next camera, but the digital world was transitioning from DSLRs to mirrorless. Artificial Intelligence and other editing techniques continued to evolve in the computing space. Cameras in cell phones continue to get better and better.  And on a more personal note, much of my digital photography in the previous decade had centered around my son and his athletic pursuits. He was moving to the next stage of his life. And in truth he had been less enthusiastic about still images for a while, favoring video content that highlights action better and is more engaging on social media.

With the pandemic, there were no workshops for some time. It didn’t seem prudent to invest money into either a system that was going away or a system that wasn’t fully developed. I am not one to say that digitally editing photos is not “real” photography, but I’ve just never enjoyed the digital workflow. My normal job involves sitting at a computer all day, so I’ve never wanted to invest the time into becoming proficient at it (this is still a challenge to me, particularly in color-correcting film scans). Taking cell phone snaps is often the practical solution, but it doesn’t really fulfill me photographically in the same way. And while I continued making images of my son’s athletic achievements, I was making fewer of them digitally and more on them with film.

Pole Vault

An image of my son pole vaulting from his last track meet at his school. Taken with a Canon EOS-3 on HP5 at 1600.

My photography was invigorated. I had all but stopped going out to enjoy digital photography even before the pandemic. I was certainly thankful to get out into nature to take analogue pictures after being in the house for days at a time. But it was something more than that. Yes, I enjoyed the images. But the tangibility and the processes spoke to me on a different level. Developing the film and then later making a darkroom print gave me a certain sense of satisfaction and accomplishment in a way that I assume my grandfather felt in building a bookcase or my mother feels when sewing a quilt. Not to pass judgement on anyone who doesn’t create, but clearly there must be some deep-rooted compulsion within certain people to bring a thing into the world that didn’t exist and wouldn’t without their effort. Expressing themselves in that way appears to satisfy that compulsion.

Darkroom prints

A few recent darkroom prints of generally unremarkable scenes, but that brought me joy and satisfaction in making them.

I must acknowledge that I had hit a crossroads at the start of the pandemic. Digital photography by itself wasn’t bringing me that same satisfaction that it had before. If going back to film and its tactile nature had not been an option, would I have given up on photography? Would I have found some other outlet? While the community is more robust than it was ten years ago, there is no guarantee that film and film cameras will always be around. If the challenges to the environment or supply chain or profitability cannot be met and analogue photography goes away, would I turn back to only digital again? Or some alternative process? Would I try to take up painting or sketching? Would I finally embrace the technology to master Photoshop? Or would I just cease attempting to create in the visual arts? Am I a creative person who uses photography to express that creativity? Or am I someone who enjoys photography which coincidently unlocks a creative side of me?

Cyanotypes

A few cyanotypes from digital negatives that I experimented with.

Thank you for taking the time to read through these reflections. If you enjoy thinking on topics of this nature, let me encourage you to join the aforementioned group and participate in the conversation!

You find me on Instagram, Twitter or Flickr as bsanfordjr.

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18 Comments

  • Reply
    Bjarte Bjørkum0
    November 5, 2021 at 10:58 am

    Or just artist.

    • Reply
      Billy Sanford
      November 5, 2021 at 12:23 pm

      Yes, I believe you are correct. And maybe that is enough. But I found it as an interesting thought experiment. Thank you so much for taking the time to read through and respond!

  • Reply
    Jalan
    November 5, 2021 at 11:11 am

    I’ve felt the same way myself Billy. Earlier this year I shot double exposures of 35mm film and then did cyanotypes from the enlarged negatives. So much work for a single “blue” image and I asked myself “why”? The only answer I have found is that I was created to create. My desire to create something is a mirror reflection of God’s act of creating everything! Digital images sitting in electronic memory don’t have the same physical existence as the wet plate print I have in front of me right now!

    • Reply
      Billy Sanford
      November 5, 2021 at 12:27 pm

      Thank you Jalan. Yes, being made in His image would certainly add to the conversation about the drive to create. And I definitely agree about digital images in memory. I know I have many I’ve never looked at since the moment I took them. Its not a bad thing, but it certainly isn’t as satisfying to me as holding a print of a similar image in my hands. Thank you again for taking the time to read and reply!

  • Reply
    Martin Jones
    November 5, 2021 at 12:11 pm

    Hi Billy, this is a really interesting article. It tries to get to the heart of what we do and why we do it. Like you, I’d flipped over from film to digital and then kinda petered out as the kids got bigger and the family holidays stopped. Coming back to analogue gives me something that I need. Part of it is tinkering with old cameras to bring them back to life. Another aspect is being part of the continuum – what great occasions and family moments have been captured on my 1950s Fed 2 before it came into my hands? The sheer range of experience is huge – from the technical wizardry of a Minolta 807si to the raw directness of shooting Sunny 16 with a Kiev 4A. I shoot pictures for me, to capture an aspect or a moment in time, but rarely show them to others unless I think that they are particularly interesting. The choice of format, camera, film and development process all contribute to a decision process that culminates in the great reveal as you see the wet negatives come out of the development spiral. The results depend on all of the above, but some serendipity too. I like the idea of photographic art 🙂

  • Reply
    Billy Sanford
    November 5, 2021 at 12:42 pm

    Thank you Martin. Yes, the aspect of all this in using the old gear is also relevant! On the image-making, I feel like the majority of the time “documentarian” is the most appropriate title for what I feel like I do. “Artist” just has never quite felt right. Not to be humble, I respect artists and it seemed disrespectful on some level to equate what I do with what they do. Still, I would like to think that there is some attempt at telling a story and intention involved. If I’m going to take a picture, I would like for it at the very least to have some interesting aspect to it. So maybe that is the creative, artistic piece to it? Some might say all of this is over-analyzing. Why question any of it? If you enjoy it, just do it! And that is fair too. But it started as a post in a group about theory and a little self-examination might be a good thing (for me). Thank you for taking the time to read and respond!

  • Reply
    brad s sprinkle
    November 5, 2021 at 4:40 pm

    I love the question and I believe it’s quite valid. My wife is the poster child for the Photograph Artist. Her genius is taking a rather boring image and turning it into an interesting work of art. Whether it be taking a B&W negative and making a lith print and then hand coloring, taking a color slide to produce a Polaroid SX-70 manipulation, emulsion lift or image transfer (we still have some Artistic-Z and Type 79)

    Some her work I love the best are silver gelatin prints produced from Kodak HIE and then hand colored.

    I don’t think that Photograph Artist is a moniker that anyone who looked at her work would dispute.

    Great article and food for thought.
    Brad Sprinkle

  • Reply
    Billy Sanford
    November 5, 2021 at 5:15 pm

    Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment Brad. Yes, it does sound as though “Photographic Artist” would be the appropriate term to describe your wife’s work. And I am very envious! I would like to believe that I would continue to find a way to create whatever resources were available. It really does feed some part of me.

  • Reply
    David O. Garcia
    November 6, 2021 at 3:46 pm

    Hi Billy,

    I liked this post very much. I’ve struggled with that as well and I have settled on photographer. It’s what I do and that’s what I have on my card. I photograph just about everything that catches my eye and I’m comfortable with film cameras although I do have digital cameras as well. Keep shooting.

    David

  • Reply
    Billy Sanford
    November 6, 2021 at 9:55 pm

    Thank you David, I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment! Yes, I think it is a thing that maybe we all consider from time to time and hopefully find some sort of enjoyment or fulfillment. Happy to shooting to you!

  • Reply
    Khürt L Williams
    November 7, 2021 at 10:09 pm

    Just photographer. I think photographic artists is a false distinction.

    • Reply
      Billy Sanford
      November 8, 2021 at 2:02 am

      Thank you for your consideration, I appreciate your perspective.

  • Reply
    Michael McDermott
    November 8, 2021 at 5:32 pm

    A photographer first and foremost. I shoot pictures more so to document points in my life and have done since 6 years old in 1960. Am actually scanning tons of past negatives and imagine how long that will take. They document memories which mean a lot to me. Just two days ago I was looking at one of my favorite pictures from 1981 in Grad School of Big Ray. I googled him to see where he was now practicing and learned he passed in 2015 at 67. I’m glad I have that photo to remember him by. Now if while taking photos to document a place where I am at and I see something that could be artistic while there I will shoot that too.

  • Reply
    Billy Sanford
    November 8, 2021 at 5:58 pm

    Thanks! Yes, that seems completely reasonable to me. And good luck on the scanning project, I have quite the backlog myself that I need to get started on.

  • Reply
    Holly Gilman
    November 9, 2021 at 9:43 pm

    Finally had a chance to sit down and read your article. I love this exploration! And thank you so much for the little promotion of the group and my YouTube channel 🙂

    • Reply
      Billy Sanford
      November 9, 2021 at 10:56 pm

      Thank you for taking the time out to read and comment Holly. It is my pleasure to point people in the direction of the group and your channel!

  • Reply
    Sroyon
    November 10, 2021 at 12:01 pm

    A thought-provoking article! I recently read this book called “Four Arts of Photography” by Dominic McIver Lopes which goes quite deep into the question of photography as art. It’s philosophical and a bit heavy at times, but has plenty of interesting ideas. Not sure if you’ve read it… it’s a bit expensive, so I wouldn’t necessarily recommend buying it, but maybe you can find it in a library.

    • Reply
      Billy Sanford
      November 10, 2021 at 2:39 pm

      Thank you for taking the time to read the article Sroyon, and for the recommendation!

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