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In Search of Art in Nature Photography

29 Jan 2011

Copyright © 1993- Ganesh H. Shankar

During last 15 years of nature photography my focus mostly has been making artistic images of nature. Art has no definition and I believed of some my creations were artistic when I made them. Interestingly the concept of what is art in nature photography in my mind has also changed and has been changing. When I started nature photography as a passionate hobby 15 years back I had bought a few books on nature photography which were supposed to teach me "art of nature photography", "art of bird photography" etc. Back then I believed those books indeed taught me the art of nature/bird photography. Those books did address some areas around art of photography (process of making images) but definitely not on creating work of art. I think they taught me how to make beautiful copies of subjects in nature. While I express my inability to exactly define what art in nature photography is (not sure if some one can), in my mind every work of art is a original creation and is not repeatable, every work of art is visually unbounded, every work of art has an inherent ability grow in the minds of viewers.

I think it is interesting to look back at some of the images which I thought where work of art during past several years and how the concept of art changed in my mind.

Beautiful Copies

My initial (so called) work of art are mostly based on what I learnt from books on art of nature/bird photography - what I now call beautiful copies of nature. Here are a couple of those images.

They are the result of being in right time at right place, use of good technical skills - exposure/right techniques/equipments/post processing/waiting/patience - yes you got them all. It clearly does not qualify to be work art since there is nothing very original in them.

Creative Perspectives

After quickly realizing importance of need for creativity in images of nature I started exploring different avenues to portray the nature in a unique way. I started exploring various tools, differnt use of light, various compositional techniques to create fresh perspectives of nature.

While I did succeed in making creative perspectives of nature I felt most of them did not appeal to me as work of art. Every creative image is not a work of art but the converse is true - every work of art is creative rendition of nature. Here are couple of examples of what I think is creative but not work of art. I think predominant static meaning and missing "aura of art" prevents it from accepting such images as work of art.

During my journey of nature photography I also spent a lots of time exploring array of different tools for remote and unmanned nature photography. Such tools helped create some unique creative visions like these below.

These I think are too realistic and closed for my taste buds to accept them as work of art.

Abstract Perspectives

In search of work of art I have also explored abstract concepts - colors, patterns, shapes etc. Here are couple of examples -

Are they work of art ? While they are not bound by a "meaning", I am scared they lean towards "meaningless" ! While attempts in this direction may lead to "work of art" creating "meaning" from such abstractness using a tool which "copies" (camera) is a tough path in my view.

Imitating Brush

In search of art I did try to produce "painting like" images (still do it when I can't think of anything). Are they work of art ? couple of them are below..

I think such "work of art" are better done using brush than using a copier (camera). Just because we lived with the limitation of "copy" it does not deserves to be an "art". Those who can use brush have more freedom to create such "paintings" than photographers do. My belief is trying to imitate brush using camera is not playing to the strength of the camera. At best it may result in "painting like" images and not as good as a painting, and often a poor imitation which makes only photographer believe it is "art".

Nature in Monotones

I also spent lots of time trying to see nature in monochrome. B&W or monotone images have a tendency to look unique because we only see very small number of them everyday compared to color versions of images of nature. Here again just because it is B&W/monotone it does not deserve to be art. I think the challenge of making work of art in B&W is no different.

After some time we tend to take "similar" post processing steps to coat every image with a similar "artistic" appeal - similar steps using tools like Silver Efex Pro or Photoshop to do burning/dodging/toning/vignetting/adding grains etc. My belief is these repeatable steps also leads "repeatable artistic appeal" - not an art in my view. The photo that comes out of camera is a starting point and the end product is a "derivative" of the photograph - an accepted practice however. I love doing this but I am clear most of my work which took this path does not deserve to be called a work of art. Several nature photographers have B&W work flows which are unique to them - custom toning, custom grains, dreamy softness using mystery filters etc. I think the issue with more or less defined workflow is first 10-15 images will look unique and artistic but soon they start appearing similar.

Art vs Artistic

Some images look artistic to my eyes yet I hesitate calling them art. Here are some of those. These retain "purity of the medium", with a focus on different compositions, emphasis on light,space and color.

These are my original compositions, not influenced by others. However, are they work of art ? I don't think so. I think such images are a step towards where I want to go in nature photography but definitely not there yet.

Issue with such images in my mind is they are closed images, they are visually bounded in some sense which in my view is not a characterstic of art. Their ability for different interpretations, for growing in minds of viewer is limited. Our mind seem to "conclude" and probably forget at the end of the visual process.

Nature as Art

What then is a work of art ? Without a definition for what art is it becomes a very subjective discussion - it is mostly discussion around "your art" vs. "my art". That is the most diffcult part. Everyone has their own thoughts on what art is in nature photography. As I expressed above I think work of art has a strong tendency to grow in the minds of a user. It is subtle, it is original, it is creative and is not bound by a meaning but not meaningless (which again is a very subjective discussion). I tend to think views of most people will converge on some of those creations however.

It was relatively easy for me exclude images which I don't consider work of art. Let me attept at showing some images which I think exhibits some of the characteristics of what I think is a work of art in my nature photography.

While the image of the nest is a faithful *unaltered copy* of an object in nature it visually open for my senses -

is it a Baya weaver bird nest ?
is it an abstract way of communicating waiting ?
is it a symbolic way of expressing departure ? arrival ?
is it a way of expressing expectation ?
is it hope ?
is it ....?

For my taste buds these images are visually open yet not meaningless, they have tendency to grow in the minds of a viewer - they are not closed, they are original and retain the purity of the medium and are not twisted to give an artistic appeal - they are independent of post processing work flows. They are pure copies of what nature has to offer, yet they are not just copies what nature has to offer. They some how seem to tracend beyond what they physically represent in the real world - atleast in my mind...

Please feel free to add your thoughts on what is work of art for you in nature photography at the below blog link.

Blog : In Search of Art