photography as art

the layered photograph

By | photography

When talking about my photographic work to a group of photographers I mentioned that in my view a “good” photograph should be more than ” just an image”, more than just a rendering of  “what was there”. After all, why call any photograph art, if a machine could do the job… I came up with the term a “layered” photograph, that I had come across. But of course, this led to the question, what were these layers, could I identify some of them. At that moment I discussed some of these aspects that constitute a good photograph starting from the pictures that I had. The challenge, however, was to make a total scheme, encompassing all the “layers” that I discern in a picture. The scheme, which will follows here has been used by me to explain the idea of the layering of photographs. Hopefully, it may serve to deepen your insight when applied to your own photography (or in judging the work of others)

1. cognitive aspects

2. psychological impact

3. symbols and associations

4. combination of pictorial elements

5. graphic aspects, framing, textures etc.

6. light and dark (I am discussing b&w photography)

The order of these layers is from sophisticated to “primitive”, or from intellectual to instinctive if you like. See if this is of any help to you; if not just keep taking those photographs, good luck!

the print – a valuable object

By | photography

When I was young I used to work in a photo archive. It was an archive with thousands of images of Dutch landscapes, windmills, national costumes, folklore, old buildings etc., etc., to which I had proudly contributed. All of these photographs were just “material” for publications by the tourist industry, and the photographers were paid very little. We used to charge only administrative and actual replacement costs to those customers who never returned the lent material after use. Some even had the nerve to send back an envelope with the cut-up prints, snippets and all, or otherwise spoilt photographs with paper pasted on, texts written on the back that showed up like relief on the front, as more signs of utter disrespect for the photographer’s work (and remember, I’m talking about the darkroom, not the computer). Captions reattached to the prints after use by means of a stapler, small creases or scratches were no real problem! “You can’t see that in printing.” When the stock was almost gone for very popular images (yes, you guessed right, the inevitable windmills, tulips – in black&white – and wooden shoes) we just ordered another batch from the photographer, who didn’t mind… When a particularly nice picture came by, it was more than once confiscated and pinned up to the wall. There were some with well-known photographer’s names.

Ed van der Elsken said to me once that he regretted he had disregarded the uniqueness, and indeed value, of his old (vintage) press prints from his Paris, old Amsterdam and Sweet Life periods. He had used them to create a unique intro to his exhibition at the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum: by gluing them to the walls, the floor and the ceiling of the entrance hall. Very hip and contemporary at the time maybe, but what a pity in retrospect !!!

It is a strange thought that in fact, even the photographers themselves had to be taught the value of a lot of their old, and often forgotten prints. The scarcity of good (often vintage) prints, not caused by limited editions, but simple lack of interest in those days, has not escaped the attention of the collectors. They already know that a work of art “signed all over” needn’t necessarily be signed to be collectible.

wiki street

By | street photography

Whoever is confused about the definition of street photography, may be inclined to look it up in the pages of Wikipedia. I personally was shocked to see some less-than-mediocre color photographs, having nothing in common but the fact that they were obviously taken of people outdoors, and a meaninglessness next to non-existance.  These uninspired photos were intended as illustrations for a short, imprecise attempt at defining street photography, followed by extended ramblings about overcoming shyness !! [shy?- don’t even try!] , being invisible, tricks, the “right” equipment [can you imagine paints, brushes, or canvas being mentioned in an article about, let’s say: impressionism], and endless legal considerations, all of which reads more like “photography for dummies” than a serious article about photography (as art). This would put off and discourage anybody ever wanting to take a picture that might include (oh, the horror…) a complete stranger.

Could somebody (with more patience, and more knowledge of Wikipedia than me) please take the time one of these days to update this Wikipedia article about street photography, and balance its various aspects in a way that makes more sense. I think of a serious photographer rather than a legal adviser…  Some Garry Winogrand quotes would fit in fine, I think, as would a few real street photographs for a change!

Winogrand: quotes from 2 tv interviews

By | street photography

“When things move I get interested, I know that much.”……….”I think that there isn’t a photograph in the world that has any narrative ability. Any of them. They do not tell stories, they show you what something looks like. To a camera.”……….”It’s the subject. I think I’m interested in how a lot of things look.”……….

……….Q: You shoot every day?          Winogrand: Yeah,sure.

Garry Winogrand  (tv interview by Bill Moyers, © 1982)


……….”the photograph isn’t what was photographed, it’s something else. It’s about transformation.”……….”there is a transformation [of the banal] , you see, when you just put four edges around it. That changes it. A new world is created.”……….

……….Q: Do you (….) think of yourself as an artist?          Winogrand: I probably am. I don’t think about it (……) But, if I have to think, yeah, I guess so.

Garry Winogrand  (tv interview by Barbaralee Diamonstein © 1981, quoted in the book “Visions and Images”, Rizzoli Int. Publ., Inc.)

(quotes edited and selected by Tom Stappers – for more: click red tags below this post)

text 2

By | street photography

Photography to me is not just another graphic technique, but an independent medium with its very own iconography and specific means of expression. There is evident mutual influencing by other artforms, but personally I prefer photography in its pure form that in no way tries to imitate or tries to be like other graphic arts. It does not seem very clear to some people, by the way, why some photography is supposed to be art, and some is not. I think what makes it art is defined by both the design (which is often instant and spontaneous, therefore intuitive to a high degree) and by the psychological impact of the photographer’s personal selection from reality. In these aspects photography can be totally autonomous.

(from introduction, graphic arts exhibition containing my photography, The Hague 1997 © Tom Stappers)