Simple Gifts

rose 1, photograph

“The point of art has never been to make something synonymous with life, however, but to make something of reduced complexity that is nonetheless analogous to life and that can thereby clarify it.”

– Robert Adams

I’ve been working my way through a couple of books of essays by Robert Adams – this quote comes from “Photographing Evil” in Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values. He is discussing whether photographers have as much right to “arrange life into a composition” as do painters.

This has been a controversial issue in photography since it’s beginning. There persists a prejudice out there that “arranging life” (a better phrase than the pejorative and dreaded “manipulation”) should not be allowed in much of photography. These days we have many more tools with which we can “arrange life” in our work, especially after the shot has been taken.

Adams’ point above is that any art form is not primarily about exactly representing life. Art, including photography, is always an abstraction of life. Here’s the definition of abstraction from Wikipedia:

Abstraction is the process or result of generalization by reducing the information content of a concept or an observable phenomenon, typically to retain only information which is relevant for a particular purpose.

By reducing information, we keep what is important for our purpose. What to include or exclude is a critical concern of artmaking, perhaps the most important.

John Barclay has an interesting post on his blog about the power of simplicity in photography that makes some interesting points about this. I suspect that the more we can “arrange life” in our work to make it simpler, yet with sufficient analogy to real life, the clearer our intention will be.

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8 responses to “Simple Gifts

  1. Outside of this controversy, I just want to say this is some jaw dropping post processing. I feel like I’m seeing a rose in a way I have not before. There’s a “swirl” drawing my eye into the center. Very lovely.

    • Bob,

      Thanks! There’s a story behind this one – I took this shot years ago on my Pentax 67 film camera and underexposed it about 2 stops! I wanted to see if I could do something with it as an experiment so I drum scanned it, opened it up a lot, added a lot of contrast and toned it. Gave it sort of an etched look. It’s been one of my best sellers, both in print and stock.

      Just goes to show you that even bad mistakes might turn into something of value – glad I didn’t toss the chrome when I first saw it!

  2. I encourage artists in my workshops to simplify- by eliminating some of the elements and emphasizing other elements– whether that means getting down to a more abstracted form or not– in other words– if they are into line– then line should dominate– if they don’t like much color— than value would dominate– instead of copying what they see– do you think this is harder to do with photography?

    • Donna

      Having done a fair amount of painting in my time, along with a lot of photography, I can categorically say that on this issue, photography is much more difficult – it’s perhaps the biggest challenge we face.

      Except for photographers who completely construct what they shoot (which, of course, is what all painters do) the photographer always has to contend with what is there in front of them. Often, if not most of the time, there is something there you wish wasn’t or you wish was different in some way. Yet in spite of that you have to make something beautiful and meaningful.

      I always felt I had so much more control as a painter, a luxury (and perhaps a responsibility) I miss.

  3. you think thats his art statement? seems like hes chasing his tail without explaining why or giving examples. maybe he oversimplified his abstraction into the realm of meaningless.

    • Kalani

      I wouldn’t describe this as Adams’ “art statement”. You’d have to read the whole essay, in which he does give examples and explanations, to understand his meaning. He definitely takes a somewhat academic approach in his writing, though he is also a well respected photographer in his own right.

      I usually use quotes I come across as a departure point for a discussion I find interesting. I’m not really trying to represent the authors point of view since it is so out of context.

      I liked his emphasis on art simplifying the complexity of life but retaining enough similarity that we can still relate to it in some way.

      This view does raise questions about the value of totally non-representational art. I know from other reading that Adams is not a big fan of such work, but that’s a topic for another discussion!

  4. the problem i have is talking about vague concepts of life, reality, the world etc. as if we know more about them then what we conjure up in our imagination.

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