Q: Is photography art?
Art is not an object, it is a process — an activity motivated by people’s fundamental need to collaborate and cooperate. This is the most defining quality of humans. Even art done in isolation says, “This is what I see — this is who I am — what is your reaction? How will you respond to me?” Picasso claimed, “Art is a lie that brings us closer to the truth.” Art philosopher Dennis Dutton saw art serving Darwinian ends of survival and reproduction.
In this view, obviously photography is art, and the photographer is an artist — as in music, dance, theater, literature, etc. Teaching and sports have elements of art. It is everywhere. Even forms of photography, which might seem dry and expressionless — documentation or journalism — are artistic because choices are made between alternative ways of expression.
Q: What motivates your photography?
I am a collector of shapes and lines and colors. I like to explore the diversity of light in the world. People look at my work and want to put me in a “landscape” or “nature” box — well, okay, but I would say the outdoors is simply my studio or palette. I also do some cityscapes and antiquity sort of things, and what attracts me again is the shapes and colors. It was probably the first time I looked through a viewfinder — I discovered I could break up a complex and bewildering world into approachable chunks of beauty and simplicity.
Another theme that I became aware of only recently is the rejection of people. I realized that I go to great lengths to get people out of my photographs, as if they were contaminants. Even when I photograph people, which is rarely, they are invariably monks or hermits or misfits — people who have rejected, or been rejected by, civil society. When I do photograph people, it is always with their permission, and never when they are in vulnerable or helpless circumstances. I’ve seen people doing “ambush” photography of homeless persons and it is so, so, wrong.
Q: Did any artists or experiences influence how you approach your work?
There are many photographers I admire for their exceptional eye and meticulous image quality, even more so if they can be commercially successful without letting the money corrupt their inspiration. If I had to name one, it would be Ansel Adams, who affected me in my teens, before I ever picked up a camera. At age 12, I could get lost for hours in the fine natural detail of his big prints. Plant yourself in front of a print of “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” for about half an hour. Genius.
The nexus of my motivation remains the big print. Even when I see a winning shot in the camera or on the editing screen, I find myself holding back full commitment to it until I see it coming off the printer, big, and I imagine people getting lost in the detail like I do with Adams. There is something about a big print on a wall, standing in front of it for minutes, that gives the photograph dignity and life. When I consider how many good photographs will live their entire lives as bits and bytes and pixels on a screen, viewed from a foot away and dismissed with a click, it just kills me.
Q: Any tips for aspiring photographers?
Read the camera manual, and try all the buttons. Know how to use your tools. Get the highest technical quality of images you can afford, and always do non-destructive editing. Shoot huge amounts of photos, electrons are free.
And to get good photographs, go where the good photos are, which usually requires effort and expense. Wandering around randomly with camera in hand produces a low return of good photographs.
Don’t let anybody see your bad work. Perhaps that’s the most important. A lot of people have an eye for a good photo, but what makes the difference is having an eye for a mediocre shot. Be ruthless with yourself, and bury them. If you go out and shoot 500 frames at a session and tell me you got 50 good ones, I guarantee you’re wrong. But if you got 3 or 4, now you’ve got the critical eye you need.