Thursday, December 1, 2011

When Does a Snapshot Become Art?

Go ahead and laugh at the question if you must.

Photography, and what defines a photo of artistic-grade aesthetic value, is both fickle and maddeningly nebulous. It is the nature of a non-quantitative thing to be impossibly abstract and reluctant to be weighted down by something so mundane as "definition". Thus the selection process I employ when sifting through my photographs for the "keepers" buried amongst the snaps is... difficult.

My habits when sitting down at the computer at the end of a day of shooting are predictable and brutally consistent. Rip the photos onto the hard drive, pop open Adobe Bridge and peek through them one by one. What is horribly inconsistent, however, is what exactly I'm looking for. The night of a shoot I will have in my mind exactly what I'm excited to review and edit in post, the compositions I stopped to think out carefully on a venture with the direct intent to produce art. Eager to share them, I will punch through editing in a couple hours of miserable repetition and upload them to Flickr, distribute them into groups and sit back with the giddy "Look at me and what I did" anticipation of a toddler.

But then there's a phase that creeps up after.

Not every photograph I take is meticulously considered. A great many of my captures hearken directly to my namesake. Knee-jerk images. Moments come and go without stopping, there is rarely a second chance and if the moment is not quickly taken advantage of it will pass on and be forgotten just as quickly as it cropped up in the first place. Snapshots. Candid moments that can embody a vivid memory that would otherwise be completely discarded by what our brains will allow us to recollect.

Now, they aren't always pretty. Such fleeting moments require sloppy spur of the moment reaction, and the attempt to capture that moment isn't necessarily success. But if you're quick enough, if the planets align in that moment and the light is right and the camera is set and the camera is trained on the scene, sometimes that moment is captured beautifully. BUT, assuming the occurrence of a miracle allowed that passing moment to be captured, that memory photographically recorded... is it art?

In my foolish efforts to apply a quantitative definition to what defined a photograph as artwork, I have assembled a set of rules by which an image must abide before I consider it as artwork. The exposure must be balanced, not too dark, not too light. Focus must be spot on and the image must be marked by tack sharpness. Verticals and horizontals must be meticulously aligned and considered. Faces must have some specific expressions or elements of appeal. A million considerations which result in a mass casting out of images from my consideration. I've found a trick, though... a segue into loosened rules, lowered defenses and less process oriented, whimsical thinking.

I sit down with a couple glasses of vodka/rum/whiskey/what have you. Magic happens.

My vision and coordination are woefully stunted and suddenly things that my active conscious rejected outright before are met with consideration as my subconscious takes over. Those rigid, defined images that involved prudent planning and compositional assembly fall by the wayside, they are silly things only an engineer could love. Instead, I look at the snaps. I look at faces and skies and isolated subjects and melting focus and I find things with an undefinable appeal. Pop them into Photoshop and drunkenly give them a muscle memory touch up, post them to be shared, and only the next morning do I realize what I've done.

Not even my active conscious can deny them consideration anymore. I see relationships and shapes and lines and colors and tones and expressions and suddenly they are the most beautiful images I've ever seen, often embodying memories I'd cast aside for sake of the pursuit of "higher art". And in those moments I wonder what it is that defines the art-value to begin with. There are two sides to me, both with grossly different appeals but due appreciation for each other. The sobered, rigid, detail oriented clear mind and this spontaneous, flimsy yet emotionally intuitive mind. Which one is the artist here? And under what instinct does a snapshot meet the standards of "art" to this subconscious drive?

The answer is elusive. Maybe I need a drink to find it.