One thing I hear often is that a picture of a nude is automatically art. But is every picture of a nude, art? Well, the answer is no. It doesn’t mean that a nude photograph can’t be art. It means that a nude photograph isn’t automatically art. Now I’m talking “art” in the formal sense of “fine art,” as opposed to “commercial art” or “decorative art.”
I often use this example: Is a photo of a nude woman in Playboy, art? No. True, it’s a beautiful picture of a sexy naked woman, but that does not make it art. No it only makes it a nice photo. The picture is merely an exact representation of a common scene, with nothing beyond that. This doesn’t mean that a simple photograph can’t be art. But for a photograph to elevate itself to the status of being art, it must be more than the picture.
But to be honest, creating art is very different than just taking a picture. In fact, taking a picture is one step in the process of creating art, but not the only step. Now the term art (as a noun) is thrown around loosely in conversations, “look at the art we got for over the sink in the kitchen.” That’s “decorative art” if you will. But if we adhere to the term of art (as in fine art) as the result of an insightful creative process, then we have to look at what went into the “art” to see if what came out is worthy of being more than a snapshot or decoration.
Many people think that if it’s taken with a camera, it must be a creative process, so it must be art. But, just because someone gets oil paints and a canvas and makes a painting, doesn’t make it art. The difference is in the result, not the tools. Art is a result.
So now, we try to define art, which is very difficult to define. So rather than define art, I propose to define the qualities that move a mere photograph into the realm of art. This may not give us a bullet-proof definition of art, but it will allow us to recognize it when we see it, and while we are trying to create it.
When I work with students, I explain that creating art is about making a visual statement, not just about taking a photograph. Art goes beyond the photo. It evokes emotion and feelings and thought beyond the elements depicted in the image.
So what are the qualities that move a mere photograph into the arena of fine art? While there is no formal checklist, here are the elements that I follow to make the distinction.
Firstly. Is the model just in the photo, or is he/she integrated into the scene or story? In other words, are the model and environment one element? Very often we see images of a nude posing next to a wall, rock or doorway. But the nude doesn’t integrate into the setting in any unique way. She is just posing next to an item, maybe her hand on it. The nude and environment must be essential to each other…they have to add something to each other so the overall image is unique and intriguing to the viewer. Another way to look at it is to ask yourself: If you isolated the environment and the model from each other, would the image be just as strong? If the answer is yes, then the combined image fails as art. The result of the two parts of the shot must be greater than the parts individually.
Secondly. Does the image make the viewer feel, think or see something that’s more than just what’s in the image itself? Put another way, it must tell a story or evoke an emotion. I always think of this as the creative intent of the piece. What did the artist want to say with the piece? That’s the artist’s creative intent. If the overall piece is nothing more than a photo of a naked person in a setting, it’s usually not art.
Thirdly. Is it just a portrait of a naked person, or more than that? Again, this looks to the quality of simply a photograph of a beautiful body, which is essentially a portrait. Or does the image evoke more than that? Take, for example, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. It’s a portrait essentially. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a study in environment, expression and emotion that elevates far beyond a basic portrait. A nude portrait can certainly be art, but it must posses some intrinsic message beyond the image of the naked body –no matter how beautiful– alone.
Fourthly. Composition: Placement of objects is so crucial to an image’s strength and is one of the most challenging and overlooked aspects of creating art. A very static image usually lacks movement and energy. And, in that case, it’s often the composition of the photo that’s lacking. Cropping, placement of objects, angle, space (and negative space), perspective and juxtaposition are all elements of composition. Images that are too perfectly even usually lack intrigue in the composition of the piece. Those images don’t become art, but are stuck in the world of a snapshot. They are literal, uninvolving pictures. Art must move beyond simple depiction and use composition to move from ordinary to extraordinary.
Fifthly. Light and shadow: There’s as much power in what you don’t see, as what you do see. That’s where light and shadow come into play. Those are the areas where the viewer’s mind can dig in and play. Where his/her imagination can fill in the blanks. So using shadow and light are powerful elements in the storytelling roll of an art piece.
Lastly. Don’t overuse Photoshop (or any other software) to the point where the technique overpowers the image. We see this employed way too often today, and it’s clear that it’s become synonymous with “art.” The name “Photoshop” has moved from being a noun to a verb. We Photoshop something. But it’s not art, anymore than a paintbrush is. Art is about the content of the image, not an overpowering technique. When I work with students, I tell them to look at it like this: Is the image strong without the technique? If not, then an applied technique alone won’t turn it into art.
These are all the issues I consider when I work on an art piece, and when I work with others. The most important thing about creating is to start creating long before you push the shutter release. You have to know what you want to create before you can create it.