Photography is an interesting thing. It’s a massive industry in the world of advertising and media, yet it’s also a creative outlet for enthusiasts and everyday people alike. We live in a world of classifications and hashtags, where everything is labelled and sorted by its various attributes. Art and Science aren’t mutually exclusive labels. A painting is classified as Art, yet it has scientific parameters associated with it as far as technique, materials and the mixing of colours to make new colours. There is a science to it, but the science doesn’t need to be understood to create the art. Science itself relies on creative thinking to solve problems and for many, the solutions are so simplistically beautiful that it seems artistically created. A cars engine requires extreme precision in order to work at peak efficiency, yet many people would say the craftsmanship and aesthetic design of the engine is an exquisite art form.
So a painting is Art and an engine is Science, with some arguable overlap. So where does this leave Photography? Is it an Art, or is it a Science? There are many genres of photography but they all involve the capturing of light to generate an image of a moment in time. Just like the previous examples of a painting and engine, certain elements of what is discussed can fall into each category. But after weighing up everything, is it Art or Science that claims the greater world of photography?
Photography is an Art
Photographs hang on the walls of people’s homes, businesses and galleries around the world. Whether realistic or abstract in appearance, every image can be seen differently by different people, creating emotional responses in the viewer. We look at a photograph like we look at a painting, studying it closely to examine it in detail. We wonder at the mind of the photographer, the emotional state they were going through when creating the image. It can make us question our own emotional state or views on the scene portrayed. Put simply, it affects our mind. Just like you can’t look at a word without reading it, you can’t look at a photo without feeling something, even if it is a dislike or apathy.
The creation of the image itself requires emotion and imagination. This is true even for the average traveller grabbing holiday snaps. The memories and emotions felt while on a holiday can be new, fantastic and complicated to describe or remember on your return. By carrying a camera and taking photos you are storing those emotions in a little piece of art that holds immeasurable value to you, your family and your friends. It could be a sunset on a tropical beach, the architectural detail in the facade of an old church, the heart warming smile of your travel companion as they stand in front of the Eifel Tower, which was a lifelong dream of theirs to see. These are moments in time that pass as quickly as the press of a shutter but are forever preserved as a print in a photo album or framed on a wall. You are creating art more meaningful to you than any painting hanging in any gallery over the centuries.
Photography is just an extension of painting. Paintings capture the beauty or tragedy of life but can take hours, days or even months to finish. A photograph is just a much more efficient way of doing the same thing. The artist has an idea or emotion they want to instil in the image and go about creating that vision with the tools of the trade. If the literal scene doesn’t have the scope to portray what they want, post processing allows them to use the base construct to mould and sculpture the photo as their heart desires. Just like a painter can make a person more beautiful or a mountain range bigger and more imposing, a photographer can shape the image to fit their version of reality.
Sometimes photos just have something. You see the photo and you can’t look away or explain why your attention is locked on it. Then you blink and realise your mind was completely blank and you don’t know how long you’ve been staring at it for. There is something about that photo, the colours, the tones or the look in the subject’s eye. Maybe it’s all these things put together, maybe it’s something else you just can’t put your finger on. It can be hard to put a value on a photo like this, yet the art community and collectors still do. Single images of seemingly ordinary subject matter at first can sell for millions of dollars in the art world. No amount of Science can explain attributing a value like that on a photograph. It doesn’t depict a historical moment, it may not have any commercial value in the real world, but it is Art, and Art doesn’t have to be explainable.
Photography is a Science
Light is made up of tiny packets of energy called Photons. These Photons have certain wavelengths based on their energy levels which the human eye perceives as different colours. Higher energy Photons have shorter wavelengths and appear blue, lower energy Photons have longer wavelengths and appear red. Take all the light away and you have black, put all the light together and you have white. The eyes themselves use lenses and apertures to focus an image of the scene before them onto the retina. Using specific cells for colour and intensity the light is converted to an electrical signal to the brain to process and create the image we see before us. The human body is an amazing thing and well worth studying, but let’s leave it for now with the eyes.
A camera is the human’s way of creating a single eye. All the elements in the camera have pretty much the same role as in the eye. A lens is a lens, an aperture is the pupil/iris and the sensor is the retina. Little cells or “photosites” on the sensor only measure the intensity of light, so each one has a coloured filter (Red, Green or Blue) associated with it to only measure the intensity of those specific colours. These three colours cover the spectrum of white light and can be combined to make the colours and shades in-between.
How scientific is that? Cameras are amazing pieces of technology based on studying the human eye and the physical properties of light. But the Science doesn’t end at the technology. Creativity and beauty can be engineered in post production using editing software and the knowledge gained from studying what people like. Specific compositional rules and guides that the human brain perceives as appealing are used when taking the image or can even be altered after the fact. Distracting elements can be removed, human bodies and faces manipulated, new features or backgrounds introduced, all to manipulate the fundamental nature of your brains perception.
Where there is manipulation of human emotion and perception, there is advertising. Huge amounts of money are spent on finding out what makes us tick and which buttons to press in order to make us buy things. Photos aren’t born, they are grown. The artistic value of any photographer is nothing compared to the money making potential of a well engineered photo. Show an ethnically diverse group of friends smiling having the time of their lives all with a bottle of an ice crusted beverage with the label clearly visible and you’ve got yourself the perfect photo! Who needs a beautiful picture of flowers when you can have a 4×4 in mid air after driving over sand dunes and the driver wearing a business suit? None of that art crap! Show me the money!
We could sit here all day and argue about whether Photography is an Art or Science and if that proves anything, I’d say it is this: Photography is the perfect marriage of Art and Science. Photography attracts people from all walks of life for all different reasons. There will be people reading this that love the tech side of things. The latest gadgets and gear, the in-depth specifications of cameras and their sensors and what the processors in them can do. Others don’t care about any of that and love what can be produced during that perfect moment of the day when the light is just right, or the abstract beauty in a blurry image.
There is no right or wrong way to enjoy photography. Great photos can come from an artistic or scientific approach. However, really great photos come from the combination of both. Having an understanding of the science behind the camera and image can give you the knowledge to produce your artistic vision in a technically accurate way. Without imagination and creativity the knowledge of science can only take you so far in producing truly innovative and breath-taking images. When it comes right down to it, photography is a personal pursuit. Whatever reason you enjoy your own or others images, whether it’s the technical skill involved or the emotion embedded within the photo, I think we can all agree that Photography is an Art and Photography is a Science.