Photography talk by Craig Boehman.
It took the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown restrictions to make me re-think how I was going to keep creating new work. The problem naturally was, how could I create new work if I'm unable to get the shots I was accustomed to getting pre-lockdown? I'm no painter or illustrator, after all. I can't just create something from scratch.
This wasn't the only consideration. I've always had an interest in creative post-processing. There is usually room, in my opinion, to re-interpret an image straight-out-of-camera. I would say that this is one of the photographer's main duties. How far to push things is only a matter of context. If I'm creating work for documentary projects, my editing would reflect a light touch to maintain the integrity of the actual scene. While in fine art imagery, I'm free to do whatever the hell I want - no apologies.
Which leads me to a dilemma I've been pondering for a number of years: is there really a place in photography for fine art street photography? Another way to frame this question, is taking public photos of "real life" people and places and then turning them into something else, legitimate?
Reality is overrated Obviously, this is done all the time by photographers, and since the very beginning of photography. Color photography really didn't become popular until the 1960s, which means that most photographers were working in black-and-white and sepia, among other formats. Unless one were color-blind, it could be argued that most photographers, even the ones claiming to have captured "the truth" or "reality" of a scene, were already off to a bad start for proudly upholding such a banner.
In effect, no one was really working in "reality" as far as most people interpret it. This is a topic of epic proportions, and I've covered it in my blog at various times. My point: reality is a subjective subject at best; photography's truth or reality can't be restrained to what directly comes out of the camera. At best, this is a misfire at paying homage to documentary photography or a nod to naturalism. At worst, it's the epitome of laziness and ignorance.
Accepting this idea could only mean one thing. The legitimacy of fine art street photography won't be determined by any creative undermining of reality or truth.
Read more here:
The importance of editing one's work
I've acknowledged long ago that for myself, editing is a must. It's as important as taking the shot, regardless of where the bulk of the time is spent on either. If I do not edit, then I'm not a genuine photographer because I'm disregarding, and I would even go as far as to say disrespecting, the time-honored privilege of being able to make one's work better, more intentional.
Similar thoughts occurred to me in the old days when I had access to a dark room and developed my own film and printed my own black-and-white pictures. Darkroom work was a must and it was required if one didn't want to leave the overall outcome to chance. It wasn't even a debate back then because I was spending money on film and paper. Fortunately, the darkroom and all its chemicals, its enlarger, and accessories, were sponsored by the school. The hard truth was that without a lot of hands-on post-processing, all that money would go to waste if I didn't use what few darkroom skills I had to try to make the image better. I wrote a parody about using filters in place of traditional editing. You can read that here if you feel like digressing momentarily:
Failure as an artist
Back to the question of legitimacy in fine art street photography and why I'm posing the question at all. I suppose this is a personal investigation into the inadequacies of an artist, or of a painter-wannabe. Allow me to give you a tour of my insecurities as I feel it's important to explain why I've been questioning myself since taking up photography as a career.
From an early age, I was quite aware I possessed no natural talent for drawing. Sometime in the First Grade, I had the pleasure (and displeasure) of sitting next to a classmate who was already advanced for his age. He would draw Godzilla fighting the Smog Monster...the buildings smashed in their battles were in three dimensions. The scenes were always inspired, intentional. They were always quite simply, awesome.
When I looked at what this kid could do, I was put to utter shame. Not only was I trying to emulate what he had done after seeing his inspiring works of art, but I also couldn't even come close to replicating them after multiple attempts. The joy of drawing was forever banished as a hobby. Regrettably, I had no one to guide me or to encourage me to continue with drawing. Sadly, at that age, I had no clue that these skills could be learned and held onto this notion well into adulthood.
In later years, I came to appreciate the arts, especially music and painting. I explored music. I played in bands. I wrote and recording my own songs. In painting, I remained a silent but highly-appreciative observer.
Enter street photography
It wasn't until 2014-15 that I took up photography once again in a big way, and started shooting street photography before I even knew that was a "thing" that people did. I took a workshop in early 2015 and learned that street photography did in fact exist. I continued to work at it clumsily and hadn't even gotten my stride, so to speak, when I was offered the cover of a magazine for one of my shots.
This certainly changed things for me.
I had been recognized, at least by the creative director for said magazine, that my photography was worthy of purchasing. This lead me to pursue photography professionally from that moment onward.
Coming around to the question of legitimacy once again, I began to learn how to edit my images more artistically. But I felt like I was cheating a bit. I didn't draw or paint any of these scenes, I merely pressed the shutter button. And despite putting in years of self-Photoshop training, I still believed, maybe only a touch, that I was still cheating some process of artistic input that would somehow damn anything I'd create in photography as something less artistic than the work of a painter's.
I've heard other photographers talk about this too. One such photographer I'll give props to for talking about it is Brooke Shaden. Like me, she talked about how she always wanted to paint but had no talent for it. But she was a damned good artist nevertheless. Even as she puts herself down for not being a technical photographer, what she does with her images out-of-camera is nothing short of magic - after post-processing in Photoshop.
Among the first videos, I saw featuring Brooke was on creating art on a budget. For someone like me who was seeking confirmation that fine art could be created from photography, this was an eye-opener. She demonstrates that it can be done very easily in the below video, in fact. For me, this was all I needed to explore the possibilities of using my own street photography in more creative ways.
The Two-Fold Approach to fine art street photography
As a photographer interested in creating works of art out of street photography, I see two basic ways to go about it.
The First Way is to transform the photo so that it no longer resembles a photographic image, replacing it with aesthetic touches closer to or resembling that of a painting or illustration. This is the method I used for the header image of the woman sitting along the train tracks. Here are a few other examples: "The Apprentice"
The Second Way is to composite street shots together to form another piece entirely. One of my favorite pieces to-date is called The Day Clones Fell From Sky. I took multiple images from various places and composited them together into a concept piece. Here are a couple of others:
Maybe you've noticed I put on the brakes discussing these two methods I'm employing to create fine art out of my street photography? That's because I feel that I haven't been knee-deep in either creation process for any long duration of time. I still feel like an Outsider, an Observer of the Process. I'm not ready to discuss much more because it's been only since lockdown that I've begun to accept both methods as legitimate sources of new work.
But I can tell you this: I've finally put to rest the idea that fine art street photography - or any genre of photography - is somehow not legitimate starting points to create fine art. I suspect you'll be hearing more about this in the near future as I continue to create.
My fine art street photography work is being showcased and offered for sale on my new Instagram profile: https://www.instagram.com/craigboehman/