09 December 2006

Photographing art

Here's a photo I took recently of a wood carving I did last year of a dolphin. I used it to learn how to remove the background of an image in Photoshop -- a very useful technique which I applied to the safety pins in my "Safety in Numbers" photo. It was much trickier in that image, because of all the tiny places with background showing through between the metal bits.

One has to be careful in claiming artistic ownership of a photograph of another work of art (unless it shows that work in a new and creative way). I love photographing stained glass windows, for example, but mostly only as a document of what I've seen, since the real artist was the stained glass worker. In this case, though, since I was the artist who created the wood carving, I'm not plagiarizing. But it remains only a documentary photo, not a work of art in its own right.

Still, photographs of art, when authorized, can be a great way of making that art accessible to others. Thank goodness for good quality photographic reproductions of museum art all over the world, which otherwise would be available only to those who could afford to travel to Paris, London, Berlin, etc. My friend Bruce Jeffrey, a professional photographer in Vancouver, has done some stunning photos of the frescoes and sculptures of Benedictine monk Father Dunstan Massey, most of which are hidden away in the monks' private quarters in Westminster Abbey, in Mission, BC. The general public never gets to see this stuff, but it is amazing work. And Bruce's high quality reproductions allowed it to come out of the cloister and into the art gallery.


Anonymous said...

Fun to see your woodcarving! You seem to have quite a gift for the visual arts. Wonder who you got that from???

-Viola Girl

Sørina Higgins said...

I wonder what makes this "only" a documentary photo and not "art"? I agree, but really just based on a feeling, not any intelligent thoughts. Have you any to share? I'm sure you do!

Rosie Perera said...

I think if a photograph merely replicates the entire work of art in the aspect that would normally face the viewer (e.g., straight on, no special colored lighting techniques or anything else unusual), then it is "only" a documentary photo, not really art. It might take great skill to do that well (choosing the right lens to avoid distortions in perspective, lighting the object properly so as to avoid distracting shadows, etc.), but skill does not necessarily make something art. It doesn't say anything new that the original work of art didn't say. On the other hand, if you take a close-up photo of one part of a sculpture that emphasizes a particular design element and presents it in a way that a viewer standing in front of it wouldn't necessarily have seen, then that could be artistic. I don't think there is a black and white way to determine whether such a photo is art or not. There's a continuum, and it's very subjective. But generally, good photographers tend to find enough material in the "real world" to photograph and make their own art without having to be derivative from some other human creative work. And I'm sure the original artists prefer to remain the keepers of their own inspiration.

On the other hand, if you tell a story in a photograph, by including other elements besides the original work of art, as I do with my "Jesus of the Hoops" photo and my photo of the little boy gazing at the statue of Jesus, then that is art.

One fascinating artist whose work absolutely must be photographed for documentation is Andy Goldsworthy. If you've seen the movie Rivers and Tides, you know his art -- mostly ephemeral works of outdoor sculpture made from found elements of nature -- twigs, icicles, leaves, rain shadows, rocks, etc. His temporary art installations are designed with the understanding that their natural disintegration is part of the beauty of them. So he takes care to document them all well on camera. They really are truly beautiful. Rent the movie if you get a chance. You can also see some static examples of his work on Google Images.


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