What is philosophy? What is art? Are they mutually exclusive or independent of each other? Is there a philosophy of photography? I don’t think any photographer would say their style and creative process is similar to someone else’s, but well-respected photographers have a purpose and philosophy behind their work.
Many philosophers like Kant and Plato have dug their metaphorical teeth into explaining the nature of art. Kant’s definition is much more contemporary than Plato’s, and defines art in a succinct way.
Kant defines art as: “a kind of representation that is purposive in itself and, though without an end, nevertheless promotes the cultivation of the mental powers for sociable communication.” To him art is a meaningful social tool of communicating the interrelationships between science, morality, and religion in an aesthetic way.
Probably the most literal translation within art is photography, because it captures a moment, subject, or person, and provides documentation of these events, objects, and places. Photography is a hunt for nouns; a hunt to find the person, place, or thing that will be translated into a work of art. This photograph is often relatable and demonstrative of the human condition, moral issues, and ultimately an expression of the photographer.
Alfred Stieglitz and Equivalence
Stieglitz was one of the first philosophical photographers that prescribed to the idea of Kandinsky’s ‘Equivalence,’ which is the belief that colors, shapes, and geometric lines reflect ones’ inner emotions. Stieglitz’s idea of equivalence was in terms of his abstract photographs that corresponded, or symbolically represented, what he felt was his inner states of being, thoughts, experiences, emotions, and ideas.
Stieglitz said, “I wanted to photograph clouds to find out what I had learned in 40 years about photography. Through clouds to put down my philosophy of life — to show that my photographs were not due to subject matter — nor special privileges, clouds were there for everyone — no tax on them yet — free.”
His photographs were a mirror to his spiritual and emotional being.
Kertesz was a major influence on Henri Cartier-Bresson, and his philosophy was about being lost in the moment — being caught up in the right here and now. He believed in abandoning the technical aspects and techniques of photography when photographing so he could focus on ‘feeling’ the experience.
“The moment always dictates in my work. What I feel, I do. This is the most important thing for me. Everybody can look, but they don’t necessarily see. I never calculate or consider; I see a situation and I know that it’s right, even if I have to go back to get the proper lighting.” – Andre Kertesz
His photography feels like he is lost in the moment; almost like he was very connected to his subjects and the surrounding place. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work feels similar, and represents his ‘decisive moment’ in a similar practice.
“I hate the idea of composition. I don’t know what good composition is. I mean I guess I must know something about it from doing it a lot and feeling my way into and into what I like. Sometimes for me composition has to do with a certain brightness or a certain coming to restness and other times it has to do with funny mistakes. Theres a kind of rightness and wrongness and sometimes I like rightness and sometimes I like wrongness. Composition is like that.” — Diane Arbus
She only photographed portraits of people, and you could tell that she had made a connection with each one of them. Like Kertesz, she cared very little about the details of photography when shooting, and loved to bring out the unique and curious identities of her subjects.
Ansel AdamsAnsel Adams came to prominence during the time when the American West was the newest fascination for Americans. Adams was a naturalist in the sense that he was the equivalent of Henry David Thoureau or Ralph Waldo Emerson in the form of a photographer.
His love and preoccupation was photographing the American West, and capturing the natural beauty of the National Parks, and to help save public land from being developed. Ansel photographed what he loved, and his philosophy was that his photographs were his advocacy for keeping the West beautiful, and preserving the American landscape for future generations. He succeeded at this a hundred times over.
“A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense, and is, thereby, a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety.” – Ansel Adams
Dorothea LangeDorothea Lange brought the spotlight to the downtrodden in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Her philosophy was to make a connection with her subjects, and provide them with respect to give them comfort. She was interested in her subjects, and had a great sense of humanity which made her photographs powerful.
People have described her work as democratizing the view of people that were unseen, or down trodden, especially during the Great Depression, by giving a voice to people who seemed to have been forgotten. Her image of ‘Migrant Mother’ showed the worry and anxieties of people with nowhere to go, and with now way of feeding their children or themselves.
“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.” — Dorothea Lange
Sam Abell considers himself a writer who photographs. His works are poetic essays that establish a story/narrative. Abell sees the medium of photography as freedom that allows one to sit, reflect, compose, and wait for the perfect moment to present itself in front of the lens. He describes photographing as a spiritual experience.
“But there is more to a fine photograph than information. We are also seeking to present an image that arouses the curiosity of the viewer or that, best of all, provokes the viewer to think – to ask a question or simply to gaze in thoughtful wonder. We know that photographs inform people. We also know that photographs move people. The photograph that does both is the one we want to see and make. It is the kind of picture that makes you want to pick up your own camera again and go to work.” – Sam Abell
Sebastião Salgado was an economist before he became the famous photographer he is today, and uses economics as a way to describe what photography means to him: “We can take a picture that communicates, one where we can see the problems and the people from around the world. We show the people of Bangladesh to others so they can understand them. I have tried to bring about better communication between people. I believe that humanitarian photography is like economics. Economy is a kind of sociology, as is documentary photography.” — Sebastião Salgado
Salgado’s work has helped raise awareness around the world, and has served as a powerful vision of what is happening via his lens. He doesn’t think he has a style of photography, but moreover thinks that photographers capture what is inside them.
“What I want is the world to remember the problems and the people I photograph. What I want is to create a discussion about what is happening around the world and to provoke some debate with these pictures. Nothing more than this. I don’t want people to look at them and appreciate the light and the palate of tones. I want them to look inside and see what the pictures represent, and the kind of people I photograph.” — Sebastião Salgado
“Why photograph war? Is it possible to put an end to human behavior which has existed throughout history by means of photography? The proportions of that notion seem ridiculously out of balance yet that very idea has motivated me.” — James Nachtwey
He entrenches deeply with his subjects, and seems fearless as he clicks away. His philosophy, moreover his motivation, is to inspire change by putting the lens on the dark side of humanity.
Conclusion:Photography is an art form that represents a sub-genre within philosophy. The study of why we are here, or the point of our existence is certainly a subjective thing for anybody. Art is a way to communicate between each other the beauty of life, and of others’ perspectives.
Photographs are a way of telling a story or narrative, or showing something in a different way, specifically from the photographer’s point of view. The human experience, whether comic or tragic, can be captured differently by the artist/photographer that cultivates an emotional or spiritual connection to their work.
Alan Watts, a philosopher and scholar of Eastern Philosophy and religion, had a great perspective on philosophy being a spiritual thing, not the logical state of modern philosophy today.
“You see, a philosopher is sort of intellectual yokel who gawks at things that sensible people take for granted. And sensible people say, existence, it’s nothing at all, just go on and do something. See, this is the current movement in philosophy, ‘logical analysis’, which says: you mustn’t think about existence, it’s a meaningless concept. Therefore, philosophy has become the discussion of trivia. No good philosopher lies awake nights, worrying about the destiny of Man, and the nature of God, and that sort of thing. Because a philosopher today is a practical fellow who comes to the university with a briefcase at 9:00 and leaves at 5:00. He ‘does philosophy’ during the day, which is discussing whether certain sentences have meaning and if so what, and – as William Earle said in a very funny essay – he would come to work in a white coat if he thought he could get away with it.
The problem is: he’s lost his sense of wonder. Wonder is in modern philosophy something one mustn’t have… it’s like enthusiasm in 18th century England: very bad form. But you see, I don’t know what question to ask when I wonder about the universe. It isn’t a question that I’m wondering about, it’s a feeling that I have…Because I cannot formulate the question that is my wonder. The moment my mouth opens to talk about it I suddenly find I’m talking nonsense. But that should not prevent wonder from being the foundation of philosophy.” — Alan Watts
Philosophy shouldn’t be a meaningless concept, it, like Watts says, should be wonderment and awe, and provide an unspoken feeling about the artist’s perspective for others to experience. I think that photography is an art form that has an unspoken emotion and beauty created by a photographer, and to me, that is the philosophy of photography.