Photography The Bastard Art

Author: Joel Wolfson


Photography is sometimes called the bastard art. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that everyone owns a camera or smartphone and considers themselves capable of taking a picture. We’ve also been a bit brainwashed by decades of advertising from Canon, Nikon, Fuji and many others with the message that all you have to do is use their camera, lens or paper and your images will “look” professional.  This is akin to saying if “you buy a Stradivarius violin you will play like Itzhak Perlman.” Owning a great camera doesn’t make you a photographic artist any more than owning the best brushes, paints and canvas makes you a fine painter.

When I first started shooting pictures in the early 1970’s people would marvel at the fact that my images were razor sharp, well exposed, and possessed a wide range of tones.  They may not have known these terms but would say things like “your pictures are so clear.” These are all merely technical aspects of photography and were more difficult to master with cameras of several decades ago versus now. Today one can buy a consumer camera that will usually provide a properly exposed, in-focus picture with the press of a button.

Of course photography as an art form isn’t much different from others in that it is both left and right brained. To be a superb painter or sculptor you must be a master of technique as well as employ creativity. Assuming one is both creative and a master of technique, the other main ingredient is experience. All of these combined form a synergy that allows a photographic artist to “see” a photograph in their mind’s eye within the everyday world, capture it and present it in a form that elicits an emotional response from the viewer.


One of the best compliments I received was from a mentor of mine when he said “Wolfson, you see different.” This really meant something because it signified the next major step in my development as a photographic artist; a recognizable way of communicating with my images, distinct from other photographers.

An expression I’ve heard several times when discussing images from various travel destinations is “you can’t take a bad picture there.” Typically, what people actually mean is that they were overwhelmed by the beauty of the place and they have never seen anything like it before. Consequently whatever snapshots they took, no matter how good or bad they actually were, remind them of this beautiful place. And that is fine for the traveler seeking to remind themselves of what they enjoyed on their trip.

Living in Arizona, Sedona and the Grand Canyon are in my back yard and I have photographed both areas since the mid 1980s. My standards for great photographs of these areas are far different than a tourist who is seeing it for the first time, awed by their magnificence and how photogenic they are. I find places that millions have already photographed to be a particular challenge and will pass up what other people might consider great photo opportunities in favor of creating an image that will convey the sense of being there the way I felt it.

©Wolfson_BLOG_Bastard_Art_500px_03There are too many elements that go into making fine art photographs to do it justice in one article. In fact I find even at the end of conducting my multi-day workshops there is always more that can be taught and learned. Knowing the technical aspects, direction and quality of light, line, shape, form, texture, color, perspective, rhythm, composition of these, design, and presentation are all just scratching the surface of photographic art.

Although some consider it the bastard art, I just hope the next time you think of photography as simply pushing the button on a camera you might “see” it differently.

Joel Wolfson is an Arizona Highways Photo Workshop instructor/photographer. Here is Joel’s bio.

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