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Taming the Wild in Art Photography

Efforts to revive the art principles of the past at best produce works of art that resemble a stillborn child.

— Wassily Kandinsky

I have been thinking about this quote (from Concerning the Spiritual in Art) quite a bit recently. Specifically, I have been thinking about it as it pertains to photography as an artistic medium. Let’s face it—what’s generally accepted as “art photography” hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years.
This type of stagnation would be unacceptable in painting, say. So, naturally, the question is “is photography somehow a fundamentally different artistic medium (than every other stinking artistic medium which exists)?”

Let’s face it—”art photography” hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years.

While on a recent trip to Philadelphia I made sure to visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA). And, while there, advertisements for its “Wild: Michael Nichols” exhibit were unavoidable. If you don’t know, Michael Nichols is award-winning photographer for National Geographic.

I must state that his work is wonderfully suited for National Geographic. For that application of photography, you will be hard-pressed to find a better photographer.

But, as I walked around the exhibit, It occurred to me—”wild” defines the subject matter, but in no way does it describe the art. No sooner did I have this revelation than I heard a young girl behind me complain to her mother, “I thought we were going to look at art, not look at pictures.”

How amazingly astute.

I thought we were going to look at art, not look at pictures.

I decided that if they could exhibit a series of tame photos and call it “Wild,” it might be prudent to turn them into wild photos and call the series “Tame.” (As always, all of my photos were created completely in-camera, on film… not that that matters.) And, while this tongue-in-cheek display may not change the face of art photography, hopefully it’s a step in the direction of “art can also be pictures.”

When I returned to take the photos, I did so with artist Richard Gabriele. Some of his ideas can be found in the following photos.

(Please infer no disrespect for Michael Nichols. I have an extreme amount of appreciation for what he does and how well he does it. If National Geographic featured my photography, I might question them much in the same way that I am questioning PMA’s decisions.)

So, please enjoy my riffing of of Nichols. And, if the curator for PMA happens to read this, PLEASE explain to me in the comments how you justified putting a straight, pretty Wild photo in the Duchamp room. Thank you.

A painting that doesn’t shock isn’t worth painting.

— Marcel Duchamp

Wild: Michael Nichols
Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway,Philadelphia, PA,-19130
Starting on
June 27, 2017
Ending on
September 17, 2017
This exhibition highlights Nichols’s photographic works. The photos riffing on the exhibition are in no way in conjunction with PMA.
By | 2017-08-15T15:17:02+00:00 August 9th, 2017|Art, Photography|7 Comments

About the Author:

After dropping out of College to focus on video production and graphic design, David decided to become a strength coach. And, after deciding to no longer be a strength coach, he went back to college. This resulted in a Masters degree in mathematics. Now—while working as a freelance writer, graphic designer, and mathematician—he moonlights as an art photographer. He currently resides in Toulouse, France.


  1. George August 15, 2017 at 2:53 pm - Reply

    The problem with Art Photography and double exposure is that you will have to explain to 99% of the people that it’s not Photoshop, it’s all done in a camera, on a single frame. But even after that you will hear Oh… ok, witness a strange look on their face and hear a comment while they walk away; my brother is a graphic designer & does weird stuff just like that. Cool…

    • David Allen August 15, 2017 at 3:07 pm - Reply

      This begs the question of how much value should be placed in process versus in the final product, in art. One might argue it doesn’t matter *how* the photos were created, but just their final aesthetic. If the value is in the “difficulty,” then can there not be great art which is simple? I’m actually not sure where I fall *exactly* on this. So, we’ll just say that if someone does this with Photoshop, it qualifies as “digital art” and not “photography” 😉

      Thanks for the comment! These are always great things to think about! (Also “my brother is a graphic designer…” had me laughing because it’s so true.)

  2. George August 15, 2017 at 3:35 pm - Reply

    I agree, I do a lot of Art Festivals and what’s upsetting me is that jurors and an Art Committees don’t understand or ignore the fact that digital photography is a different beast. HDR technique, cloned fake sky, printed photo on an aluminum sheet, without photographer being around, during any stage of printing process is an absurd to consider as photography. It’s more of a graphic art than photography. It needs a new category for itself.
    With cars it’s easier, you change a body shape, place a custom engine in it, they call it Hot Rod, not an Antique Car, nor real race car. We need same sort of rules and understanding in defining what is photography.

    • David Allen August 15, 2017 at 4:00 pm - Reply

      I completely understand the frustration. I keep going back and forth on a definition, based on the fact that a lot of trickery is possible in a dark room, while still being a “photographic” process. So, how much analogous leeway do we give in the digital realm?

      It’s interesting that you bring up “presence” as a claim to legitimacy. I’ll have to think about that more. If I’m present in the dark room distorting my images, is it more legitimate? …hmmm…

      The new software that automatically changes the sky, etc, really cheapens the field!

  3. George August 15, 2017 at 4:44 pm - Reply

    I think “presence” as a claim of higher legitimacy is reasonable and stands strong in other forms of art: Painting, Drawing, Dancing, Singing, cooking (they call it art these days too) So how is more or less “presence” not legit enough definition to define what is more and what is less real art?
    If photographer is less present around his art, then he is less credible photographer. That definition will include Instagram filters in my opinion. There is less presence having photographer merging single frames in PS vs when photographer takes one image on a single frame, 40 miles apart:

    Also, art is considered to be a process of working with limited resources (at least it was for centuries) with digital workflow, I can’t think about any limit, accept only one, limit of creativity.

  4. George August 15, 2017 at 7:40 pm - Reply

    Yes, the whole gallery is 617 frame Multi Exposures takes with Fuji G617. I never go over 3-4 exposures. Maybe I should make the gallery public, but I don’t want to get political. I see it in a historical consensus:
    I must confess, it was pleasant and very creative adventure on a cold day (and night) of Nov 8 2016. I spent 27 hour on my feet without rest, just to get those 2 rolls of Kodak Ektar 120 exposed in ME. Last roll was exposed 2 hour drive away from Washington DC in a country side, where I mysteriously found huge Trump sign in the middle of the field, so I had to do ME, I felt I must do it that way.

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