Photographing Art

During a recent photography competition at my local camera club the judge criticized an image because, in his mind the photographer had not created art, but rather had copied art. The image in question was a portion of large, stone sculpture.  Although this isn’t the first time that I have heard someone express concern when a photographer creates an image that features someone else’s art work, this particular event got me asking myself what are the parameters for determining if a subject is someone else’s artwork and who decides if it is or is not acceptable to make images from that artwork?  As I thought about this a couple of scenarios came to mind:

  • I enjoy taking photographs of old buildings – interiors and exteriors.  Some of the images that I create are wide angle scenes to illustrate the expanse of space, while others focus on small details, such as a window, a mirror or an ornate decoration.  Since architecture is design work that has been created by one or more people it is therefore art.  Although more often than not the images that I create are of a subject that is in an advanced state of decay I am still making art from someone else’s creation.
  • Another popular photography subject is graffiti, which, since it has been created by another person is therefore artwork.

The more I thought about this the more I felt I needed to come up with answers.  In this particular case I feel the answer actually lies within another question – does it actually matter?  I take photographs of things that grab my attention.  For example, if something about a statue in a garden attracts my attention I will try to capture what it was that I saw.  For example, it might be the texture of the stone or metalwork, it might be the interesting play of light on the statue, it might be the feeling of loneliness in a wide, open space.  In other words, although the subject matter is central to the image it is not the only element that I intend to capture.  Another example to expand the thought further: When I photograph an old window frame that has peeling paint and one or more cracked panes of glass I am actually using the architectural subject matter as a prop to capture neglect and decay.

In summary, I have no problem photographing a subject in which someone else’s artwork is predominant in the scene. However, as with all images that I create I also try to convey what it is that actually grabbed my attention, which could be a particular feature that is clearly evident or, less tangible, the feeling that I experienced.

To illustrate this further, I recently took a trip to Eden Mill, which is about an hours drive north of Baltimore and when walking around the old mill buildings that are now a museum I began to notice old paper bags that were used to package flour produced by the mill.  In particular, the illustrations on the bags caught my attention, probably because they depict a time during the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the mill was operating.  As opposed to the complex illustrations that we might see on packaged goods today, these particular designs were very simple and although the illustrations were in color, after photographing them I created black and white images to try and focus attention into the illustration rather than at it to allow the viewer an opportunity to experience the period in time from when these were drawn.

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