Art Tools and Labels

San Diego –  I belong to an interesting group of instructors in the digital arena called Imaging DNA.  In a recent post a forum member and fellow instructor posed the question as to whether or not the new 3D printers can be a tool of photography or only of sculpture or perhaps engineering.  The thread was interesting so I chimed in and i wanted to pass along my thinking to you because it is an interesting question to me.

The first time I saw a 3D printer (during a SIGGRAPH Convention in which I was speaking) I knew I wanted one.   I had no clue what I would use it for at the time, but I wanted one anyway to play with and experiment.  Admittedly it was partly for semi-engineering ideas I had and had drawn out (adapters and such that I could not afford to actually prototype), but I also wondered what it might be able to render based on a photograph.  Would it, for example, allow for the creation of 3D photographic renderings blurring the lines between pure sculpture and pure photography as other tools have allowed us to blur the lines between other types of art and photography. What if you could render a Uelsman type surreal image into a 3D version and create something that pushes the concepts of what is “real” to the limits with an impossible but tangible thing?

I had a similar desire for a new “tool” when I saw a friend’s incredibly fancy embroidery machine that, for all practical purposes, I saw as a printer with thread, not with ink since it could work off of a graphic image file.  I never gave a moment’s thought to whether or not the results of either would be seen by others as a sort of photograph or something entirely new.

Photographers alone in the art world seem to gleefully jump into a box of their own making and worry about how to label the results. Or worse, some of them feel that if it cannot be easily described under the umbrella of something exclusively “photographic” then it cannot or should not be done by a self-proclaimed photographer or if they do it is is not viable because it is not a real photograph.

To me one of the most unfortunate backward steps in our medium’s history was the schism between Adams and Steichen over what constituted a photograph.  No such argument seriously ensues between oil painters and watercolorists, or even between painters and printmakers, or between works in tempera or acrylics.  Artists worthy of the title know such distinctions as a means of defining art are silly and demeaning to art in general. Photographers alone have fallen into such traps and we still see the remnants of it in the film vs. digital camps.

I think art is bigger than that; at least the art world to which I want to belong is bigger. Photographers alone seem to be the ones to throw away the one tool other artists cling to and demand… artistic license. Why is that?

I learned long ago, early in my nearly 40 year career as a commercial photographer, that the dichotomy often promulgated in academia between the commercial and the fine art world was an illusion and a counter-productive constraint to photographers of both types.  To stay on top in the commercial world requires not only the creative conceptualizing of the fine artist, it requires that it can be called forth on demand, not just when one feels like it.  And the very best of the fine artists, show precisely the sort of mastery of the technical underpinnings of their medium of choice – the “craft” part of the art, if you will – that successful commercial shooters must possess.  And the only fine art photographers that do not understand that in order to be successful their art must be seen as a business… are the ones going broke.

So as an image maker I would prefer to see any and all new tools, whether sewing machine, 3D printer, essentially ANYTHING that can help render an artist/photographer’s vision into a tangible reality, as something to explore and get to know better.  And as a teacher, any tool I can bring to bear in the goal of expanding the perspective of my students is one I would love to have available.

But what the results are called by someone with the need for labels to make sense of the world is irrelevant to me.  If we allow any sort of turf battle to exist over the use of a tool, any tool, then, in my opinion, we all become losers.

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About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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