In photographic circles, the terms “artistry” and “passion” tend to be bandied about about with little regard for what they really mean. I have been mentoring photographers in The Arcanum for over a year now and I have been guilty of peppering my comments with the terms far more than I should. When one of my apprentices sent me an email asking about artistry and passion, I knew he deserved a better answer than the pat responses that come easy. The apprentice pointed to a statement another apprentice had shared. The words “If you work on your artistry and shoot with passion the rest will follow” gave him trouble. In his email to me he said, “I see a photograph and I can see that the light was great, or that the photographer was in the right place at the right time. I look through my view-finder and do the best I can and, occasionally, the result is worthy of a look. So, how do I figure out what "Artistry" is in this world? I honestly have no idea what "shoot with passion" means.”
Art is a subjective quality, and each and every one of us can identify an image, song, written work, or performance that we would call “art.” In my mind, something becomes art when it somehow elicits an emotional response in me. To be fair, that in and of itself is not enough, or I would have to consider anything that makes me happy, sad, angry or melancholy art. Perhaps a more accurate rubric would be: a deliberate work by a person utilizing above average skills and leveraging innate talent to foster an emotional reaction. These intentional tools of manipulation take a considered combination of craftsmanship, effort, and vision to work their magic. In my definition, artists must possess obvious skill in their chosen genre and the work ethic to engage those skills in a creative process that culminates in a product with a specific goal.
There are most certainly artists out there cranking out evocative art, and some are doing so with profit as the goal. Others are laboring to birth art for the love of the process. Either way, the products should be considered art if they move you. I have gazed with adoration at works of art created for profit, and likewise been moved by works with more austere intent. In most cases the secret sauce that makes these works of art impactful is the passion of the artist. It can be argued that the passion behind an artist’s creative process is the very thing that draws us to the art.
I’ve heard people claim that people buy into the artist, not the art, and I believe it. I’ve watched artists work in their studios and after seeing their obvious devotion to their craft and passion for their product, I was compelled to buy in. As a human being, I long for connections with my fellow humans. When someone displays passion to motivate a creative effort that results in something that looks, feels, or sounds good to me, I feel a connection with them and I usually want more. I have also seen people brimming with passion fail to bring skill to bear on a creative vision. The “art” from these people may be nice, but absent the connection with the artist, it lacks punch. In photography I see this all of the time. People connect with a personality via social media and become fans of the passion the person possesses. This connection influences their judgement and they see artistic merit where it isn’t. A great way to test this bias is to view art without knowing who made it. I enjoy doing this in galleries. I walk in, ignore the “about the artist” panels and any labeling and instead focus on the works. If they compel me, I stop and ask why and how the art impacts me. This “sterile” approach removes the influence of my biases toward or away from certain personalities and allows the art to stand or fall on its own accord. If a piece can move me in this way, I value it as true art. If I have to consider the effort the artist put into the work, the perceived financial value of the piece, or what proper critics think of it, I am not honestly assessing the artistic value of it.
In my view, a work of art will convey the passion of the artist by how it displays evidence of skill, talent, experience, and creativity. In photography, these factors are found in the composition, subject matter, exposure control and processing of the image. It’s possible to understand composition without ever having picked up a camera. A person can learn the fundamentals of exposure by reading a book or taking a class. Image processing can be mastered by anyone willing to spend the hours it takes to learn the software steps. Subject matter can be a product of luck. Any one of these factors can be achieved without true artistry coming into play, but to combine them into a singular work is the task of an artist.
Going back to my apprentice’s question about passion and artistry…
I guess my best answer is this: artistry is what you get when you practice your craft with a drive to be great. Passion is the force that gives you that drive. With practice you may become proficient enough to be successful as a photographer. With passion, you may enchant enough people that proficiency isn’t needed. With both you will eventually build the skills to realize your artistic vision but you will never be satisfied with your work. You will always be striving to become a better artist, and in that quest you will find the motivation to carry on.
All of that said, I feel the need to also say that true artists let their art speak for them. If you send all of your time talking about how much passion you have and how much artistry you create, chances are you are full of shit.