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Photography, Art, and Media Literacy

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Date posted: August 11, 2011

After an intensive, week-long, photography workshop in Glacier National Park, a few of the participants sat around talking about our experiences. The question, “Is photography art?” led to a heated discussion.

Can something be art if it is not shared with an audience? If you paint, or take photographs, or compose music solely for your own enjoyment and never show it to anyone, is it still art? Or does art require an audience?

 alt=During the workshop, we talked a lot about photographing images that would capture what you were thinking and feeling in the moment, and that would convey a sense of your own emotional experience to a viewer. In so doing, a photographer (like any media producer) makes a series of decisions. What do you include within the frame of the photo and what do you exclude? What lens, shutter speed and aperture setting do you use? How do you use light, focus, color, balance, and arrangement within a shot? What do you do in processing the image to enhance the feeling you want to engender in a viewer? The final photograph is not an actual, glacier-covered mountain. It is a representation of a mountain that you have carefully crafted to deliver a message or feeling.

It’s a bit of a shock to think of famous landscape photographers like Ansel Adams in the same breath as someone photographing a breakfast cereal or lipstick for a newspaper ad, yet they do the same thing. They’re using the strengths of a particular medium, made stronger and more focused with the tools of trade, to deliver a message through a carefully manipulated representation of the world around us.

The next time you see a stunning landscape photo in a magazine or calendar, see if you can determine what the photographer is trying to convey with that image. What creative techniques were used to capture that feeling or idea? It may not help you become the next Ansel Adams, but it can make you more aware and appreciative of a well-done piece of photographic art, and a bit more skeptical of the next mouth-watering food product or cosmetic ad you see.

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