June 18, 2015 by Christina Hamlett
The question has long been asked whether Art imitates Life or Life imitates Art. Perhaps a question asked even longer is whether one can actually make a comfortable living in the business of being creative.
Nearly 60 years ago, American artist and photographer Tracy Valleau began taking pictures with his camera. Today over 50 of his works are part of the permanent photography collections of museums and foundations, including the Crocker Art Museum, the Triton Museum of Art and the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. His photos have appeared in books and magazines as well as exhibitions and one-man shows. In addition to being an educator in photography at the graduate school of the Academy of Art University, he’s a frequent speaker, photo judge, reviewer and instructor.
“We all know about the proverbial ‘starving artist’ and the truth behind it,” Valleau says. “Earning a living as an artist – and particularly a fine art photographer – is notoriously difficult.”
Yet as the following interview reveals, his passion for the craft hasn’t waned from what it was when he was a young child eager to explore the world through the lens of a camera and to focus on the possibilities of a lifelong career.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: You describe yourself as “a fine art photographer.” Are you being pretentious?
A: Actually, “fine art photography” is simply a type of photography, such as “fashion photography” or “wedding photography.” We get confused because we often associate “fine art” with “quality”, and that certainly is one of its definitions. However, fine art photography is simply creating prints that someone might like to collect and hang on their walls for daily viewing. As such, and like wedding, fashion, and all other types, the quality can be good or bad or anywhere between.
Q: Hasn’t there been an explosion of photography lately with all those cell phones with cameras? How has that changed thing for photographers and for society in general?
A: There are as many cell phone accounts as there are people on earth, and half of them have cameras. This explosive growth in photography is making huge societal changes because the vast majority of it is never destined for prints, (much less “art prints”) and will instead be used as an adjunct to speech and text on the web. For most of the younger folks, it’s just a form of communication with their friends.
So, while there’s a huge change going on, it hasn’t changed traditional photography per se. The nice thing about it is that more people are involved and the talent pool just got a lot larger.
Q: How will I know fine art photography when I see it?
A: The key in that question is the word “art.” All the arts – painting, literature, music, sculpture, architecture, photography and so on – need to be studied to be truly understood and appreciated. That has been true for hundreds of years, and is why we have college courses in them. That said, one doesn’t need a degree in art to appreciate “The Mona Lisa” either. And that leads to the next question.
Q: Are there different “qualities” of photography as art?
A: Sure, just like with paintings or music or any art. If the work “speaks to you” – if it conveys the emotion of the artist, and you resonate with it, then it’s very likely that you’ll accept it as a work of art. How clearly it does that, and with what level of skill and subtlety provide two guides to help you decide whether it’s “good” “fine” or even “great” art.
Q: There are some photos I see in galleries and museums that I just don’t get. What am I missing here?
A: Like all the arts, photography has its own set of techniques and requirements. People who study painting can appreciate a masterwork for reasons that often escape the casual viewer. The same is true of music or literature…and, of course, photography. One of the key skills needed in photography is composition, which isn’t as simple as it might seem at first glance. So composition, subject, placement, ground, frame, technique… all these and more go into choosing a piece for inclusion in a museum or gallery..
And remember, those qualities are more important to a museum than to a gallery, which is simply trying to make money selling images. The criteria for a gallery vs a museum is significantly different.
Q: How can I improve my photography-as-art?
A: The same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. (Sorry: I couldn’t resist… but it’s entirely true.) The path a photographer takes from beginner to expert is pretty much the same for everyone. That is, the same mistakes are made; the same realizations occur; the same benchmarks are passed.
One thing that can be a great help is to associate with other photographers, particularly those “ahead of you” on the path. Join a local club. And read about the history of photography and the words of the great photographers. All this is like getting a trail-guide to the path ahead.
Q: All my friends tell me I should be a photographer. Should I?
A: Frankly, only if your friends are skilled photographers or collectors. They are, for the most part, just being kind. On the other hand, if they are saying that instead of just “cute” or “nice shot” every now and then, perhaps you do have “an eye.” If that’s the case, and you simply love taking photos, then go for it. You’ll quickly learn if it’s right for you.
Q: How can I make my living as a photographer?
A: Well, earning a living as a “fine art” photographer is nearly impossible. I know many famous shooters who are not earning a living on their fine art prints alone. To really earn a living at it, you’d want someone to hire you to take photos: portraits; weddings; products; advertising; and so on.
Q: What about National Geographic’s photographers? How could I break into a cool gig like that?
A: You and everyone else with a camera! Actually, it’s possible, but difficult. “NatGeo” is first a magazine, so you have to shoot with that in mind. You have to endure a lot of physical hardship and inconvenience working for them. And needless to say: you have to be darned good. When you can go out with a suitcase of drugstore disposable cameras, and come back with NatGeo quality images that tell a story, then you’re probably ready to send them a few shots.
Q: Does better equipment matter?
A: Not really. I mentioned “drugstore disposable cameras” in my last reply. The equipment is not as important as your ability to see and capture the moment. I’ve got stuff in museums taken with a shirt-pocket camera as well as with $10,000 equipment.
That said, you’re probably not going to walk up to a lion for a close-up with your drugstore camera either. So equipment can allow you to do different things, and presents a wider array of options. It’s just not going to magically make you a better photographer, either.
Q: Does film vs digital make a difference?
Film has a different look to it, but is more limited in what can be done post-shoot. If you want versatility, go digital. Collectors don’t care in most of the world, while in the US, there’s currently a cachet to film, which I suspect will pass. Choose whichever works the best for you. I began with film in 1957 and switched to digital in 2004. I’ve never regretted making the switch.
“Film snobs” often say that if it’s not film, it’s not “real” photography. That’s like saying that Michelangelo’s “David” isn’t “real” sculpture because he used a bronze mallet instead of a leather one. It’s just nonsense.
Q: Do you have any tips for those who want to get into fine art photography?
A: Keep your day job. Don’t imitate Ansel Adams – a copy machine can do that better than you can. If you want to become a fine art photographer, you absolutely must find your own vision. Otherwise, if you’re imitating someone else, you’re still a student.
Q: What about other kinds of photography?
A: I’ve touched on them before: portraits; wedding; advertising; fashion; architecture; street; product; event; publicity… everything is still available except for news photography, which has pretty much been replaced by the zillions of cell phones out there.
Q: Do you have any tips for those of us who don’t want to make a career of it, but just want to take better photos?
A: Grab a book, or check online for basic photo instruction. You’ll find “the rule of thirds” (place your subject 1/3 of the way in from the sides instead of in the center.) Learn to use the camera’s aperture to change what is in focus or not (depth of field.) Frame the image to eliminate distractions. Make sure nothing is growing out of your subject’s head. Take landscapes at 90-degrees to the sun. Shoot landscapes at the “golden hour” (dawn and sunset.) Squeeze the shutter button gently; don’t jab at it.
Those are some of the most common and basic tips. But do check online, as there’s a lot more to it than just those.
Q: Is there a difference between capturing an image and creating one? Provide examples.
A: Capturing an image is just reporting on what is in front of the lens. Creating an image involves thinking about what’s there; positioning yourself to better express what you’re “seeing in your mind”; setting the composition – subject to frame and ground; removing everything that isn’t important to expressing your take on it. As for examples: look at your daily newspaper photos, or the local news on television. Those are captures – so-called “reportage.” Look at the advertising in magazines or better, grab a magazine devoted to photography to see “created” images.
Q: What goes into your decision to shoot something as black and white vs. color? In the world of digital photography is that even a consideration?
A: These days (with digital) you are not forced into one or the other before you press the shutter release: color images can be easily converted to B&W. From the standpoint of fine art however, the subject and how you want the viewer to react, should be the determining factor.
There is a kind of simplistic sense in many that “if it’s not B&W it’s not art” which is obviously just silly. Removing color from an image does concentrate the mind of the subject and composition, whereas in many cases the “color is just about the color” as a friend of my says. The image itself will (or should) tell you which is correct. Consider Steve McCurry’s “Afghan Girl” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afghan_Girl). This famous photo would not be nearly as powerful in B&W. And Weston’s “Pepper No. 30” would not be as effective in color. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pepper_No._30).
The bottom line is simple:” does color enhance or detract from the image?
Q: How has the advent of Photoshop and other programs changed the way in which we relate to images – both as a photographer and as a viewer/consumer?
A: “Relate?” Not really. Photoshop et al are just tools to be used during the creation of an image. Certainly Photoshop allows for vastly more control (which is frequently abused by beginners) than was ever possible in the traditional darkroom, but as far as fine-art goes, the bottom line is the print itself. How you got there is not important to the viewer.
Q: Which is more important – color or contrast?
A: I’m assuming you’re asking technically, since we covered color vs B&W above. Technically, I’d say it contrast, by which I mean the luminance of an image. (Luminance is what you are seeing in a B&W image.) The light levels are all that is captured by a digital camera, and it’s what we predominantly see as humans. If you were to take all the contrast/luminance out of a color image, you would not be able to tell what the image was.
Q: Could you give us three words that would summarize the essential elements of composition?
A: Form. Frame. Ground.
Q: “The camera doesn’t lie.” But does the photographer?
A: The camera always lies. Lenses distort and crop; light is manipulated; focus is altered; time is compressed or expanded. The photographer lies by choosing a perspective and framing; by focusing here instead of there.
Q: How much importance to you put on symmetry? On geometry?
A: Symmetry and geometry are elements of form, but only one type of form. Form is a huge part of photography, as it controls the viewer’s eye as it travels the image. It becomes the resonant undertone, the theme and beat of the music of photography. Form is not necessarily simple. In the poem “Sphere” Ammons noted: “…the shapes nearest shapelessness awe us most, suggest the god.”
In his powerful book “Beauty in Photography” Robert Adams delves deeply into form, presenting a case that “form is beauty” and that “beauty is the universal seen.”
Q: What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?
A: You got me there. Perhaps this: when I manage to create a print that I really like, it comes as a surprise; a sudden recognition and a sense of serendipity. My reaction is not as much “I did that” as it is “Wow! I wonder who did that?” The result isn’t “mine” – it just belongs to the world of art, as if by magic. On the other hand, perhaps that only means I don’t know what I’m doing yet.
Q: Where can readers learn more about your work?
A: My website is http://www.valleau.gallery.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: While I’m currently excited about and enjoying my work called “Minutiae,” the most wonderful thing about being an artist of any kind is that the journey never ends. It’s a path of continual discovery. And like all the arts, photography is much harder than it looks, and brings along its own challenges. It will alternately be exhilarating and frustrating.
It will never be dull.
Good luck, and have a great journey.