I've spent a long time thinking about why some people ask, "Is photography art?" I'm also curious about the question, "What f-stop and shutter speed did you use?" as if that knowledge would make a difference. Along the same lines, why are so many people interested in learning "the rules?" And, after many sleepless decades, I think I have the answer.
In the 1960s the only cure for certain types of epilepsy was to cut the mass of nerves, the corpus callosum, that connected the right and left halves of the brain. After these operations, the patients appeared to be perfectly normal. They went to work in the morning and they took out the garbage in the evening. No one observing them could tell that they had undergone this surgical procedure.
But neurologists, like the rest of us, need something to do. So they got a number of these split-brain patients to volunteer to be studied. The results were eerie. Using a tachistoscope, Dr. Roger Sperry (who won the Nobel prize in 1981) would show an image to only one side of the brain. If an image of a spoon, for example, was presented to the left side of the brain and the subject was asked what he saw, he would report that he saw a spoon. However, if the same image was shown to the right side of the brain, the subject would report that he did not see anything. But presented with a variety of objects, he would pick out a spoon. From these and other experiments and observations, researchers found that the two halves of the brain function in different ways.
As a general rule, though no one is completely right- or completely left-brained, we tend to be more influenced by either one side or the other. On an everyday level, this means that some of us are good at math and some of us are good at art. And those of us who are good at both are rare.
The left brain is where most of the speech, calculations, and logical thinking parts are found. This half processes information in a linear or logical manner and then draws conclusions. In contrast, the right brain's style of processing is holistic. It does not see things in a logical or linear manner. It looks at the entire picture. It attempts to determine the relationships of all the parts to the whole.
Some examples: When trying to balance a checkbook, a person who left brain is dominant will want to account for every penny. A right-brained person, on the other hand, will soon give up and accept any reasonable bank figures. Left-brain people like making and following lists. Right-brained individuals will temporarily leave an unfinished project when they get a great idea for another project. They also have messier desks than the left-braided among us. And what does the relationships of all the parts to the whole mean? To the left brain a desk is a desk is a desk. To my wife's right brain the desk does not feel right in the corner of the room. "Please move it to the left a little. Still not quite right. Move it a foot forward and another foot to the left. Her right brain has spoken. The desk is now in its proper context.
So why did I interrupt a perfectly good essay on photography to write about split-brain findings? It's because I believe some photographers are right-brained and some are left-brained and we do not understand each other. The left-braided among us want to know exactly how things work. What was that f-stop? Whereas the right-brained have no interest in rules.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your view, the camera allows for both ways of thinking. Fundamentally, a camera is a machine. And that's how it was seen when Daguerre introduced the process to the world in 1839.
The early photographer was considered to be nothing more than a machine operator whose tasks were to check light levels, focus the lens, allow the right amount of light to enter the box, and then develop the exposed plate. Today, medical illustrators and catalog photographers and anyone else who photographic work consists of showing straightforward, accurate details have to adopt this attitude. And they have to know the rules for obtaining the clearest shot possible. A well-functioning left brain is necessary here.
However, as my mother says, there is always someone coming along to upset the apple cart. And in this case it was people like Henry Peach Robinson, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Alfred Steiglitz, who wanted to be recognized as artists. These were the right-brained photographers. And so began the debate about whether photography is an art.
Now, what do you do if you're a left-brained person who wants to use a camera as a right-brained person? (As I mentioned, we are all a mix of each, and except for the split-brained patients, the two sides of our brain do communicate.) Do not despair, there is an answer.
Artists know that their work is good because they feel it is good. I mean "feel" literally. Let me say this again. A certain physical feeling is produced in the painter's body that gives him the message, "This is good." Most people have the same type of experience when they listen to music. Certain songs make you feel good. Certain songs produce a physical feeling that you interpret to mean, "I like this one." Others do not. By paying attention to this feeling, left-brainies can develop more right-braininess.
I now offer a set of steps for doing away with reliance on the rules.
1) Go to a fine arts museum. As you look at the collection (do not limit yourself to paintings), a few will give you positive feelings. Most will not. Pay close attention to those that do. Are they simple or complex? Are the colors bright, muted, very dark? Are the figures, if any, close to the viewer or in the distance? Are they well-defined?
2) Test your observations. Look for other works of art that have the same characteristics as those that give you that special feeling. Do you like these also? Try to isolate those elements that give you a positive feeling. Do not do all of this in one day. In fact, this exercise may take you a few years.
3) Occasionally, as you become aware of what is visually important to you, put these elements into your photographs. If you like dark paintings, photograph at dusk; if you are moved by simple lines or curves, seek them out.
4) One day you will not have to make pictures based on your museum visits. You will find that certain scenes almost call out to be photographed. Then you will know the rules, but they will be the rules that are unique to you.
5) Be patient.