What makes a fine art photo: creative process, instinct or luck?

There’s an interesting arts venue just off Rt 684 in Croton Falls, NY you might be interested in – the Schoolhouse Theatre (www.schoolhousetheatre.org).  The NY Times calls it “Westchester’s sole claim to consistent, professional theater.”

I mention all this because Schoolhouse also has an art gallery that currently is showing a pretty interesting art exhibit running for a month – paintings, sculpture, mixed media, and photography in partnership with the Katonah Museum Artists Association.

I’m happy to say that one of my photos, Birdhouse, shown below, is included in the juried show.


It was selected by Tom Christopher, who is a well-known contemporary artist with an international following (www.tomchristopher-art.com).  And this is the second time a juror has picked this same photo for exhibition.  Last fall it was chosen by Kenise Barnes, fine art gallery owner (http://www.kbfa.com) for a show at the Gallery in the Park in Pound Ridge Reservation, Cross River, NY.  I’m not mentioning this just to butter my own bread (well, perhaps just a little) but to ask myself a question about what makes a good photo.  Before getting to that, I need to mention a third accolade which came from my good friend, George Arthur, himself a consummate artist, who waxed eloquently about the merits of Birdhouse.  Many of you on this list know George and here is his comment:

"This photo is one of your best. The woven gossamer layers are deep and seem to go on forever. The bird house is the tiny focal point of the composition yet its presence in the photo is instantaneous to the viewer. The colors are all subtle and the darkest part of the picture is the entrance to the bird house. The more you look at this picture the more detail you see. It's cold–it's wintertime, but the picture conveys an unexpected warmth, a sense of nostalgia and innocence. It could be a bird's eye view of the world–almost convincingly explaining why a bird can always find its nest in the labyrinth of tree trunks and branches. I love this photo–it is a masterpiece."

So yes, I really like this photo, but I’m frankly a little surprised by its notable success, in the eyes of some.  Thing is, most of the landscapes I take involve a fairly intense process.  Choosing and working a site, figuring the best vantage point, imagining the best time of day to shoot, the direction and angle of the light, focal length of lens, field composition, etc.  Then taking a good number of shots, changing exposure, depth of field, etc.  But this photo was shot on impulse, one shot, through the open window of my car on the way home – something about the washed out, snow laden limbs of the tree against the background evergreens in subtle contrast.  I didn’t even notice the birdhouse while shooting, at least consciously, and was pleasantly surprised by its centering contribution to the composition when I brought it up on the computer a day later.  Did I see the birdhouse in my mind’s eye on some level and did it ignite the impulse to shoot?  Was the composition instinctive – in post capture process I didn’t have to crop it.  The scene drew my lens like a magnet – you know just like in a seventh grade science class experiment.

Don’t really know the answer to the question raised at the outset.  Interesting to me to ponder but in the end satisfying just to trust in the process, however it happened and wherever it ended.