The word ‘vision’ often is used in visual art as a catchall term to describe the intangible, cognitive qualities of an artist or a work that go beyond equipment and technique. We all heard about the importance of the ‘artist’s vision’ to the success of an image, and likely seen discussions separating craft from vision. Yet, defining artistic vision is not a trivial matter. Among the many factors involved are the artist’s personality traits and sensibilities; their sense of aesthetics; their feelings toward various subjects and scenes; their knowledge and experience, and so on. To further complicate things, artistic vision is not a fixed quality; it transforms and matures with the artist.
Perhaps a good place to start may be with the perception of the artist’s vision from the viewer’s perspective. What qualities of an image may lead us to conclude that its creator has a good artistic vision, beyond merely operating a camera? For me, originality is high on the list. No matter how aesthetically pleasing an image is, if the subject matter is trite and/or the composition predictable, vision goes out the window. I may still appreciate rare qualities of light or other appealing qualities of an image and enjoy viewing it, but it will not add much to my appreciation of the photographer as an artist.
Next on the list is creativity. One of the better and more widely acceptable definitions for creativity was coined by researcher Michael Mumford and suggests that creativity is ‘the production of novel, useful products’. In other words, being novel (i.e. original) is not sufficient for something to be considered creative; a work needs to have something more to offer than just being different from previous ones. What, then, makes a work of art useful? I suggest that it is the degree to which it engages the viewer and the richness of the experience they derive from it.
Now that we have some metrics for assessing vision from the viewer’s side, we can examine traits of the artist that may be conducive to them.
Originality requires both imagination and courage. Imagination is needed in order to invent something that has not been done before. Courage is needed in order to act on new concepts and produce unique imagery, rather than repeat safe formulas. Courage also is needed sometimes to pursue original ideas in the face of opposition, criticism, or even more pragmatic considerations of popularity, sales potential etc.
Creativity requires imagination, as well, but in order to produce something that is not only novel but also useful, some degree of insight into the human psyche also is needed. In other words, the artist needs to know how to use their medium in order to evoke a desired response from their audience. Though some aspects of such knowledge can come from scientific research, for most artists it is an acquired skill honed through experience and experimentation to a point where it becomes intuitive.
These realizations lead to some powerful conclusions. If the worth of a work of art is determined by both its technical excellence and its creator’s vision, it is also fair to say that, while technical skill can be learned by most anyone and in a relatively short period of time, vision may take much longer to evolve. It may be the fabled 10,000 hours or some other number, but time has to pass – time spent working, experimenting, succeeding and failing. There are no shortcuts. More importantly, vision is not something once learned and mastered; it grows with you and makes the journey ever more rewarding the longer you travel.
Just as important is that, without the courage to try new concepts, even in the face of opposition, criticism and even financial risk, no amount of time will yield a powerful and mature vision. A journey spent walking in circles on well-traveled paths is not nearly as satisfying as one charting new courses.
Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 34 of Landscape Photography Magazine.