Photography and Philosophy by Michael Bomberger

One needs to approach the question "What is photography?" with a bit of caution, because there are many different answers depending on the context of its purpose and the intent of the artist behind it.

My truth might not be yours, and that’s how it should be.

One needs to approach the question “What is photography?” with a bit of caution, because there are many different answers depending on the context of its purpose and the intent of the artist behind it. The person doing yearly school photographs–endless portraits of children intended to appeal to parents–might answer very differently than the sports photographer carrying a massive 300mm lens. For some photographers, the intent is documentary and the images produced are intended to create a practical reference to document the actual state of an object or thing. For others, the intent is to produce a work of art, one that presents a version of what is seen by the camera in order to make an artistic, social, or political statement.

Even within the specific genre of art photography, there are vastly different approaches. I know of one German photographer–Marcus Brunetti–who spends up to a year crafting each of his spectacular images of European cathedrals by using high definition cameras to image small sections and then knitting thousands of separate images into a single image of a whole building that has astounding resolution down to the square inch. Italian photographer Christian Tagliavini also spends up to a year on his images of Renaissance portraits, but his efforts are spent in workrooms planning and producing purpose-made costumes and extravagant makeup for his spectacular works. American Photographer Mark De Paola uses his home base in New York to cover the fast moving fashion industry and produces images of astounding beauty and sensitivity on the fly–for De Paola, its the authenticity of the moment that counts the most in recording human interaction.

So, we have three men with three vastly different approaches to making art with a camera–who is right? Who is most authentic? Is there a “right” way to approach art photography? The answer goes back to intent, but the question is meaningful because it can shape how photographs are made and appreciated. Photographer and writer Susan Sontag maintained that photography was largely a medium through which images of the real were recorded, asserting in her landmark book ‘On Photography’ that “photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world, but rather….miniatures of reality.” Czech-Brazilian philosopher Vilem Flusser, by contrast, in his book ‘Towards a Philosophy of Photography’ asserted that photographers use the camera as a tool to encode their own concepts of the world into images. For Flusser, photographs–through symbolism, subject choice, and perspective–become the photographer’s own version of reality in which an emotive message is carried.

I do have my own views of what makes good art photography, and I think about these issues because they help me craft a process that feels right for me on an emotional level and helps me define what I see as an underlying philosophy of authenticity in my work. At the same time, I’m aware that many other photographers work very differently, and I’d never want to imply I thought they were wrong for doing so. Particularly in art photography, we all have to find our own way in how we create. I use cameras that are intended and designed to be shot on manual settings, with manual focus. I use almost exclusively natural light, which I find to always be of higher quality and interest than studio lighting. I compose in camera, and rarely if ever crop in the minimal post processing I do. The result of these and many other similar steps are images that are authentic to a moment in time and space–images that cannot be repeated like some laboratory experiment. The process also results in images that are both authentic–and not the random outcome of an algorithm–and authentically mine.

The images below were shot in a Victorian townhouse on the East coast of the United States on an unusually hot afternoon in June; the townhouse was built in 1870 in the heady times of post-civil war US economic expansion. Sontag is right when she maintains that the images are, at root, a reflection of what the camera saw in front of it. You will see a person in the images, along with that person’s surroundings. At the same time, Flusser was right as well because there is something deeper to see if you look closely. The photographs lack the harsh uniformity of studio lighting in favor of uneven shadows of dark, and bursts of reflected light. More importantly, they beg questions about humanity, and about life. Our bodies carry imperfections etched into them by the environments we live in, the life choices we make, and circumstance. Thinking about those imperfections, about human strength and vulnerability, and reflecting on them, can help you think about your own journey.

Special thanks to model Dionysus (they/them), who is based in Pennsylvania. Dionysus is relatively new to the modeling world, and the images above were captured during their first nude shoot. They have a background in performance art, dance, and gymnastics. We were struck by her ability to show sensitive and emotive poses during our session; we can all expect a great deal from them in the years ahead.

About Michael Bomberger

Michael Bomberger, founder of Archangel Images, is an art photographer based in Pennsylvania, United States.  Bomberger’s work focuses mainly on elevating expressions of the purity and elegance of the human form, capturing high quality images in both digital and analogue media.  His work has been featured in galleries and magazines in both Europe and America.  

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