I consider myself an artist, as do many others. But that title is thrown about quite a bit, and its meaning has been diluted. So let’s look at it.
In my mind, the essence of being an artist is creating something that not only is original, but captures or excites the interest of others. Often someone who paints or draws is automatically called an “artist”, and their product is called “art”. But that’s way too low a bar to set for that title. And for the record, I can’t paint or draw with any skill level whatsoever, and admire those who can.
I am a photographer. I recognized my attraction to photography as a child, and began taking it seriously in college. I attended a photography school for two years, and learned all about portraiture, lighting, studio arrangements, different films (yes, it was all film then!), color, tone, and print media. While I was able to master those techniques, I wouldn’t say I created art. Well, maybe with a few exceptions, such as:
What I found I enjoyed the most was simply walking around and looking. Things would strike me as visually interesting, and I would use my photographic technique to record them in a way that made interesting images. For example, my photo school was about 6 miles from my home, and I used my bike to get there. Shortly into my first semester, though, someone cut the chain I had locked it with and stole my bike. I now had to walk a mile to a bus stop, take the bus to downtown, and then walk another mile to the school. As I was walking I would look around, and things would occasionally catch my eye. Since I was carrying my camera, I began to record them. At the end of the semester we had to produce a portfolio, and so I created one called Sidewalks – all of the images were taken of sidewalks I walked on my way to/from school.
Not only was the portfolio well-received, it was noticeably different than the others. Most of the others were what I would call “traditional” photographic subjects: sunsets, landscapes, weathered barns, pets, etc., but mine were anything but traditional. So not only did the portfolio receive a good grade, it was chosen to be displayed around the campus – my first exhibition!
This is when I began to understand my creative process: instead of creating a scene by arranging items, or posing people, or any other conscious construction of the subject in front of the camera, I would explore the world as it existed, and find beauty in what others don’t see. I take special pride in images that are unremarkable in themselves, but from which I can create an interesting image. As an example:
Back in 2011 I worked at Rackspace, and the headquarters was in a refurbished shopping mall, nicknamed “The Castle”. Near the main entrance two different-colored sidewalks come together. You can see it in the center of this Google Maps view.
Over a thousand people walked past this point every day. I happened to walk past it on my morning break, looked down, and was struck by what I saw. I didn’t have a camera with me… or did I? In my pocket was my iPhone 4, so I took this photo with my phone. I’ll save my thoughts on photography gear for another day, though…
This is why I consider myself an artist: thousands walked past that spot that day, but only I saw this bit of transient beauty, and was able to capture it in a way that others could enjoy. Being able to take photographs, or paint pictures, or play piano, or sculpt clay – those are examples of crafts. But when you are able to use your craft to create something that moves other people – well, then I consider you an artist.