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Why and How: Creating Conceptual Photographs

Have you ever considered creating conceptual photographs directly from the natural elements?

Have you ever tried to share a new perspective or vision of reality?

Conceptual photography may be an answer to your questions and expectations.

One of my favorite areas of artistic nature photography is conceptual photography.

In this article, I will give you some elements to progress further than illustrative photography.

You are about to enter a universe where only your imagination is the limit.

Conceptual photograh created with reflection of a landscape of Yellowstone on water. Fine art work from the collection 'Forgotten Paradises'.
Conceptual photograh created with reflection of a landscape of Yellowstone on water.

The Little Story Behind this Article

A few years ago, I became interested in the Bauhaus School of Art. At the time, I was looking to create artworks that were not only beautiful and decorative but also were realistic. While I wanted my photographs to make sense, I also wanted them to be useful to everyone who bought them, regardless of whether they were art lovers, collectors, or designers. I liked the Bauhaus idea very much.

While completing further research, I had the chance to discover the photographer Andreas Gursky. He fascinated me. His very particular photographic artistry inspired me to pursue my own artistic approach.

I will always remember the day I first admired one of his works entitled "Rhein II". I spent many long minutes contemplating it. I was literally hypnotized. To this day, I cannot explain why I felt so drawn to that image. Then I discovered that it was one of the most expensive photographic artworks in the world. Its value ranges in at least several million euros. But for me, this market value was of no importance. I understood why an enlightened amateur had acquired it, it was a thing of haunting, indescribable beauty.

That day marked the beginning of my interest in conceptual photography. It was a real turning point in my life as an artist. Even today, when I am in the field, I still have this extraordinary creation in mind. I had entered a world where my imagination, my emotions, and my senses guided my work.

I will now give you the keys to open the doors to this fabulous world where photographic creativity reigns.

The Two Domains of Photography

When you work on a photographic project, I recommend that you always classify it into one of the two domains of photography.

I have created this classification, and it serves as a support for all my work as a photographic artist. It is the result of a discussion I had with my friend Philippe Soubirous. He is a talented photographer who has an immeasurable general culture of photographic knowledge. It is to him that I owe this rule that I often use in the field. Soubirous was passed down this rule from his father. In natural light, to get a good exposure at ISO 100, you need a speed of 1/125th of a second for an aperture at f/8.

On a trip to a distant sea, we were talking in his cabin. That day, our topic was the differences between emotional and figurative art photography. After a few hours of discussion, which ended under a beautiful starry sky, we concluded that it was easy to distinguish between two different photographic domains:

  • Illustrative photography.
  • Artistic photography.

The domain of artistic photography divides itself into two genres:

  • Meaningful photography.
  • Conceptual photography.

Illustrative Photography

Illustrative photography is used as a medium for magazine articles, advertising titles for a commercial product. As its name suggests, it is used to illustrate a written, oral, or visual statement.

In this photographic domain, the photographer creates photographs in which he does not deliver messages. The images are factual. They correspond to a very precise editorial line. The photographs describe, show, illustrate, or reinforce the message of the text.

In illustrative photography, the viewer is informed. These photos are not made to provoke the viewer to dream or to imagine. They are established in such a way so that the audience can project themselves into a place described by words.

Artistic Photography

Artistic photography aims to give photographers a means of expression. They can thus convey their emotions, messages, and express ideas.

In artistic photography, the photographer bares his soul. He is not afraid to show what he really thinks. He does not depend on a third person to tell him what to reveal. He does not depend on a written or visual aid that must be illustrated.

Only the story he chooses to tell matters. It does not describe reality. Black and white photography is one example.

Artistic photography is symbolic, elliptical, and parabolic.

Artistic photography is divided into two genres:

  • The genre of conceptual photography.
  • The genre of meaningful photography.

In meaningful photography, the image always carries a message. The viewer will read this message, which is a direct connection that I call “1-to-1”. The message deciphered by the audience is formatted by the photographer.

In conceptual photography, the photographer expresses an emotion, a message, and an idea, but the viewer may see something else. Ultimately, the viewer is free to choose and decipher the message he wishes to read.

Definition of Conceptual Photography

Conceptual photography is a photographic genre that illustrates an idea.

The idea is a representation developed by a thought that corresponds to a word or phrase.

To sum up this explanation in one sentence, I can say that conceptual photography is a photographic genre that is a representation directly tied to a thought that is consequently attached to a word or a phrase.

Conceptual photography is part of the domain of artistic photography.

The Birth of Conceptual Photography

Before going any further, it seems important to me, as always, to establish a general framework.

The term conceptual photography derives from the movement that arose in the 1960s known as “conceptual art”.

Conceptual art is defined not by the aesthetic properties of objects or works, but by the concepts or ideas of art which they invoke.

The idea presented takes precedence over the subject shown.

In conceptual art, the artist can do without a specific object.

From its birth, the foundations of conceptual photography were laid. They are solid. It is solely focused on the idea and its illustration. It is not interested in the reality that is depicted nor the relationships that the visual subject may have with reality.

Conceptual photography has several goals:

  • It wants to change all the codes of artistic photography, whether it be for compositions, framing, or highlighting a subject.
  • It does want to be emotional.
  • It only wants raw objectivity.

From the very beginning, the creators of this photographic gender say that conceptual photography is not about making beautiful photographs but about explaining them.

It is for this reason that many conceptual photographic creations are accompanied by explanatory texts that provide arguments relating to the author's photographic and artistic approach.

Since that time, many photographers have explored this creative path of photography, but many have forgotten the foundations and main principles of the genre. They have lost their way.

If you decide to devote part of your photographic activity to this genre, never forget these main principles. They will always guide you in your approach.

Why: Creating Conceptual Photos

As you may have understood, conceptual photography is a way to represent ideas.

You may have a lot of ideas about how you see the world, how you view social relationships, how you want to defend nature, or etc.

Rather than trying to create illustrative photographs, why not attempt to suggest your thoughts and ideas?

Maybe you do not want to, or you cannot write prose or poetry. Perhaps you consider yourself to be more of a visual person. You may find it easier to assemble photographic elements than to put your voice into a recording or roll the ball of your pen over white paper. However, the only thing you must do is to think and take conceptual photographs.

To help you fall into this state of mind, here is a quote that will help you.

In conceptual art, the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. The conceptual artist's goal is to make his work mentally interesting to the viewer.
Sol Lewitt.

Finally, if you want to forge strong connections with your audience by creating an intellectual relationship, one thing you can do is create conceptual photos.

How: Creating Conceptual Photos

As I have already written in another article, for a photograph to be successful it must tell a story. This story is told either by the assembly of the photographic elements, by the text, or by the title that accompanies it.

Conceptual photography is not an exception to this rule. You must create photographs that have impact. Keep in mind that in this genre, the viewer invents his or her own story by looking at your photographs.

You have the possibility to explore different ways to create your conceptual photographs:

  • By construction at the shoot. For example, by using abstraction.
  • By narrative and style. The title and text accompanying the photos will help the viewer.

Nonetheless, the most important advice I will give you is to keep it as simple as possible. Always keep this quote in mind.

What is well conceived is clearly stated.
Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, 1674.

When Boileau-Despréaux wrote this quotation in 1674, he was certainly not thinking of photography.

However, I believe that this quote still stands. It never leaves my mind.

Keep in mind that photography has its own words, vocabulary, and language. Learn it. Implement it in the field. Most of all, keep things simple.

If I had to sum up the “how” of conceptual photography, I would say that you must form an idea, plan a way to implement it in your photos, and then venture out into the field to express it. Let your imagination wander.

A Conceptual Photo Gallery

Click on a thumbnail to enlarge the image.

Finally

To conclude, I would like to recommend that when you create your conceptual photos, try listing two or three ideas that you wish to develop to share your vision of the world. Write them down and imagine how to best implement them. Do not forget to be simple and direct. Go beyond illustrative photography. It will only make you a more well-rounded photographer, and your photographs will become more interesting.


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I Want to Help You to Create Interesting Photos