Why and How: Creating Conceptual Photographs

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

Have you ever tried to show more than reality to give another vision to what you really perceive.

Conceptual photography is one of the answers 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 go 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 of 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 simply beautiful and decorative. I wanted my photographs not only to make sense, but also to be useful to everyone who bought them: art lovers, collectors, designers. I liked the Bauhaus idea very much.

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

I will always remember the day I admired one of his works entitled "Rhein II". I spent long minutes contemplating it. I was literally hypnotized. To this day, I cannot explain why. Then I discovered that it was one of the most expensive photographic artworks in the world. Its value was several million euros. But for me, this market value was of no important. I understood why an enlightened amateur had acquired it.

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 only my imagination, my emotions, my sensations have their place.

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

The Two Domains of Photography

When you do a photographic project, I recommend that you always classify it in one of the two domains of photography.

This classification that I have created, and which serves as a support for all my work as a photographic artist is the result of a discussion, I had with a friend whose name is Philippe Soubirous. He is a talented photographer who has an immeasurable general culture about photography. It is to him that I owe the rule that I often use in the field. 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. He holds this rule from his father.

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 genders:

  • 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 dream, to imagine. They are set up 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, convey messages, express ideas.

The photographer speaks, shows his soul. He's not afraid to show what he really thinks. He does not depend on a third person to tell him what to show. He does not depend on a written or visual to be illustrated.

Only the story he chose to tell matters. It does not describe reality. This is for example the case of black and white photography.

Artistic photography is symbolic, elliptical, parabolic.

Artistic photography is divided into two genders:

  • The gender of conceptual photography.
  • The gender of meaningful photography. It carries meaning.

In meaningful photography, the image always carries a message. The viewer will read this message. It's 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, an idea but the viewer will see something else. He is free to choose.

Definition of Conceptual Photography

Conceptual photography is a photographic gender that illustrates an idea.

The idea is a representation developed by the thought corresponding to a word or phrase.

To sum up in one sentence, I can therefore say that conceptual photography is a photographic gender that is a representation elaborated by the thought corresponding 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 set the general framework.

The term conceptual photography derives from the movement called conceptual art in the 1960s.

Conceptual art is defined not by the aesthetic properties of objects or works, but only by the concept or idea of art.

The idea takes precedence over the realization.

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

From its birth, the foundations of conceptual photography were laid and will be solid. It is interested in the idea and its illustration. It is not interested in reality and the relationships it can have with it.

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.

This is for that 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 gender: they have lost their way.

If you decide to devote part of your photographic activity to this gender, 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, etc.

Rather than trying to create illustrative photographs why not trying to suggest your thoughts and ideas.

Maybe you do not want to, or you cannot write prose or poetry. You are more of a visual person. You 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. All you have to do is thinking and taking conceptual photographs.

To help you get 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.

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, or 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 gender, the viewer invents his or her own story by looking at your photographs.

You have the possibility to explore the way 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.

But 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.

I think that quote still stands. It never leaves my mind.

Keep in mind that photography has its words, its vocabulary: its language. Learn it, implement it in the field and keep it simple.

If I had to sum up the how of conceptual photography, I would say that you just have to have an idea, find a way to implement it in your photos and then go out into the field to express it. Let your imagination wander.

A Conceptual Photo Gallery

Click on a thumbnail to enlarge the image.


To conclude I will say that to create your conceptual photos, I recommend that you list two or three ideas that you want to develop to show your vision of the world. Write them down, imagine how to implement them. Do not forget to be simple, direct. Go beyond illustrative photography. It will only make you better and your photographs will become more interesting.

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Article published on Friday, May 01, 2020 . Written by
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