Moral Photography by James Lewicki

Vulgaris Magazine is inclusive of all opinions and debate on the subject of photography. The stated arguments here, or by any other authors writing in essay format, should not be taken as the stance of the publication. If you disagree with the author and can put into words why, we invite you to write your own response. If we think it is well thought out, we may vey well publish it. All photographs taken by the author. Though it should be noted that not all the photos are in the author’s style, nor shots the author considers good. They serve primarily as examples of his points, and are related to the paragraphs around them.

In the 21st century, two major interrelated technological factors have greatly changed how we take photos and how we engage with photography. The first major change was the advent of increasingly affordable digital technology allowing more photos to be taken more often by more people, and cheaper than ever before. I should also mention digital editing technology, which changed the level of control a photographer could exercise over a photo once it is taken. However, this improvement is overstated by those unfamiliar with analog editing technology. It is more an improvement in access than in capacity.


The second change can be found in the number of photos one can be exposed to on any given day. I speak here not of the increase in physical advertising, but of photography online. The effect of these changes cannot be understated. For instance, one must praise the expansion of accessibility to photography that this new era has brought. More photos can be taken by more people, more often, with less effort, and with less understanding of the physicality of the camera. Indeed, cameras themselves are somewhat less physical than before, in so far as what were once chemical reactions, are now more digital. Likewise, more photos are viewed than ever before, thanks to social media and the aforementioned changes in making photos. As by the old rule that every thesis creates its own counter thesis, partly in response to these digital trends. Though, sadly some who have embraced the film revival have done so in a misguided attempt to reassert control over the photographic, or rather what can be ‘real’ photography. Those who do so miss the emancipatory potential of digital photography. Of course, this response, however damaging, is understandable. There are a greater number of properly skilled photographers than ever before. With the ability for nearly anyone to take thousands of photos at minimal cost, and by fluke if not skill to produce stunningly beautiful and ‘good’ photos at very least upon occasion, those who embrace the film revival for the wrong reasons may be watching their expertise evaporate like a pot of water forgotten on the stove. The impact on the field as a whole is to greatly deflate our collective ability to discuss a photographer’s skill by citing composition and technique. As such, that water of the photographers’ excellence has left the stove for the clouds, a lofty idea, and fallen down like water into a vast ocean of photo-creators, adrift without any evaluative criteria.


I perceive a conflict that pre-exists our current era, but has been strengthened by contemporary developments. It is between what I call capture-focused photographers and conceptual-photographers, as well as atmosphere-focused photographers, which are group somewhat in-between the two, uncommitted to both the chase inherent to the capture-focused photographer and the philosophical rigor of the conceptual-photographer. Capture-photographers I define as those focused primarily upon the uniqueness, rarity, and beauty of whatever object, animal, or person the photo is of. Whether it be Bjork, Boat-billed heron, or Bolingbroke Castle, these photographers will stop at nothing for the perfect shot of their subject. This form of photography should not be wholly dismissed as it has a highly important use as practical photography in so far as it serves as documentation. However, there are some material concerns that might raise some moral qualms.


Foremost, capture-photography raises problems of availability, the first of which is the availability of subject matter. Like those who reject digital photography as photography altogether, capture-photography and its availability problems serve ultimately to reduce the mass of photography, and to provide new objective criteria for evaluation. In privileging the uniqueness of the subject matter, photographers become restrained by their surroundings, and, therefore, by their economic standing and amount of free time. This is most notable in capture-photography that privileges natural locations, although much architecture photography can also be criticized on these grounds. Either the photographer must live near particularly stunning environments or have the free time and money to travel to suitable locations on a regular to semi-regular basis.

This first problem is compounded by capture-photography’s second availability problem, specifically related to nature-photography as a subset of capture-photography. The nature-capture-photographer is also dependent on possession of the appropriate, often expensive, plethora of cameras and lenses that are all-but demanded in the field because of the upward drift in technical requirements caused by an undue focus on specifications as an evaluation criterium. Capture-photography, more than any other form, is restrained by one’s economic ability; the capture of the rare bird, exotic flower, or lofty gargoyle will simply not be as good unless outfitted with the highest grade of technology. Capture-photography has an elitist streak to it. It attempts to reassert the old economic restrictions that the digital era has done away with. Thus, it cannot be a primary way to evaluate photography if anyone cares to do so ethically and meritocratically. It should also be noted that capture-photography’s relationship with environments, due to privileging the ‘unique,’ often results in an orientalist or exploitative relationship with the subject.


We need a way of evaluating and considering photography now that technical skill and composition have largely become matters of easy, if monotonous, repetition. Clearly, capture-photography cannot provide a framework for this assessment that abides common morality. We must then turn to the two remaining, interrelated forms of photography: conceptual and atmospheric. Atmospheric-photography is the closest of the two to traditional technical evaluation. The atmospheric primarily focuses on the evocation of emotion through the image. Unlike capture-photography, it is not in service of awe or beauty, but a wider range of emotions, often confused and muddled together. This is also true of traditional technical-photography, however discussions of intention, focus, colour balance, and composition become secondary to the image’s value as a canvas of emotional information. In this respect much, although certainly not all, abstract photography can be considered to fall into the broad realm of atmospheric-photography.  It should also be mentioned that I am by no means claiming that atmospheric-photography is new, nor is it purely distinct from other forms; often, it blends and merges with conceptual, technical, and even capture-photography. Classification then becomes an issue of balance, where the photograph is atmospheric when those aims are highlighted over technical proficiency, subject, and concept. As an expressive form, atmospheric-photography both the most accessible and least objective form of photography.


Lastly, let us consider conceptual-photography. Conceptual-photography does not exist in a pure state, and is often blended with one of the other forms. Conceptual-photography shares with capture-photography that there is no requirement of beauty. Even atmospheric-photography’s ugliest picture makes a claim in its production of emotion to have a relationship with beauty. If it is not beautiful itself, its ability to produce emotion is. Conceptual-photography can, if it chooses, be quite boring without being ‘bad’. Instead, conceptual-photography centres upon the exploration or exclamation of an idea. The photograph serves either as a process of questioning or asserting a concept. It is limited by the artist’s ideas, as well as their ability to explore them. In conceptual-photography the idea is perhaps synonymous with talent, so long as it is explored well. The conceptual-photographer exhibits artistic talent in its most typical sense. To this extent, when we consider conceptual photography talent can be conceptualized as the ability to effectively explore an idea. Therefore, conceptual-photography is as meritocratic as atmospheric-photography.


This, however, is by no means a simple thing to evaluate, as one must be wary of effecting author intent when evaluating a conceptual-photography piece. To some extent we can recover from this problem with the idea that authorial intent is not inherently tied to the ability to explore a concept or idea in the work. To take a literary example, Tolkien was firm in his stance that his intention was not to discuss World War Two, yet that has not stopped many an academic from arguing that The Lord Of The Rings can serve as a rich delve into the British mindset of Nazi atrocities. Of course, a work will always be richer if the author provides legitimacy to the exploration, but if to some extent themes are allowed to be the product of the subconscious. Of course, there is always a case to be made for intent, and I would hazard a guess that photography will always be partially dependent upon intent. What’s worse, is that today conceptual-photography is threatened by the opposite issue, that too few people are interested in taking a lengthy look at a photo. Social media is literally designed around privileging the eye-popping photo that takes no more than ten seconds to digest. The key for these platforms is for the photo to hold the attention of the viewer long enough for a like. This, in turn, trains the viewer to interact with the photos different, to not ask ‘why did this photographer think this was exceptional/worth posting’. Thus, conceptual-photography is threatened by its greatest strength, that within it talent is defined in relation to an authors ability to assert a concept and the audience’s ability to “get it”.


Unfortunately, neither atmospheric or conceptual-photography are fully egalitarian, for one’s ability to explore is still dependent on material economic limitations. For instance, if one wishes to explore a concept utilizing actors, props, or locations, they become again dependent upon their economic ability to acquire said things. Of course, one can ask friends to stand in as models, and acquire fairly adequate props at a cost that it would be difficult to argue stands as too great an impediment. However, the photographer is still greatly challenged by unequal access to locations, especially if one wishes to shoot a particularly complex scene in a private establishment, like a movie theatre or a restaurant. Still, while there is a level of restraint, a strong conceptual-photographer, especially one who fuses it with atmospheric-photography, should be capable of exploring ideas well enough, in unique and fascinating ways, that the type remains fairly meritocratic in a way that capture-photography does not. Therefore, it is my opinion that it is capture photography’s ethic, and thereby its definition of talent is the most appropriate to adopt as we move forward in this new era.


This, then brings forth its own troubles, as already mentioned, the social media platforms that can make a photographer’s career are the same ones that privilege in their algorithms easy digestibility, in the form of beautiful, but surface level photos, that ask the viewer to engage only long enough to understand the narrative of what is going on within the photo. If this narrative is too obscure, or complex, the photo is not what the platform is looking for. Yet, might not this talented complexity be exactly what defines art? Is the ability to last, or at least to withstand the digestive force of viewing, aka consuming, media what makes that media art? These are questions outside the scope of this essay, but it still must be said, that if we are to accept that a depth of meaning or potential meaning is what defines good photography from bad or sensationalist capture-photography, we must begin to change the way we interact with photography on social media, and at large. To a great extent, I see Vulgaris Magazine as playing an active role in its central goal, of providing voice and analysis to photographers. It holds that the up and coming photographer deserves analysis alongside the big names, and that they perhaps need it more, as they are the ones who struggle for recognition of their talents.


To read more of James’ essays, have a look at other entries here.

To see more of his photography, be sure to have a look at his Instagram and Flickr accounts.



Kira is an avid enthusiast of photography, poetry and the arts in general. She holds a degree in Communications and English Literature at the University of Ottawa.

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