Photographers need projects. It’s fine to just go out and shoot, but unless you have a very distinctive style (as in earth-shatteringly beautiful or original), your pictures are going to look pretty much like the next photographer’s pictures. They won’t automatically be ‘art’.
This is something most shooters don’t want to hear. We all want to believe that we each have a unique viewpoint and that we are equipped with magic eyes that see deeply into things.
However, most of our pictures don’t start out as art. Too much of the making of the image is done by the camera-and the camera erases our individuality when it makes the picture. It is a picture-making machine. It has very little need for us at all.
This is why it is impossible to tell much about a what the photographer contributes just by looking at one picture-too much of what you are seeing was made by the camera. And even if the image has extraordinary subject matter, it could be luck or accident that made the picture work-being in the right place at the right time. With only one image to see, it is difficult to know how much the photographer had to do with it’s creation.
Painters do not have to suffer this kind of contingency. When they put paint on a canvas, it’s art. It may be bad art, or unsightly art, but it’s art. It is undoubtedly an original creation. They create something (from scratch), whereas photographers generally take images from reality and it is only the degree to which you can see the human hand in the making of the image that makes it art.
So if you are walking around snapping pictures of what interests you, at best, you are collecting the visual ingredients that may end up becoming art.
(Small digression-there are photographers who use elaborate techniques to make their pictures interesting, such as using antique processes like the wet collodion process. The process requires very long exposures for portraits, and as a by-product, the people all look ‘haunted’, as they do in very old photographs. The effect is very dramatic in the first photograph, but diminishes in the second and begins to look formulaic by the third, in my opinion. This is a case where the ‘arty’ look of a photograph ends up looking like what it is-a gimmick. Beware of arty-looking photographs!)
Where the Art is Made.
Remember, art is just a ‘way’ of describing something, so is science, so are politics. In and of itself, it doesn’t mean much and doesn’t convey much. Existence precedes it, especially with photography. When there is a lot of art and very little content, people refer to it as ‘art for art’s sake’ to indicate its diminished or narrowed importance. This is a problem primarily for painters.
Photographers, however, usually avoid this problem entirely, since they have to point their cameras at something. Something that exists. You would never hear someone say of a photograph that it is, ‘photography for photography’s sake’ which is to say, photography without content. For the most part content-less photography just doesn’t exist.
Photography is always ‘of’ something and what it is of, as Diane Arbus was fond of saying, is always far more important that what it is.
And this is why photographers need projects-something to shoot, some kind of subject matter to investigate. Remember, no great photographer was ever known for their style They were known first for their subject matter. Brassai-Paris Night Life, Arbus-Alienated People, Adams-Western Landscape, August Sander-Pre War German People, etc.
Once you have chosen a subject matter, you have a foundation like these great artists, upon which you can build something artistic. Ansel’s spectacular light effects, Brassai’s and Arbus’ confrontational light and camera angles, Cartier-Bresson’s deftness and visual complexity, they all emerge from their subject matter. Choosing your subject matter is the first step in making art. Photography is a very subject-matter based artform.
The second and final step in making art occurs when you choose (edit) your final frames from your body of work. If you do a good job choosing, your series (say, 5 pictures), people will see visual themes emerge from the set which will overarch all five of the pictures. These themes will become the skeleton of your artistic being.
So, these two steps, choosing your subject matter and choosing your final series are things only you can do, and if you do them, they will transform your photographs into art. Whether it’s good art will depend on the quality of your choices!