The Art of Saying


The art of seeing has long been co-opted by the photographic community but its first use was likely Aldous Huxley’s unrelated 1942 book. We use this phrase to describe our own photography; that we possess some sort of gift, that our art is the ability to see and capture. I propose an end to this nonsense.

Art arises from artists who have good stories to tell about their subjects. Good composition is mere training and repetition, as evidenced by the many wonderful smartphone images I’ve seen by non-photographers and non-artists. A traditional operating mode for nature and landscape photographers is to find something beautiful; to use a wide angle lens; to stick something large, unrelated, and often obtrusive in the foreground and to keep the fingers crossed for an “epic” sky (apps can help you determine this but they can’t help you make art).  But when photographs lack a backstory and/or deeper interest (which admittedly may vary greatly depending upon the viewing audience) the most likely reply from viewers will be a terse “that’s pretty” (a death knell for the artist, a potentially positive outcome for the camera operator).

As an artist, I’m still trying to find my voice after more than twenty years of working at it. I’m still in an “entry level” position. “Overnight success” has proved apocryphal; artist is for the long-haul. If you love what you do and have a story to tell, what’s the rush? It takes years to understand what you need to and want to say and to learn how to say it. There is no competition despite the apparent F.O.M.O epidemic. Good cameras and software and a large social media following will not ensure artistry or success. Having good ideas that are worth expressing is probably a better path to a long, artistic career.

You are visiting the blog of landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.


6 thoughts on “The Art of Saying

  1. Absolutely! The main point of an artistic career is the art, not the career. As Sherwood Anderson wrote this to his son, “The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.”

  2. Well, you’ve made me feel much better. I seem to always feel like I’m right at the cusp of something sensational. I don’t think in terms of story however. For me art is an experience, as John Dewey so eloquently writes. If we can bring our viewers along on that experience, then I think we’ve succeeded.

    • Thanks for commenting here, Paul. As in my reply to Bob Younger: My piece was [too] brief, I was pressed for time, and didn’t cover every base I could have. And I’m with you: My photographs do not exist independent of experience. My photographs are never made from car windows or parking lots. A meaningful experience is priority, good photographs are secondary (a stimulating, long hike in the mountains doesn’t require a photographic reward). A photograph’s ‘story’ provides me something more to ponder while I relish in its beauty, and for me detailed narratives are more captivating than short stories. Thanks again.

  3. My experience of 5-6 decades mirrors Elizabeth Gilberts description of creativity. “Creating is co-creating with the universe; and understanding that the universe is not something that was just made a bunch of billions of years ago and has just been statically sitting there ever since. It is itself an act of curious creation that is constantly unfolding and becoming; and we are part of that. And when we participate in creativity we participate in the creation of the universe itself. So, the highest alignment that you can have with the original creative source that we all come from, whatever that mystery may be, is to work with it in the flow of making something, of turning something into something else.”

    Or, as Ruth Bernhard put it, “I look at ordinary objects, and I see things that other people don’t see. That’s why I’m a photographer.”

    Mastery of our photographic tools is what enables us to produce creative work; but attentiveness to the universe, to our world, to the here and now, and the ideas the universe inspires us with is what makes us creative artists, not merely technically sound camera users.

  4. “But when photographs lack a backstory and/or deeper interest (which admittedly may vary greatly depending upon the viewing audience) the most likely reply from viewers will be a terse “that’s pretty””

    I loved that part, Michael. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I discovered your blog a few days ago. Looking forward to read more of your entries. Cheers!

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