The Stages of (Being) a Photographerin all seriousness…
(a bloggy kind of post… if you want to read a mini book ;))disclaimer: this text is written from a fine art perspective; my views hereby expressed apply exclusively within this mindset.
A few months ago, I shared this graph as a humorous take on the lifecycle of “being a photographer”. Since then I’ve looked at it a couple more times, and I started to wonder if it would pass muster as a serious
(rather than humour) take. Now, I think it does
. So I am addressing it again, this time “in all seriousness” (my goofy side will likely return on the next post ;)).
I searched for the origin of this graph so that proper credit could be attributed, and also to see if it was originally a serious or otherwise fun take on the subject. I keep losing track on a reference to a blog entry that doesn’t exist anymore, by a photographer called Robert Benson. I estimate this to be the origin of it, and a photography forum called /p/ to be the intended showcase (hence the /p/ mention in the graph). But I’m not 100% sure of this provenance.
Seemingly all entries of this graph on the internet assume it to be satirical. I think that misses out on very important points. The graph is far from a blueprint on said lifecycle, because it makes assumptions regarding i.e. the start of the journey that often won’t apply (they don’t apply to me, for instance). Still, the overall picture tells a thousand words — the 1000 words I’m using here, maybe?
So, then, here’s my serious look at this. Remember that my ensuing comments have a serious nature, therefore I won’t make cracks where it would be easy
to do so. Remember as well that these are my
views and opinions… they’re not supposed to be “the Truth” about anything. And
the mindset here is fine art, so I won’t bother with ‘all other uses’ for photography; which are plentiful and all quite valid. But if this article makes you think about photography — even if only to disagree with me — then that fits my purpose with writing it.Knowledge
I certainly did not start photographing with a 7GP phone camera. I started photographing with a Nikon film camera, back in the 80s (a Nikkormat, to be specific). The “seven gigapixels” reference is a key hint that this was originally a humorous take on the subject, say I.
But I do agree that getting out of auto
mode and learning about exposure
will ramp one’s knowledge of photography immensely from the 0 start mark. In turn, that’ll easily fall into gearfaggotry, and that “must have” of the new gadget, the new gear, the new software, the new this, the new that. The industry makes sure it feeds the desire for this, as do all those ‘in the payroll’ of the sector companies (and often very far apart from anything even remotely connected with fine art themselves). This often happens at the expense of quality and knowledge indeed, because in order to learn to use those new gadgets, we are spending valuable time that we could be using to improve our relevant photography knowledge. So yes, the knowledge progression does
decrease until we grow out of that, aptly named, gearfaggotry, and we concentrate on what really
I have never seen a photograph by Ansel Adams, or Richard Avedon or Jay Maisel for that matter, where the gear used to make it stands out by itself. Not even the work of say Joe McNally, some of which may have a style where gear is involved (i.e. one single off-camera light source), but which brand and model of gear is besides the point. Throw these guys any camera, and they’ll likely create master works anyway.
Yet these days, it’s fantastic how many people out there — even some pros, and some fine art pros — are making their artwork stand out as “a product of camera X”, that they “master”, that “only the pros have”, that is “the best camera for this kind of photo” and the use of which they “spent a lifetime perfecting”. Marketing ruses, most of them (and bad ruses at that); gearfaggotry of the highest order the remaining ones.
Gearfaggotry is fuelled by the industry for ‘the discrete majority’ of photography fans out there who, quite frankly, have no inkling in going into the creation of fine artwork. Cute pictures of flowers and cats suffice. The ‘problem’ is when the rest of us get easily mired in that argumentation.
Once we move on from gearfaggotry, we are then free to spend our precious time actually learning about photographic art. And technique, composition and practice are key factors of that. I don’t think that film cameras are a must here (but they certainly help), and I think there are key aspects not mentioned. The quality of the light
is one of them, and the foremost absent mention from the graph is the knowledge of how we see
(i.e. how the human visual system works), as well as its difference to the way a camera (sensor/film) sees
light. All these are key for our understanding of photography.
We surely can keep improving our knowledge via these aspects, in the safe knowledge that we’ll never
reach 100% before we kick the bucket. No one ever has, but we can keep trying to, and that’s a huge part of the fun of photographing.Quality
I don’t want to veer off-topic on this one. There are mountains of books written on this subject alone, and many of them make the exact same mistake that many individuals out there make — not least because those people are reading those books, and some of them are writing ‘em. Remember that I’m still talking about fine art here, not “photography at large.”
Something does not have quality
simply because it sells. In photography as in art at large as in anything else. The vast majority of people cannot fathom the difference between the two, but there’s a huge difference here. Products and services sell because there is a market for that
product or service, and in this regards they are legitimate products and services. They have the relevance of addressing the needs of that
segment of the population. But if a segment of the population desires garbage, and I create a product which is garbage, it’ll sell wonderfully to that segment and perhaps even make me millions in the process. It won’t magically be a quality product just because of that; it’s still garbage, and its success is merely a product of an adequate selling proposition — often artificially created for that matter.
So after this long intro, how does the graph fare on quality?
The quality of our photos increases with our understanding of key photography aspects, such as exposure.
Once we get to the “I must have that X” (X=camera/lens/tripod/etc), and we start dispersing our knowledge trying every gadget out there, quality does suffer; often a lot
. We are back on the low end of the learning curve for that
particular gear or tool.The HDR hole
, which is the first element of the graph that made it humorous to me back in the day, represents this very well. It is often the most common culprit of this massive quality drop, especially for those “7GP phone camera” pedlars who see HDR as something that ‘must’ be played with because it looks ‘cool’. Incidently, calling someone a photographer just because s/he has a phone with a camera is akin to calling yourself a writer just because you write emails. And considering one of those people a Fine Art Photographer is the same as considering yourself a Literature Nobel Prize winner, on the same analogy. There are far fewer fine art photographers out there than the count of those that claim to be one.
I think I won’t break anyone’s heart by stating that the vast majority of “HDR” we see out there is… oh boy, how do I put it… ghastly! HDR used as a “style,” as a “voice,” as a “personal view” of the world, often leads to results that are nowhere near fine art. They can be pop art, for sure; but fine art has tenets that those images simply don’t comply with. It is entirely legitimate work! But it is monumentally tiresome to look at that, and
it is most often misused by incorrectly handling the software that creates it — which, by the way, often places a digital signature on the end image; which should be that of the artist instead, not of a piece of software. It serves the needs of a large segment of the population because the vast majority of people can enjoy pop art;
but it does not by itself cater for the visual culture of those that consume fine art.
“HDR” can be
a wonderful tool and technique for fine art photography, because (1) cameras see light different than we do, and (2) the state of the art in sensor making is still not close to our human visual system. Some cameras have an advantage on dynamic range (and in the future they may
come very close to our vision), but the vast majority of prosumer cameras are still far away from that. “HDR” comes in handy in those cases, as well as other elements such as filters. Used as a tool, “HDR” can bring the captured image closer to our eye vision, and in that regard be used at the service of the artistic vision.As an aside here,…
…noticed that I am using “HDR” in quotes all this time? That’s because HDR (the popular reference) is not
HDR (a high dynamic range image). There could be a whole book on this subject (there likely is), but the fact of the matter is that the dynamic range (DR) of a photograph does not change
when we use “HDR” software on it. It is still the same, because it is limited by the DR of the monitor we are seeing it in, or the paper or other medium we are seeing a print of it in. What we have is a perceived
DR increase by using the technique appropriately, but the actual DR limits of the photograph are the same
. Want to increase the DR of your photographs? Use print media with higher DR capabilities. Easier said than done, but possible nevertheless.
Once we understand that the issue is perception
, then once again the knowledge of “how we see” kicks in as fundamental. Which is why it is lacking in the graph, as I said.
This fall into a quality hole around gearfaggotry time is as valid for “HDR” as for many other things (editing software is one of the foremost, as mentioned ahead and seen on the graph). At the end of the day, once we get out of this hole a wonderful, magical thing happens: we resume improvement of our photographic quality, and
the ramp is now set higher than it was before we got in the hole (see that in the graph?). In short, we benefit from the learning we get by falling into that hole! Which is why we must welcome the fact that we are — or have been — in there in the first place.Self-Appreciation
This is the hardest of the topics to comment on, because it depends a lot on individual personality. The graph is made for the ‘common online digital photography’ use, in this topic, rather than for fine art. Still, there are important nuggets here for the serious photographer.
Starting high is common because we just found something new, that we are passionate about, and where we want to excel. We are on top of the world. Quickly dropping to a serious low is also common: when we start understanding what we’re actually doing, we see how terrible our initial attempts at it were.
Then comes the dreaded phase, and this is where I think the graph is spot on: the hole! Matching with gearfaggotry and
the other two great culprits: social media and editing software. Let’s look at these two separately.
(1) Social media: it may come as a surprise to you (seen as you are reading this in social media), but this is not a medium for fine art photography. For starters, there is no such thing as a fine art digital image (a fine art photograph is necessarily a print. Period). This would be a subject for another (large) book, and I’m not going to discuss it here now. But. A. Fine. Art. Photograph. Is. A. Print. Not any
print, of course, but a print nonetheless.
What we have on social media is a mix of audience segments (read: individual motivations), which range from those that will +1/like every single image out there, to the myriad of niche segments for every type of “image look and style”. It is quite probable that whatever (what ever
) we post will find an eager audience out there, and be “liked” by some. Which will give us the illusion (nay, the delusion) that we are great photographers and produce great art. We may or may not do that, but social media appreciation is surely not a measure of it. Nor is lack of social media acceptance of our posts a measure of lack of fine art photography on our side.
I’ve written a report a year ago about the G+ dynamics that matches this perfectly, imo: whatever we post has a potential appreciation (+1, re-shares) that is bound by certain expectable levels. Recently I found out a slight break of this rule — which I will not dive into in here — but in general I largely see this as remaining the same.
The vast majority of the photographic content on G+ is mediocre. And browsing on Saturdays is sure to give one a headache, with the dreadful caturday
in full force.
(2) Editing: this one goes hand in hand with the previous one. We edit to our heart’s content — and sometimes to our madness content — and show it on social media… high chances are it’ll be liked by some tribe! That doesn’t make it a work of fine art, but we invariably think it does, and we feel there’s no limit to our ascension. The graph depicts it pretty well.Then comes the fall.
For some it may be in a forum such as /p/ (I have browsed it and found it largely irrelevant; the author of the graph obviously didn’t agree). For others it may be some other kind of ‘peer recognition.’ For me it is the fine art print. “The print” is the element most missing in this graph, from a fine art perspective. As I said above, a fine art photograph is a print.
I’ll assume it is included in the techniques
chapter in here.
Last year I created some high quality prints (not fine art ones, but still photographically premium), and put them in front of ‘the crowd’ out there. The appreciation was great, and I didn’t think that I sucked in any way. This year I am creating certified fine art prints, and I’m putting them in front of qualified
people for that assessment. I’m very scared of what the reaction will be, as much as I am eagerly anticipating it. It’s a wonderful experience and I still
don’t think I suck. But boy has the game changed now! The huge step up has the potential for the huge drop, and I’ll be here at the end of this year to report the results (hopefully not the damage!
The learning experience is fundamental for my progression as a fine art photographer, and I believe it to be the same for anyone else that seriously follows that path too. Whether that’ll cap my self-appreciation the way the graph depicts, I don’t know. I hope it doesn’t, because I don’t like that
aspect of fine art photography. It’s all good to be humble, but not acknowledging one’s self-worth is a huge mistake that does more harm than good.In Closing
Overall, I’d say that I do not see this lifecycle as an ‘established’ progress path for a photographer. Many people get stuck in a phase and don’t… progress?… advance?… move on?… grow? (delete as applicable). But for those of us that have photography as a passion, and want to be serious about it — whether professionally or as an amateur, it’s the same — then this lifecycle makes a lot of sense. And being conscious about it is paramount to navigate it with minimal frustration, and to quickly shed elements that hamper progression — such as gearfaggotry, reliance on editing and faux ’techniques’ such as “HDR” (as a style).
Now that I’m firmly set on(real) fine art photography creation — and have read and am reading heaps of stuff in that regard — these points make all the sense to me. If you have a mind about fine art photography, as an artist or as a collector of it… what say you? (everyone else need not respond)
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