On the idea of photographic education. Maximum bling?

It's always about the look.  Not about the light.

If my son were to come to me and ask me to teach him photography what would I say?  How would I do that?  There are many people today who would tell an aspiring photographer that he needn't pursue a traditional education at a college or university.  They would state (and believe) that everything you need to learn to be successful is on the web or can be learned at a series of daylong or weekend long workshops.

But would that be enough to make one a good photographer or even a successful photographer?

I guess the first thing we should do if we pursue this topic is to make a demarcation between good and successful.  Most would point to financial success as a critical marker.  And in that regard mastering the bare mechanics of a plastic art and wrapping a cocoon of business strategy around it might be enough to engender what the typical man in the street would call success.  If you can make a process routine, predictable and appealing you may well be able to somewhat mass produce the process and sell the same basic steps over and over again.  The process of learning from lighting diagrams, charts and "behind the scenes" shot is, to good photography, what "paint by numbers" is to real painting.

As the field of photography broadened over the last decade it attracted more and more people who, by dint of their demographic, didn't have the luxury of learning in any other way than by putting their feet on the "dance diagram on the floor" and trying to follow the numbered steps.  And I understand that for many this was the available path.  A photographer educated in this way is looking for rules and steps that make the photographic product easier and repeatable.

The last decade has also seen plenty of technically trained individuals from other disciplines enter the field, both as hobbyists and as practitioners of commercial photography, at least as a part time business.  They understand, from their other careers, the idea of certification and of credentialing, even if it is informal.  For this reason they also seek out the "standard operating procedure" and try their best to follow it.  Many times adopting and slavishly following the artificial boundaries proposed by one or another "master" of the trade that they've chosen to follow.

In all of the above there is one common thread:  Mastery as a process of memorizing steps, routines, formulae and procedure.  It's a process of quantification meant to bring comfort to the practitioner because it conveys a sense of high proficiency.  But this idea of proficiency is incidental to the true nature of the art of photography.  And that is the attempt to make images that reach out and touch another person, emotionally or intellectually, without necessary regard for commerce.

As David Hobby, Joe McNally, David Ziser, Kirk Tuck. Zack Arias and many, many other commercial photographers have proven, if you are selling a learning experience centered around technical stuff you can nearly always pack the house.  And I included myself because I don't want the reader to think I have an axe to grind with any one of my contemporaries.  I've shamelessly filled up workshops on small flash and studio techniques to financially leverage both my books and my years of making plentiful but largely unremarkable images in the service of industry.  

BUT this approach, even if it is in hot demand, does a  disservice to photography as an art form and to the artistic growth of each individual because it totally discounts the value of the idea, of the overarching concept, of the construct and of the subject, separate from the technique.  The technical approach makes photography more about how to apply bling to an object with quantifiable intention (how many and what size rhinestones, how much glitter per cm2)  rather than how to represent the power of the object itself.  We've become all about how something was lit and we've (for all intents and purposes) rejected the value of the subject itself as anything more than a canvas on which to demonstrate our proficiency.  Or, at an even deeper level, we've stopped thinking about what we WANT to say and now only concentrate on HOW to say things.  

A reader asked me, in a comment, why I seemed to be taking "shots" at David Hobby and Joe McNally lately.  Other than a reference to "lighting with 40 flashes" mentioned in the Michael O'Brien book review I really don't think I have done that.  But I want to be very clear that I think David Hobby and Joe McNally are good teachers of technique.  David especially.  But they've chosen to focus on teaching technique exclusively.  And why not?  They are answering a market demand.  People want to know what they have to teach.  And they are marketing their product (teaching about technique) well.

But any comments I've made are to discuss the disconnection between the slavish following of technical teachers and the intention of doing any real art.  And let's be clear....I don't think a commercial practitioner has to make work that ascends to the level of capital "A" art but why would they not want to?  And the hobbyist, who has only himself to please, has no excuse not to undergo at least a cursory analysis of what they really want to share and what they really want to say with their work.

No, any protests I have are not aimed at any spurious idea that you don't need to understand technique.  Or that commercial photographers who've earned their stripes shouldn't jump in and monetize  the overwhelming demand for fundamental technical knowledge.  Most of my efforts in writing the blog are aimed at trying to spread the idea that there is much more to successful and compelling photography than technique, and while the aesthetic and critical side of photography seems much harder to monetize and sell thru workshops, and on the web, it's not less important than technique.  At some level the subject, and the point of view of the artist are the VERY reason to then learn the technique.  The techniques are invented to be in the service of art, not to replace it.  The idea should come first and then the solution.  Not the other way around.  And an understanding of art seems to require that we......study it.

The idea of studying art history is not to inculcate an academic framework into art, rather, it's meant to help people keep from endlessly re-inventing the same wheel.  Studying the art that's gone before is a way of helping to put in place a foundation that grows, generation by generation, and upon which each following generation can stand and continue to evolve.  

John Sexton studied photography with Ansel Adams but he did not go on to be an Ansel Adams clone.  He assimilated all that he learned and applied it to create a more nuanced personal vision of landscape photography.  Hiro assisted Richard Avedon and then emerged with his own style of imaging that was only tangentially referential.  His best work is imbued with a dry humor that eludes much of Avedon's work.

Some will and have argued with me that going to the workshops and  following daily the photo sites on the web is instrumental to their growth as photographers but I think they misunderstand their need for experiential entertainment and get that need mixed up with an over dependence on technical proficiency.  I am of the belief that workshops and step by step instructions might work to jumpstart the thought processes but, understanding your own vision and following it is something that comes from personal reflection and constant, solitary practice.

There is a great French designer of furniture I read about years ago who refused to look at any magazines, books or newspapers.  He didn't want to cloud his vision of what furniture should be by diluting his vision with anyone else's.  That may be a bit extreme but maybe the sharing stepped over the line from "helpful" to "damaging" and no one notices because everyone was having so much fun meeting each other and laughing at the same jokes.

Anything we learn technically is all built on a very few, simple laws of physics.  "The angle of incidence is equal to the angle of reflectance."  "The inverse square law."  The basics of depth of field and color temperature.  All of the hand tools (flashes, triggers, modifiers) we work so hard to master in detail are just ephemeral fluff and they'll be replaced in a year or two with something new and shiny and blingy.  Witness the revolving door of passion and then contempt for the lowly ringlight.  But that doesn't keep each new generation from adopting the ringlight, using it for everything and then tossing it aside when it become the ubiquitous reminder of the word, "fad".  

The thing that stays is the style and vision that your finally make your own.  I talked to Michael O'Brien yesterday and I want to paraphrase a thing he said to me in passing, about having an identifiable style.  To paraphrase, he said he was lucky to have been unable to do very much well.  It kept him focused on doing things he could do well all of his career.  And that's what gave him a singular style that kept (keeps) editors and art directors at his door.  It's a clarity of vision that comes not from mastering where to put the light stand but why and how the person in front of the camera is interesting and how to share that sense of interest with his audience.

So, what would I tell Ben?  First, I'd have him read all the great literature he could get his hands on.  Then college courses in math, science, engineering, art, music and theater.  Then a few years traveling around the world absorbing cultures and more art.  Eating good food.  Watching people.  Learning to be in the culture.  And then I'd have him read the instruction book for his camera, take a class in the fundamentals.  Teach him a few basics like why to use a tripod.  What light does (a morning of teaching a lifetime of learning) and how to make some basic light.  And then I'd simply tell him that all the science and technique in the world will not teach you how to have good rapport, a good temporary relationship, with the portrait subject and, that the single most important thing in the art is to create a space, separate from yourself and separate from your subject into which you can both move and play during your time together.  And that's something that a workshop somewhere should teach.  If it's possible.

    Nothing about lighting is hard or daunting.   One light.  One diffuser.  One subject.  Mix and spice to taste.  YOUR TASTE.

So, why did I write yet another preachy and opinionated blog.  In the pursuit of honest transparency it's probably the intermixing of three things I dealt with yesterday.  One was a comment accusing me of basically dissing Joe and David.  The second was a nasty review of one of my books that took me to task, partly because there were no lighting diagrams or step by step instructions in my Studio Book.  But mostly because I've been asked by my publisher to write a new edition of my first book and I'm trying to come to grips with settling back in to writing and shooting that project again.  It is, afterall, exactly what I'm railing about above.  And, of course, it makes me complicit in the whole "techno-process."

What really needs to be published is a guide to help you find out what you want to photograph, why you want to photograph that subject and how to make a vision that is unique to you.  Any takers?  Who's teaching that one?


Mary R said...

I am a terrible blog reader - I almost never comment, whether to criticize or especially to praise. As a novice and a learner, I appreciate all you've said. In this post and in so many others. Thank you - for this, for your blog, for your books. They help me in ways I can't explain.

Paulo Rodrigues said...

I think Freeman Patterson comes close to writing that book.


Dan Berry said...

Not me, but if you can write it I will buy it.

Anonymous said...

I think Kirk sums up what I've been feeling for at least three or four years. We've always talked about gear in the business from time to time but we also talked about what we were passionate about shooting. We talked about why we shot the things we did. And we didn't get off to shooting things just to show off the gear.

It's time we got back to doing projects that interest us. Whether it's landscape or portraits or a story about something.

And this is effecting video too. Way too many pieces like Vincent LaForet's Reverie where there is not story, only a "brochure" of different looks that pay homage to the tool. And if we do that it makes us a tool.

Unknown said...

As an educator, I love you advice to Ben to, "...read all the great literature he could get his hands on. Then college courses in math, science, engineering, art, music and theater. Then a few years traveling around the world absorbing cultures and more art." I think this is the path to success that many are missing in the nation. We as a nation, in my humble opinion, have become too specialized in many regards. I truly believe that our horizons need to be broadened far beyond our college major or tech training. I have a feeling your son is going to be an very fine young man. His dad is a great teacher! By the way, I love the location book.

Unknown said...

As an educator, I truly love your advice to Ben to, "read all the great literature he could get his hands on. Then college courses in math, science, engineering, art, music and theater. Then a few years traveling around the world absorbing cultures and more art." I truly believe that as a nation, we have become too specialized. We do not have the deeper understanding of the disciplines you mentioned. We should branch out fromour majors and tech training and realize, to paraphrase Muir, the whole universe is hitched together. I think Ben will be a fine young man. His dad is a great teacher. By the way, the location book is great.

Don said...

I must say that this post touches on a lot of things I think about on a daily basis.

Teaching requires a symbiotic relationship between a student and the teacher. The connection must be one of give and take... not demonstrable cloning, but an awakening in the student that ability that was there all the time.

Teaching one to 'see' is far harder than to teach someone how to 'do'... and we see few tangible rewards as we are reaching into a possible abyss of talent. Tangibles are so important.

We measure by tangibles. 2+2=4. Pi equals... whatever that number is.

A teacher of tools teaches to measurable standards. It is easier to do and commensurate with what is needed to become an artist.

I cannot play jazz on my sax until I know how to play the sax. My teacher that shepards/cajoles/drags me through the countless hours of scales and modes and blues scales and changes may not be the most creative player ever.

She is teaching me the tool. I will learn the music by practicing the instrument. I will become a player by mastering my own sound... one that may only be released after a full and solid background in the instrument itself.

Every one can learn to play the sax. Every one can learn to use a camera, even in the analog world. Developing film and post processing are techniques that can be learned and tweeked.

Seeing an image developing in your head and being able to bring it to fruition is the goal.

The challenge is to find ways to have people see that image in their heads beforehand. Jazz players are thinking 2-3-6 bars ahead. They KNOW what they are going to be playing before they get there and are planning for it even while playing something else.

Vision is seeing that finished image before pulling the camera from the bag.

Not sure it can be taught, or even that it should be taught. It must be lived and loved and experienced... as each will come to it in their own way.

Good post, my friend.

David said...

I would suggest looking at Alain Briot, to answer your question. Recently wrote:

I really likedthis post, it sums up my last 5 years of online reseach quite well.

put down the computer, pick up the camera and learn the art you need.

Unknown said...

Like many professional photographers I also teach photography courses here in Cairns, Australia every so often, and you're right it is a lot easier to teach the technical.
But on my last course I decided to touch on the concept of being true to yourself and creating images that come from within and found a mixed reception. I found the women seemed to be more interested in the concept than the men were.
A lot of the inspiration I received came from a book not on photography per se but the artistic process and that was The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron.
I think the exercises and projects in that book really help photographers hone in on who they truly want to be as an artist. I know it has certainly helped me a great deal and can't recommend it highly enough.

Michael Gowin said...

Have you read David duChemin's "Within the Frame" yet? I'm wondering if that's the book on vision for which you're looking.

And, yes, love your advice to Ben. Cheers.

Henry Lee said...

Kirk, thank you for your article (whose link I found from a tweet by @wizwow). I come from an analytical background by training, and while the quantifiable aspects of photography have their own appeal, I'm reminded time and again about photographic vision and the irresistible urge to try and express what it is we see and feel at a particular moment. Thanks again!

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Sorry but no on the David DeChemin book. I've read it but it never seemed to ring true. Almost as though it too was a formula....

Michael McKee said...

So you are arguing for a liberal arts as well as a technical education, if I understand correctly. Don't you know that the country is moving away from the "fluff?"

Sorry if that sounds a little bitter. I've used your lighting books to learn the technical basics. of flash photography. Now, I'm trying to learn what it is I want to convey with my photos. It's an interesting process, both frustrating and rewarding.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Michael, as a reformed electrical engineering major I would never suggest a full on technical education for any but the most linear among us. But neither am I an advocate for a strict liberal arts education. I believe, as did my father, that one should have a very broad education. Only by trying the "sampler plate" does on really understand which entry to order in earnest....

Michael Gowin said...

Sounds like you've got the concept for your next book then--I'll look forward to reading it!


neopavlik said...

Technical specs can be precise and measured, the reasons for shooting are varied and deep.

People probably fear rejection of putting their insides out there.

Anonymous said...

Well, it's pretty obvious that Kirk doesn't mind putting his thoughts out there. Takes guts.

Frank Grygier said...

I have to confess. I attended a workshop. OK maybe two. I guess I should put it all out there. I will attend two more before the year is over. I must also say that I enjoyed the experience and look forward the next with a great deal of anticipation. I also spend more time than I should searching YouTube for all the ways to shape light in the pursuit of the right technique. I even look forward to reading this blog. So what am I looking for? What do I hope to accomplish? As near as I can figure I simply want to be a better photographer. I have a passion for photography. Someday the light will fall across the face of someone I care about and I want to get shot right without thinking about it. I want to learn the rules so I can break them... Tell me the dates again for the Kirk Tuck Visions workshop....

Michael McKee said...


As a reformed geologist I'm in full agreement. Focusing too much on either extreme may be good for specialists, but for most of us the broader understanding opens up more door for creativity. Though I do have to say the the general public's ability to understand science is so poor it's scary.

Mike said...

I tend to seesaw between technique and concept as I learn. First, the question is "how can I shoot this idea," and that invariably becomes, "now that that's over with, how can I use this technique again." It is, was, and always will be - in any pursuit, a balancing act between skill of conception and execution.

But - as an amateur, one of the great frustrations I run into is that in amateur circles (at least, the ones I've moved in) critique boils down to a purely technical exercise. The legions of my photoshop-and-strobe armed peers can tell me endlessly how I could have better placed a light, or better sharpened an image - but precious little about composition and context.

Now, don't get me wrong, armed with a brilliant concept but lacking the technique to make it real serves no one, but from this side of the table I see my peers fixed wholly on the technique as you describe it being taught at the expense of bothering with composition.

From my vantage point, unfortunately, what you sum up as pithily as "bling" is so pervasive because hobbyists are hungry to learn - which it's difficult to do without feedback, and technical feedback and instruction is much simpler to package and distribute than critical and compositional.

I think the twist is, however, that as more and more readily available instruction turns technical, tastes start to prefer purely technical instruction, which creates a greater demand for it and so on.

Jan Klier said...

Good post. Sums up why I read fewer and fewer photography blogs and quit some forums. Too much talk, not enough doing.

Now one possibility is that this is simply a temporary glut. Before you can go out and shoot in a way that develops a vision, you have to have the basics down. And if you're doing it on the side of your 9-5 it will take longer to establish that baseline. You will also have fewer opportunities for a wider range of experiences to develop your vision.

So maybe this generation of hobbyists that entered the field and that is heard loud and clear online, simply hasn't gotten enough mileage yet to establish the baseline. Maybe some will graduate in the next 2-3 years, and others will drop out, and things will normalize a bit.

What I've found is that few of the working photographers hang out online (unless they've chose to teach workshops), for one reason or another. So what you see online is a very biased population. Go to an ASMP meeting or find out who is shooting assignments for big magazines, and it's a whole different picture.

Gino Eelen said...

Books and workshops are mostly technical because that is what can realistically be taught in the spacetime of a book/workshop I think. With all due respect to David DuChemin, Within the Frame is a good attempt but it eventually falls short of its goals of teaching 'vision' simply because it's a book. (I thouroughly enjoyed reading it though)

Art is about personal growth, about individuality and true expression, and there's no real 'technique' behind that (although mastering the tools can be helpful as Don remarks above). Nobody could have taught the young Ansel how to photograph like (and become) Ansel Adams, because that would imply there already was an Ansel Adams before him.

And because it is so personal, Art can only be 'taught' through indirect means (questioning, suggesting, enticing, and so on) which help you carve out your own individual path. And by definition that is a long-term process.

Technical critique is only valuable if your aims are purely technical. Saying "the picture is out of focus" and providing a lecture on depth-of-field is only valuable if the ultimate aim is to make a perfectly sharp picture. In Art that is beside the point.

I am learning a lot since I enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts, one of the best decisions I have ever made for improving my photography. If someone shows the teachers an out of focus photograph, they do not criticize it, but they ask questions: "Why?" "What does it convey for you?" "Would it be better if it were in focus, and why (not)?" They make you think about what you want and try to help you in your search of how to reach that goal. They will never tell you what to do or even how to do it. And that is not for everyone, because a lot of students (especially in the lower grades) are actually complaining that there is no real 'teaching' going on and drop out.

Which is probably what would also happen in a workshop setting - a lot of people would be dissatisfied and want their money back because the perceived, short-term return on investment would necessarily be low. So it is much safer (and wiser commercially) to focus on the technical stuff.

Sascha Welter said...

"If my son were to come to me and ask me to teach him photography what would I say?"

The same thing every photographer has said to their son. Give him a supply of film and an old camera. Bonus points if it's medium format. Take him to the darkroom and show him how to develop film and enlarge prints. (He can do the digital stuff on his own, but you have to show him the real roots of the trade.)

Everything else, all the "how to light" stuff, even all the "rapport in portrait session" stuff, he's soaked up from being around you all the time. Your jaw will drop when you observe him picking up the stuff 1000% faster than you - *if* he ever decides to take it up.

My father is a (now retired) photographer. I grew up in that studio. I never needed anyone to show me how to light stuff - I worked there for some time, but am not in professional photography any more.

Thabani said...


I'm sure that very few of us pick up our cameras just in order to try out a new lighting technique. The object usually is to say something in a manner that is unique to oneself.

Unfortunately, as you've so succinctly pointed out, many of us are getting stuck in the technical stuff and don't progress beyond that. For instance, take a look at any random page on the flickr strobist group pool and you'll see just how similar most of the images are. The models are different, the locations are different but the same concept repeats itself over and over.

Thanks for this thought provoking post. Perhaps you could share more thoughts on the process and discipline of developing as an artist

Frank Grygier said...

I have to commend Don Giannatti for his comments and thank him for all I learned at his Lighting Essentials workshop here in Austin. I want to thank Kirk too for telling me to go.

John Krumm said...

One thing about teaching seventh and eighth graders photography via little photo walks, the tech talk doesn't stick very well, but the art talk sticks better if I keep it simple. So the last walk, a little cliche, focus on "ugly/beautiful." Express ugly/beautiful in some way. Worked well. There's lots of it out there.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

The response to this particular blog has been pretty tremendous in the short time it's been up. Could I ask you to post comments that talk about what your particular passion in photography is and how you keep that front in center? In other words how you maintain your focus on your projects.

Thanks, Kirk

Jan Klier said...

Kirk - in response to your last question:

The easiest I find to keep focus is to use my portfolio as my map. My edited portfolio is the sum of what I have done to date. I can evaluate it in two ways - One is, what is my reaction when viewing it, am I satisfied, what I would do different in my past work, and how others react to my portfolio when I go to meetings. The other one is comparing my portfolio to work that is inspiring me - not in terms of emulating that work, but in terms of refining my visual style to capture the nuances I see out there but still lacking in mine.

With this method I can quickly judge if a particular project is something I should do, or is a waste of time (not that at time you'd do those anyway in the name of exploration or paying a bill, but it's always a conscious choice), and how I should approach a certain project. Afterwards I can judge if I made progress or spun my wheels.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Thanks Jan. Good feedback.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Tuck is very, very opinionated. But.....reminds me of the story of the King with no clothes. Or the analogy of a race car with no motor. Too bad more pros aren't speaking up and telling it like it should be.

Hugh Alison said...

Jan - great comment!

I have loads of stuff on-line, but I also have a 24 page A2 (17x23inches) printed portfolio - and it's the printed portfolio that counts.

I have avoided getting more page inserts for it - so a print has to be better than one of the existing ones if it's going to get in.

Concentrates the mind if you start thinking "will this produce anything good enough".

Alex said...

I think you son already knows more about photography than an average reader of your blog.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

I'm sure he knows more about cinematography than his father. He's done 40 or 50 projects to date. Including one PSA. I used him as a rhetorical device for the blog.

John Krumm said...

Perhaps my passion isn't particular enough, but I just find photography in general a lot of fun, so I don't usually hesitate to do it when I can. Teaching provides some deadlines and structure (I've got a little fine arts camp I need to prepare for soon, and a small class ongoing with weekly prints to make, and ten computers to monitor). But I just fit in the personal stuff whenever. For the past few years I've been shooting "under the canopy" landscapes and enjoying the challenge. Living surrounded by national forest, it draws you in. Really though just about anything is fun given enough time. I had fun showing my wife how to take my passport photo the other day.

Anonymous said...

Kirk, 'Vision & Voice: Refining Your Vision in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom' by David duChemin might be a book example you're looking for.

Speaking as someone late to the game without any money to spend on bling conversation has value insofar as it's a platform to understanding and, maybe, some amount of emotional support.

What motivates me? Self actualisation? Crystalising the world and feeling connected? Being able to capture *something* and feel my life isn't totally draining away with some tangible form of accomplishment. Filling an empty void in a way that doesn't involve thinking or worrying just doing?

yansen said...

I studied photography in hurry since I opened a Kodak lab and a photographic studio at that moment. I knew nothing about photography at that moment. Because the photographer who worked in my studio was a jerk, I had to study photography as soon as I could to replace him. The things I did:

-Take a short basic photographic course

-I printed tons of material about photography from internet including yours, Don's, David's and others'

-I practiced shooting and lighting using my employees night and day till the got bored and quited

-I made friends with a lot of ladies, and photographed them as many as possible

Now, I am not a pro anymore, but still photography is my passion. I still do the things above regulary. Especially, one thing never changes: I always follow your blog everyday, Kirk

All best

yansen said...

I studied photography in hurry since I opened a Kodak lab and a photographic studio at that moment. I knew nothing about photography at that moment. Because the photographer who worked in my studio was a jerk, I had to study photography as soon as I could to replace him. The things I did:

-Take a short basic photographic course

-I printed tons of material about photography from internet including yours, Don's, David's and others'

-I practiced shooting and lighting using my employees night and day till the got bored and quited

-I made friends with a lot of ladies, and photographed them as many as possible

Now, I am not a pro anymore, but still photography is my passion. I still do the things above regulary. Especially, one thing never changes: I always follow your blog everyday, Kirk

All best

Frank Grygier said...

The creative vision I have is limited at this moment by my lack of technical knowledge. I see images in my mind that I cannot create. Lessons learned from those of you who have captured the images that you see as art are guide posts for me along my journey. The simple equations I learn from you and others are the building blocks of my formula for the art I want to create. Photography is science and art.

Anonymous said...

Some years ago Kodak handed single use cameras to a bunch of kids with only the essential instruction on their use. They asked them to take pictures of things that made them happy. Some of the pictures were just amazing. Without all the photographic imformation overload that clutters our minds (mine too) the kids could just have fun.

mbka said...

All good points. The first time I saw the idea of art becoming less and less about meaning and more and more about technique, was in Levi-Strauss' "The savage mind". He points out that the whole development in say, painting, was to become more and more proficient in what can be done while there was less and less meaning in the pictures, until it all became abstract.

On meaning in photography - it is very hard to disentangle a lot of motivations for photography that co-exist. What the internet deluge has shown me is that a lot of what I thought were interesting photos, lost interest for me because I saw too many similar ones out there, expertly done no less. So that shows how much pure novelty value was the real cause of my appreciation.

Now that novelty is out of the way as motivation, 'what can be done', what's left? Well, either conveying genuine feeling (art as communication) or absolutely outstanding beauty, in the sense of James Joyce via Joseph Campbell, producing 'esthetic arrest' in the viewer, by works without other purposes or thoughts. That means every time you are about to take a picture you shouldn't have anything conscious in mind to communicate. Obviously these two ideas contradict each other superficially. I think deep down they don't: if you manage to convey what you felt in a particular situation, you show someone else how it is to see with your eyes. So you don't pretend to 'communicate facts' (showing 'reality' in journalism or such) but you do communicate, in essence, what you are, all of yourself. You show what you looked at. The way you do this is via framing in all its meanings (plug for a short feature I once wrote on that aspect: http://news.deviantart.com/article/125265/ ).

That means that to focus and center yourself on your work, before anything else, you have to feel something. To get better at this, in some sense, you have to practice awe.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

I am humbled and happy to actually have someone correctly inject Claude Levi-Strauss into the conversation on my blog. Great comment.

Bill F said...

As usual, good stuff, Kirk. You are within a hair of breaking on through to the other side.


Unknown said...

That IS a helluva post to top, so I won't try.

I maintain focus by working on a point of view that needs to be put out there. Right now I'm worked up about our over-multiplexed world of ever more superficial communication, with less and less thought put into anything.

I'm working on encouraging the viewer to Stop. Think. Feel. Maybe the only one I'll reach is me; if so, that will have to do.

Charles "Rain" Black said...

My signature on a photgraphic forum reads "Some people are photographers, and some are camera technicians. There is a difference".

I majored in music education in college. I had to deal with many students who wanted to get right to making the music they'd heard which inspired them to pick up the instrument. Some of them eschewed learning technique properly. The result was the same: they never could make the music they wanted to make.

On the other hand, there were students who all they thought about was the technique. They mastered it. Yet they too could never make the music they wanted to make. They forgot that the technique is not the music. It's the fertilizer which helps the music grow from the soil of one's own heart and imagination.

Technique without imagination and passion is lifeless, no matter how good the technique.

deb schwedhelm photography said...

i was forwarded your blog post from a friend and i absolutely loved reading every single word. my friend and i actually teach a photography workshop and this is the exact point we try and get across, when we spend half a day speaking on inspiration, vision and style. it's hard though...people want to be taught these concepts, just as they're taught the technical aspects of photography and that is simply impossible.

anyways, i just wanted to thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

i now haver your blog added to my reader and i look forward to future posts.

deb schwedhelm

Jock Sturges said...

When I teach the ONE thing I hope to accomplish is to help my students discover just what their unique voice in art might be. Thus almost the most important thing I have them do is to bring a quantity of the work they have already done so that I can look for them in it. If what I see is a lot of photographic technique (polished or not) then I know that I am very likely faced with a love of "photography" for its own sake and that the search for self will not be easy. But if I see a spark of self in an image or two or, best of all, in a current throughout the whole of their work, a spark that says to me, "only THIS person could have made this work because only THIS person could know what is here, then the game begins in earnest.

I live at the fine art end of the photographic spectrum so I make the assumption that people kind enough to select my tutelage are looking to move beyond the craft as a living to the level of photography as artistic nourishment for the soul. That sounds at once reductive and grandiose but I've never claimed not to be a romantic. The engine in my work is the engine of my life after all.

The photographic "problem" is actually pretty simple to describe, however hard it might be to accomplish: it's what photographs are "about" that matters. Plain and simple. If they are about a thirst for the admiration of ones technical peers then they are about photography itself and while that is an engaging hobby such work holds little or no place in the eye of art. No, I am always looking for something in the work that has nothing to do with photography -- something the pictures of which are but a single symptom of the artist's grand passion. Here's my personal litmus test: if you took a photographer's cameras away would the association and relationship with the thing/person/place he or she had been photographing endure? Would Ansel have still adored being in the SIerrea Nevada? Yes! Would E Weston still have been involved with all his fascinating women? Yes and Yes! Etc., etc. OK, those are obvious examples. How about Vivian Maier -- the recently discovered previously unknown street shooter in Chicago. What is her work ABOUT...? How about "a morbid fascination with her own alienation tinged with a sadly unfulfillable hunger for community." That's simplistic -- just the beginning of the important discussion of her wonderful work. Who was the person making the work and why? Not how. That's a minor discussion by comparison. Essential but... 1% of what's hard.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Jock, Thanks. That's what I was trying so hard to say.

Unknown said...

I've been sitting here for about ten minutes trying to figure out my response to this blog post. Generally, I'm on board with what you're saying. This time I think you're being overly harsh.

Still, you did spur some good conversation in the comments here.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Nope Jessica, Never too harsh. But you are right, we did get a lot of good conversation going....

mbka said...

Kirk, thanks, I'm even happier if my comment actually made sense... I was about to say some more when Jock Sturges said it better than I had it planned... Btw Jock Sturges commenting on your blog posts - assuming it really is the man - you have assembled quite a community here...

Let me go at it from yet another angle. I did quite some photography of landscapes but I would not want to call it "landscape photography". A lot of landscape photography bores me. It's probably an area where photography-as-wallpaper is most endemic. (along with cutesy dolphin shots). The most depressing thing once happened when I walked into photographers' galleries in Santa Fe, NM. All these gorgeous Ansel Adamesque prints, and no feeling. Pointless expertise. I can't recall who I got this from, I think Paul Shepard of human ecology fame, but "landscape" as a concept was more or less invented by the 19th C romantic painters. Instead of being a space where you live, landscape became an esthetic object you hang on the wall. At that point the artist became disconnected from the space itself and alienated from it. If you can't feel the connection it is just a meaningless assemblage of colors.

And I think this point is valid for photography. It's almost like the twin evils of photography are pure representationalism on one end and pointless esthetic on the other. As art though, the relation of the artist's feeling to the photo is really the point of the photo, the showing of the relationship, why you looked at that. As you said Kirk you can't make a good portrait if in that moment there isn't some spark with that person, even if it's just for that session. Same with nudes, as evidenced by the masses of pointless, soulless nudes out there: it's perfectly possible to do disengaged nudes too. And yet a portrait, a nude, and I would claim, a landscape as well, will be good once the relationship of the self to it can be felt (as Jock would word it).

The architect Christopher Alexander, has this test for students where he shows them two pictures of different buildings or artefacts and then asks them to vote which one has more life, or equivalently, which one is a better mirror of their own self (similar to Jock's wording) or also, if they died and were reborn, which one they would become... Often the students choose some building that they would not consider good architecture (technically) if the question had been worded that way. Sometimes they are disturbed by this contrast, that what they like on a technical level does not pass the mirror of the self test. But it turns out students usually agree on the mirror of the self test with large majorities. So there is something to it, the self has to be part of it. If they see their own self in it, that means someone else's self was there too, and they see themselves in the other self, they recognize it, they understand. I think this is the crux of art.

Tyson Habein said...

This post was top notch.

In the last year or 1.5 years I've shot very very little for other people. I have a day job, and as such, have that luxury. I've not chased down much work for the simple fact that I wanted to explore who I was as an artist (photographer sometimes feels too narrow). That's caused me to self-assign things. Projects that I never would have gotten the OK for from a commercial client. I've started making little books of my photos. I've changed my own thinking on what I want to pursue and who I look up to in the art world in terms of influence and vision.

It's been a trip that has had me worried at times. I've thought about hanging up the camera (in a professional sense... I couldn't stop shooting totally). In the end I've come to realize that I have to shoot for myself first, and let others come to me when there is a connection with my work. I can't force that.

No workshop could teach me that. No matter how many times someone else would have said it, I wouldn't have listened. I had to find it on my own. I think a lot of our vision as artists has to come from a personal place. We can talk about it all we want, but the nature of it is the same as the nature of faith. It is a deeply personal thing. We can talk and write and workshop on universal ideas and feelings, but the path to actually discover OUR vision is OUR path. We have to walk it by ourselves.

Thanks, Kirk. The thoughts are appreciated as always.

Jan Klier said...

Tyson - I enjoyed your comment. I think there is an element here that isn't thought about enough: Photography as an art/entertainment vs. photography as a profession.

I think many folks make the leap that they enjoy photography as an art/entertainment, and then wouldn't it be nice if we could do that 7x24 and get paid for doing it.

But it's far from being that easy. Photography as a profession has a lot to do with creating images that serve certain purposes for your clients. And while artistic principles figure into it to a degree, it's really a cross-over between custom manufacturing and art. There are similarities to the wood worker who makes chairs, the architect who builds bridges, the iron worker who makes fences, the guy that builds sailboats. All these things have to be functional first. Once function is taken care off, then some element of artistic refinement is appreciated and makes a difference to a certain degree. And your artistic ability (or vision) can be what gets you hired over the other guy - though technical skill to deliver every time, personality, customer service, network connections also factor heavily. And many assignments are the same thing over and over and over again, maybe with a minor variation from time to time. Many assignments are taken for their ability to pay a bill, not for their artistic potential.

And working as a photographer entails a lot more things than just handling the camera. In fact camera time often makes only a fraction of your time spend, at least until you've grown the business to a point where you can have a team or outsource some aspects.

So while some people fantasize about making it their profession, I think in not everyone of them would be happy for long if they did.

So I applaud your effort to explore this element before jumping in. I do hope though that in the process you didn't offer to work for free in what may have been a viable assignment for others, which is one risk to the downward pressure of prices in this current environment.

All that said, photography is a wonderful profession and lifestyle if you truly understand what you are signing up for.

Bill said...

Like Don posted, here's another jazz tie-in: The great Charlie Parker is to have said: “Master your instrument, master the music, and then forget all that BS and just play.” I think of that often when it comes to photography. Just shoot!