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?