Are you showing off your skill or are you joining the conversation about art?
This is a desperately bad photograph. It's blurry. It's not sharp. The shadows are blocked up. The white on the headlight/handlebars is burning out to white. It's too tightly cropped. It's one of my favorites..... Rome. 1994.
There's always some way to technically improve a photograph. I was jarred into thinking about the difference between the joyful discovery of beauty and/or truth via a camera, and the hard work of compulsively honing both equipment and technique in the pursuit of perfecting the recording process of capturing a photograph.
I say "jarred" because I seem to have forgotten, almost entirely, the time I spent in the retail audio business back in the 1970's. For me it was a way of making some extra cash to spend on dates while pursuing a degree of some kind from the University of Texas at Austin. For everyone else around me; customers and fellow employees, audio was a passion. And, if you read carefully you'll see that I wrote "audio"----not "music".
You see, the pursuit of perfct audio has nothing at all to do with music other than the fact that recorded music is used to show off the clarity, richness and noise free fidelity of the sound created by the machines. Sound familiar?
So, this morning I had coffee with an "audiophile" and he was telling me about a new turntable and tone arm. He sold off a world renowned "reference" turntable in the every escalating compuslion to squeeze even more "transparency" and accuracy from his collection of long playing records (LP's). Vinyl, of course.
We spoke for a good while about audio and I still don't know what genres of music he enjoys or who his favorite artists are. We never got around to talking about music. He did mention that the current "state of the art" home audio system currently costs around half a million dollars. We also reminisced about a zany friend of mine, also an audiophile, who was so obsessed that dreaded "low frequency, vibration induced rumble" might be affecting the ultimate sonic performance of his turntable (this was in the late 1970's) that he cut thru the floor of his "pier and beam" house, poured a reinforced concrete pillar that reached down to bedrock, and mounted his machine on that. Then he surrounded the whole assembly in an insulated closet. His next task was to tackle the obvious problem of convection currents......
Surely the emotional need for the illusion of perfection has its roots in the human need to quantify and qualify the parameters of an experience while ignoring the experience itself. After the series of reviews I recently wrote on the Leica M9, the 35mm Summilux, and the Canon 7D, I got the usual e-mails (never comments) that pointed out ways that I could improve my technique, adding various suggestions for cameras and lenses of even greater performance and generally took me to task for not providing charts and graphs....as though the experience of handling the camera has become meaningless. As though the image itself, and the clear path to its acquisition, was secondary to squeezing the ultimate technical juice from whatever image I might be able to capture. All assumed that I was avidly looking for specification driven and measurable perfection. I generally am not. I'm pleased if anything at all comes out...... Usually it's my human approach and my timing that are the limiting factors, never really the equipment.
In music a good musician might appreciate a great piano or violin but the interpretation of the music is all that ultimately matters. (My tattered LP's of Pablo Casals, Bach Suites for Solo Cello readily attest to my belief that the artistic rendition beats quality of recording every day of the week).
I'm beginning to understand that the pursuit of an idea vs the pursuit of technical prowess is the dividing line between artists and the great unwashed. Not between pro and non-pro. There are a ton of pro's who are fixated by the process and don't have much to say. There are many non-pro artists making good and valid art with any old camera they can get their hands on. The quality of the equipment is wildly secondary to the well thought idea behind an image.
I guess the universe was trying to punish me for even suggesting that various cameras might make you a better photographer. I've tried to write about the holistic experience of using various lenses and cameras but someone did point out to me lately that "all the lenses I review are 'devastatingly, breathtakingly, rivetingly' sharp and wonderful. But if you read between the lines maybe what I've been saying all along is that all this equipment is pretty damn good if you use it in the service of your vision.....
The universe can be cruel. Perhaps it is just random and chaotic....
At any rate I had coffee in the afternoon with an friend and his acquaintance. The acquaintance asked me about getting a photographic education at one of the three main local schools of higher education here in Austin. I described all three programs to him. (I feel competent to do so since I've been on the advisory board of one program for four years, I taught in another program and am a frequent guest lecturer still, and the third program is headed by a friend....)
First up is Austin Community College and I described the 2 year associate's program as a "blue collar" curriculum. Which to me means, "Teach me how to make money with photography by showing me how everything works. And the steps required to do business." (My use of "blue collar" is not intended to be at all perjorative!!!! It's a really good program). They'll teach you how to set your camera, how to use lights, how to compose and shoot, as well as all the steps you'll need to know in order to have an efficient and knowledgeable PhotoShop workflow. But they won't teach you how to do art. They won't teach you "Why" to shoot.
They assume you had a reason, an angle or a vision that you likely wanted to pursue in the first place. Or that you (misguidedly) thought commercial photography might be a high profit business opportunity.
The second program, the school in the middle, for all intents and purposes, is a private four year college named, St. Edwards University. It's four year curriculum teaches the basic nuts and bolts. Enough to provide you the tools to move forward in the service of your artistic vision. Bu they also teach art history, and critical theory behind photography, bolstered by a traditional and vital liberal arts education. They help you hone a philosophical point of view as it relates to creating photographic art.
They assume that you were motivated to be a photographer in order to communicate an aesthetic, an idea or a way of seeing that deeply resonates within your psyche. They give you the tools to dig out the vision intact. They deliver the rudimentary practical tools you'll need in order to get your points and styles across. But they assume you DO have a point. Or at least a point of view.
The third school is a major university, my alma mater and home of my first teaching job, The University of Texas at Austin. Their four year, fine arts curriculum is nearly devoid of technical hand holding and almost totally consumed by aesthetics, art theory, artistic voice and expression. They assume that you are able to read your camera's owner's manual and that you get the rudiments of a subject (photographic technique) that you've chosen as your university major at least competently mastered. They teach the "why" and assume the "how" is a given.....or something you should pursue on your own. And let's face it, photography in the age of digital is hardly complicated. There are only four or five camera parameters that are essential for image creation...... and now we all have litte TV sets on the backs of the cameras that iteratively feedback information to us on our progress. You can experiment day and night pretty much for free. How complex could it be?
All three programs assume you are coming into the mix because you have something you feel compelled to offer to the "discussion". (And by discussion I mean in the context of the world of art. Or commerce). None assume that technical mastery of your camera is an end goal.
But as I spoke to the acquaintance of the friend it became clear to me that he considered the valuable part of education to be the technical mastery. He deflected the higher values of the pursuit. He consistently devalued the creative impulse as it related to direct transmission of ideas and gave value to the output of the machines and their ultimate transparency as a product of ever more technically advanced tools.
The desire to gain proficiency in something that can be quantified "sharper than", "highest acutance", "more accurate" color, x degrees faster, etc. He saw art as something to conquer, a medium solely in which to actively display his proficiency.
And it became so clear to me over the course of the conversation that obsessing over process, workflow and technical proficiency were the surest signs that people with these priorities would not make art. Were not capable of making art. Copying its trappings, yes. But a clear physical creation of their own visual voice? No.
Well...........sorry. There's no guarantee anyone will be able to make meaningful art. Art which tells us what it is like to be human. And there's no fast track to becoming good at the intangible parts of the photographic process.
But in the end the only things that really do matter are the absolutely intangible properties. In a photo: The story. The narrative. The rapport. The message. The feel. The vibe. And the point of view.
And all of the technical candy won't do squat to fix a poorly imagined or poorly seen photograph.
My bottom line message for anyone looking to spend some money and time on a photographic education? If you don't have a passion, a message, a voice.....a visual thing you want badly to show to other people because you think it's important or beautiful or disturbing......You'll be wasting your time. As an artist.
I'm going to be pre-emptive here and state that none of this means you shouldn't buy a camera and have a great time using it and making photographs that you enjoy, regardless of how far you want to push your vision. Cameras and the taking of photos have no greater or lesser value than doing puzzles, collecting stuff, skateboarding or any one of a thousand popular pastimes. I take family photos and they are not intended to be art (though I'd love it if they were) and I shoot lots and lots of commercial images that are not, by any stretch of the imagination, art. But I do it because it supports my intention to do art in my personal work. Seeing, exploring and, most important for me, sitting in front of people, sharing a moment and capturing an expression that can be translated as the shared transmission of a human experience is the essence of photography for me. The more I know about you the more I come to know about me.
What started all this rant? The revelation that some people don't truly understand the passion to do art and instead use the medium as a way of showing off their chops.... I might have over reacted but maybe not...