More like play, less like work.

There's always some way to technically improve a photograph. I was jarred into thinking about the difference between the joyful discovery of beauty 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 while pursuing a degree of some sort at 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" and not "music."

You see, the pursuit of perfect "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 machines. Starting to sound familiar?

So, this morning I had coffee with an "audiophile" and he was telling me about a new turntable. He sold off a world renowned "reference" turntable in the ever escalating compulsion to squeeze even more "transparency" and accuracy from his collection of long playing records (LP's).

We spoke for a good while about audio and I still don't know what genre of music he enjoys, or who his favorite artists are. We never got around to talking about music. He did mention that they current "state of the art" home audio system was currently around half a million dollars. We also remembered a crazy mutual friend, also an audiophile, who was so obsessed that low frequency, vibration induced rumble might be affecting the sonic performance of his turntable 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 (after building an insulated room just for the turntable first.

Surely the emotional need for the illusion of perfection has its roots in the human need to quantify the parameters of an experience while ignoring the experience itself. Like an adolescent, quickly and dispassionately having sex so he can run off and brag about it to his peer group.

A few years ago, after I wrote a review on the Canon 7D, several "concerned" readers felt the need to recommend cameras to me that measured even better. They assumed I was looking for measurable perfection. I was and am aware of what is out there in the market and all of the compromises involved, but my praise for the 7D was for its attitude of "I'm ready when you are." It fit my hand, which more readily assured that it was along for the ride when I felt the desire to go out and make some art.  I was thinking about these things when I had coffee with several friends and a few of their friends. All part time photographers of one sort or another.

One acquaintance, knowing that I'd taught and consulted with colleges, asked me about getting a photo education at one of the three institutes of higher learning in town. One program is at a two year college and I'll describe it as a "blue collar" curriculum. Which means, "Teach me how to make money with photography by showing me how everything works." 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 have an efficient and knowledgeable "workflow." But they won't teach you how to do art. Which is the WHY to shoot.

They assume you had a reason, an angle or a vision that you likely wanted to pursue in the first place.

The medium school, a private college with a 4 year curriculum teaches some "nuts and bolts" and also some art history, critical theory and helps one hone a philosophical point of view as it relates to creating photographic works.

They assume you were motivated to be a photographer in order to communicate an aesthetic or idea that resonates for you. They deliver the rudimentary technical "tools" you'll need in order to get your point across. But they assume you do have a point. 

The third school is a major university. Their four year, fine arts curriculum is nearly devoid of technical teaching altogether and is almost totally consumed by aesthetics, and theory, a discovery of the artist's voice and expression.

They assumed you were able to read your camera's owner's manual and that you got the rudiments of a subject you've chosen as your university major at least competently mastered. They teach the "why" and assume the "how" is a given.

All three programs assume that you are coming into the mix because you have something you feel compelled to offer to the "discussion."

None assume that technical mastery of your camera, alone, is an end goal.

And it became so clear to me over the course of the conversation that obsessing over process, workflow and technical proficiency were the surest sign that these people would never make the leap to producing art because they really have nothing worthwhile to say.

They want to gain proficiency in something that can be quantified "sharper than" and see photography as a medium solely in which to actively display their proficiency. Well-----sorry. There's no guarantee anyone will be able to make meaningful and culturally important art. And there's no fast track to becoming good at the intangible parts of the photographic process. But in the end the only thing that really does matter are the absolutely intangible properties in a photograph. Things like: The story, the narrative, the feel, the vibe, and the point of view. The creation of a visual poem.

And all the technical "candy" won't do squat to fix a poorly seen or poorly imagined photograph.

Bottom line? If you don't have a passion, if you don't have a message or a voice in photography you are just a piano tuner or an visiophile.

Final thought: The name of a great local photographer came up in the course of the second conversation. Someone at the table made a dismissive remark. The remark inferred that the artist had essentially wasted his life because now---just for the last few years---the photographer had experienced some financial and emotional difficulties.

This caused me to reflect for a moment. The photographer's work has been collected by the pre-eminent museums of our time, in our country and several European capitals. He had traveled all over the world and met famous and interesting people.  His work still graces magazines that the rest of us would likely give up a testicle to work for... And he's done it by having a courageous and consistent visual style for over 30 years.

No compromise in his vision. No stepping back from the edge.

He has something the technically obsessed will never have.

He can actually make...art.


Anonymous said...

People who don't do it passionately have no idea what serious photography is really about.

Anonymous said...

Well, tell us, what is it about?

Richard Leacock said...

The Ultimate Answer to the question of Life, the Universe and Everything is . . . "Forty two".


As per the sage wisdom of the underachieving comedy writer, performer and author of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy" Douglas Adams ; )

Kirk Tuck said...

A weird start to a discussion. But, I think there can be millions and millions of people happily snapping away on their phones documenting their lives and such and that's great. To use the musc analogy it's like listening to the radio in the car or background music in a restaurant. What I was getting at is that in the subset of people who are "serious" about making photos there is a schism between people who focus on the photos and people who laser in on the gear.

ODL Designs said...

Of course, we all cook, and we all eat. But few of us are chefs to the point where subtleties of taste matter, experience, presentation and experimentation matter. We generally eat the same 10 dishes cooked in alternating order... We are not chefs.

The creative aspect is very important in Art, whether it is writing, painting, cooking, photographing, design or architecture etc etc.

Not to be too philosophical here, but I once had a thought about what "made in God's image" meant. The conclusion I came to, and one that stick with me centers on the only thing we know God (if you believe in him) did for sure, and that is create for the sake of creation. "And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good"

I concluded that our need to create, to make things was what was meant by the idea that we were made in his image. I know, too much, but it always comes back to me when I think about creating great art... Will I look and see it is good?


Peter said...

Kirk, I think you may be being a bit hard on many people. As a teenager I took my "audiophile" system very seriously – although it was junk by any standard as I had zero budget at the time. Over the years however, I did develop a serious interest in music, and when I found myself deeply moved by something I heard on the car radio, I knew I could forget about audio per se. My system now is very modest (although I can afford much more these days), and I listen to it quite a bit.

In the same way, perhaps an interest in photo gear can lead to an interest in art. Again, as a teenager I took my junk camera gear very seriously, but it cost me nothing to visit the Louvre in Paris (I hitch-hiked) and similar places. So through the gear, I found an interest in visual art, and now I try to visit the art galleries in any major city I get to. Most of the people who tell us so authoritatively, that a simple camera and lens are enough for our art, have (like you, and somewhat like me) owned or used just about everything. There are notable exceptions - often it's the women - but most of use need to take this journey on the way to becoming such 'artists' as we can become. We need to get through the 'gear tunnel' to emerge as the at least potential artists which all of us are. Of course many don't make it.

Anonymous said...

I had a related conversation this morning, we notice that in the 80s your "stereo" was the cornerstone to earn measurable prestige in the peer group. The devices were huge and were a place of worship in the living room, firing up conversations about all sort of technical details.

The stereo has since been replaced by the PC in the 90s, and it seems that, the PC being a commodity now, the crowd has migrated to digital photography to satisfy the emotional need for quantifiable pride and prestige.

And the parameters change. The crowd has lost interest in megapixels, the relevant units now are "sensor size", and "ISO".

Anonymous said...

Your story about the crazed audiophiles reminded me of what a wiser acquaintance once told me: "Audiophiles appreciate great music, especially played through a fine audio system. Audiophobes use great music to find flaws in their fine audio systems."

There are also cameraphiles and cameraphobes. You can spot the cameraphobes fairly easily even without looking at a gallery - they're the ones aghast because Hogan dumped his DX DSLR for an EM5, or sneer the loudest at a book of iphone4 images.

Fine tools are ends in themselves in many pursuits. Consider the amazing and clever devices heaped on the shelves of your local woodworking store. The artifacts made with these devices may be pedestrian in the extreme, but the mere act of creating a useful process for building them is a major source of enjoyment for the builder.

This may describe the difference between art and craft; it's not always necessary to say something compelling with what you've created if its useful and well-built, but it is appreciated.

Every time I look at a new piece of gear, though, I do stop myself and ask if I'm unable to create interesting stories with what I have. Most of the time the answer is no, so the wallet remains closed. I am one of those people, however, interested in the craft aspects of photography, because I do not possess the consistent voice or dedication of a true artist. Compensation can become an end in itself if you're not careful.

Anonymous said...

I think the analogy to music is a good one. Anyone with a tape recorder can make a recording of someone singing, just as anyone with a camera can take a picture of the event.

In each case, the use of better equipment will improve the quality up to a certain point. Past that point, the sound technician (or photographer) needs to get involved in the artistic process. Just as the photographer may change light, change background, and alter shadows and perspecive, a sound technician might add background music, reverb, and might even use a computer to "fix" notes that were originally flat.

The photographer and sound technician might not "create" the art, since the singer, technically, created the art. A recording with no background, and no "fixes" might still give you the idea that you heard the song exactly like the original. But an artistic recording will make you want to hear more.

Joel Wolford said...

Great article, Kirk. I hope to obsess less over gear, and focus more on my subject and the quality of light.

On another, unrelated note, TIME's online business section has published an article entitled "Photo Shoot Your Way to Sales Growth", in which they advocate using quality photography to advertise and promote your business. They state that stock photography, while cheap, offers no return on investment when compared with using professional photographers. Now, where have I heard(read) that before? ;>) Here's the link in case you(or other readers) are interested:



John Haugaard said...

Kirk, I have read your work for years, here, on photo.net and probably even on the Leica Users Group, back when we were all sporting M6's. I find you to be one of the most insightful, concise and entertaining writers on matters that are really important to this shared passion of our - photography. Thank you, and keep it up.

Anonymous said...

The previous owner of our home is a successful author of 18 cookbooks (mostly Italian). She had a large kitchen with two ovens (so she could test her recipes using gas & electric), but both were basic GE models. When we asked about this she said that she saw no reason to waste her money on high end appliances that added nothing to the quality of her cooking. I think her approach to cooking is a perfect example of point your point that there is a fundamental difference between being passionate about photography and being passionate about cameras.

Anonymous said...

"The remark inferred that the artist had essentially wasted his life because now---just for the last few years---the photographer had experienced some financial and emotional difficulties."
??? Who's life doesn't experience ups and downs, hardships at any stage of life? So you suddenly come into bad times and that makes your life and your accomplishments wasted? Who was the fool that made that remark? Obviously someone who lives a very boring and safe existence who doesn't take risks and engages with humanity much.
It makes me think of the great artists that suffered or sacrificed for their art and had little or no 'success' in their day - they died poor and destitute. Then after death years down the track we appreciate their work. Were their lives wasted? Look at their legacy! It's even more profound when you actually see these art works at exhibitions, then you 'get it'.

Anonymous said...

Kirk Tuck - you rock!

Feri Naf said...

One of the best posts on your blog. Thanks.

André Balsa said...

I really like the photo you chose for this blog post, it's just great. I just wish I could take a picture like that someday!

Kirk Tuck said...

Thank you so very much. It's one of my favorites although I can't say why. Maybe it's the angles or the nostalgia but sometimes I think it's just the shoes...

FM said...

With this post, you remind me of why I photograph and why I love photographs----and of how sometimes I head off into the weeds of "technical excellence." Must maintain a healthy balance....

Unknown said...

This is a great article.

When beginners ask others to critique their photos, its revealing that they never ask someone to critique their "story" or "narrative". And what they end up with is cropping, toning. technical, or subject discussions.

I think this problem is a lot more true of men than women (your lead in pic illustrates that :-)). I've long joked that i get into hobbies to buy the tools, not to do the work - and i don't think i'm alone in that. Maybe what we need is a 12 step program for gearheads. I have made some progress in the art/story telling aspect of photography, but i'm not out of the woods yet. Thanks so much for putting this into words!!!