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.