I’m a photographer, but I don’t know everything!

I’m a photographer, but I don’t know everything.

 

A facebook acquaintance posted the following underneath a photo he had taken in the market in Canterbury.

 

            “This old guy makes me smile. Every week he’s down the market trying to take photos with his old-school camera in his beaten-up satchel. He spends hours just hanging about playing with his camera.”

 

The accompanying photograph showed an elderly photographer squinting through the viewfinder of his camera, quite oblivious to the fact the he was, in turn, being photographed.

 

A conversation developed on facebook between the original poster and his friends, openly mocking the elderly gent for his poor camera, his ‘satchel’, his clothes and generally age.

 

Clearly photography, in the eyes of some, is purely a young man’s game and anyone who was retired should simply not be embarrassing themselves by being seen outside with a camera.

 

Putting aside what exactly constitutes an acceptable upper age limit on photography for these commentator’s, I was particularly interested in the photograph of the photographer and what it the comments said about the camera he was using.

 

All the comments were made by young men (under the age of 30) who considered themselves to be photographers. Many, according to their profiles were offering ‘professional’ photographic services of one sort or another and they clearly considered themselves to be knowledgeable about the subject.

 

Strange then, that not one of them could recognise a digital Leica  or a  Billingham bag. Not once, in the list of comments was the merest suggestion that this elderly gent might actually know what he doing, or accept that there might be a different approach to the subject than having a huge lens attached to a Canon or Nikon body.

 

This is snobbery of a sort, but snobbery based upon a combination of postmodernism and ignorance. As we have discovered, postmodernism as a theory rejects the idea that science and rationalism can lead to ‘truth’ about the social world we live in. This rejection leads directly to the view that no set of ideas or opinions are inherently superior to any other set of ideas. In other words your opinion is just as good as my opinion. While superficially attractive to some, it inevitably means that in a ‘balanced’ debate, knowledge and ignorance are considered peers.

 

As a theoretical approach to understanding the sociology of family life, perhaps postmodernism has a place, but when discussing the merits of a particular camera, this is simply the politics of the playground. My camera must be better than your camera because it is heavier/it is bigger/it’s a Nikon/it has more pixels. Combine this facile line in argument with almost total ignorance of the subject and you have a metaphor for the state of photography in the early twenty-first century. My camera must be better than your camera because I don’t even know what your camera is!

 

A photography student once asked me what I’d done over the weekend. When I told him that I’d been to a concert he asked the artist, then shrugged when he was told who I’d seen, ‘He can’t be famous, I’ve never heard of him’. This casual dismissal of the life work of Leonard Cohen is entirely typical of the attitude of a new generation of photographers (and so many others) whose world view seems to be framed by a series of very simple statements.

 

  • I know enough
  • Things that I don’t know aren’t worth knowing
  • If they were worth knowing, I’d already know them
  • Things that people have done before me are irrelevant to me
  • Things that I don’t know are irrelevant to me

 

This general attitude to the unknown was summed up recently in another facebook post.

 

“Just been to the Tate modern for something to do and cause it was free lol. Anyway looked to see if there was any photography on display for a bit of inspiration and for new ideas. Well there was, ooo good I thought. Wtf some famous called Harry Callahan (no not the Clint Eastwood one) had a display of images that i walked round and just came out thinking eh am I missing something  I see some amazing images on here from some cracking togs who are probs never going to be famous so how the ell did this guy make it. Totally baffled  … Mind you I bet some peeps also walked round and thought the heating duct on display or the strip lights stuck on the walls also looked great. Hmph modern art wtf … Will go to the national portrait gallery next time lol”

 

Now, as this was a post on social media, not a formal essay, perhaps we can forgive the grammatical inaccuracies (lol (sic)), but the content seems to directly confirm my points above.

 

When I joined in, this was the reply;

 

“I dont understand why we need to know about the history of photography to make us into a better photographer of the present. Surely a knowledge of your equipment, processing techniques, and most importantly having an eye for a picture is whats required. Yes by all means look through old master togs images and read all about them (if you have the time) I wish i did (roll on retirement). Im sure it will give you something to think about but i dont have the time or inclination at this moment in my life. I like to follow modern day togs and enjoy the work of Joe Cornish as well as a few togs on this and other sites on here and flickr, and viewbug and 500pix and Landscape photographer, and portrait photographer etc, etc,”

 

It is, of course, everyone’s right to take this attitude, but going back to Plato and the allegory of the cave, those who live by the flickering flames and watch the dancing shadows for information are, perhaps, not the best judges of objectivity.

Of course, this sounds extremely elitist, but boils down to a question raised by the American satirist PJ O’Rourke in ‘Ruplublican Party Reptile’; is it better to be smart or dumb?

O’Rourke suggests that this isn’t as easy question to answer as it would appear. He argues that smart people don’t drop bombs on other people, but on the other hand dumb people can’t design or build bombs!

He eventually comes to the conclusion that smart is better, because, well, it’s the smarter option.

 

In a world where cameras (or at least the means to take photographs) are ubiquitous, it is perhaps no surprise that the average level of knowledge of photography among ‘photographers’ is less than it was a generation ago.  As another commentator of facebooks put it, the ability to use a ten stop ND filter on a modern DSLR to photograph a bridge does not make you an artist. You might get a pleasing image, and all your facebook friends may well tell you that you’re great, but with modern technology, this is literally childsplay.

To dismiss a highly knowledgeable, innovative, and talented photographer such as Harry Callaghan (who was also a superb teacher who inspired generations of photography students with his work), with the perjorative expletive ‘wtf’, shows not only profound ignorance, but (again) the attitudes of the playground.

 

That something, such as a camera, actually works is seen as being far more important than the process that makes it work. In actuality, there aren’t many people who understand how something as simple and ubiquitous as a Light Emitting diode (LED)  works and there is a vanishingly small percentage of people on the planet who actually understand the maths behind a mobile ‘phone, but these examples are orders of magnitude more technical than going to the trouble and effort of reading around the subject that you claim to be somewhat of an expert in.

A current (at the time of writing) quote attributed to the comedian Ricky Gervais comes to mind, ‘They say ignorance is bliss. This might be true for the ignorant, but for the rest of us, it’s a pain in the arse’.

 

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7 comments

  1. I’m a new photographer. As I’ve begun to read the lives of great photographers of the past and as I’ve reviewed their work, I’ve been impacted in two ways. I’m humbled by their experience & expertise, especially when I think about how different and difficult it was/is to use film, and secondly, I’ve been inspired to be sharper and more economical in my shooting. Thank for a thought-provoking article here.

  2. I’m 66. I think I have an advantage over the younger set of today in that I went through the difficult process of learning how to make a photograph and applied it to my digital work. I agree with your observations. My take on it is that it is not confined to photography alone but to all aspects of life. The trouble (as I see it) is there are very few who will challenge them. Who wants to be different?

    1. Indeed. A few decades ago you would need a degree of skill and intelligence to use a camera. These days, I’d argue that at least half the people using cameras (or all sorts) are average or below average intelligence – so photography has become truly democratic. 🙂

      1. What a wonderful post! I’m not that old (43), but old enough and share many of your sentiments. While what I’m about to say next is a whole other topic of debate, I’m going to say it anyway — the tool you use is huge in understanding and creating photographs. Many people think that using a camera phone is fine for creating images. And, don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying it isn’t fine. But a lot of younger people think they can take “professional” images using a phone because “that’s the time we live in”. Never considering that aperture and shutter speed aren’t adjustable on a camera phone (even though there are many camera settings in the phone — which I’m impressed with. I can change WB and exposure compensation in mine). Granted, the saying “Use the camera you’ve got” to take photos when the opportunity arises applies most of the time, but the fundamental basics of how to take photos is important and lacking in many new photographers (read: mostly young; as youth is wasted on the young LOL).

  3. A very well written comment.
    We are in the Me and Instant generation now. Everyone is looking out for themselves, and as such most of the young think they know what they need to know and to hell with anything that is “old” in their terms (in other words older than 5 years!)
    As one of the generation that was brought up on film, wet darkrooms, etc., it pains me to see that the now generation and the people coming through photographic courses these days think they don’t need to know the history and basics.
    Yes photography is different from how it was when I grew up and messed about in a “real darkroom” but most of the basics are the same. Sure a digital sensor behaves differently to a piece of film, but the basics like lighting, composition learning to see, depth of field etc. are the same.
    I was told some years ago ( back in the latter stages of the film era I think by a highly respected photographer and teacher that the people coming through didn’t want to know all about lighting etc.
    How can you be a good photographer if you don’t understand the technique?? And tied with that is a knowledge the history.
    The comment about the “old” person at the beginning of the article says it all. Some of the “me” generation don’t know enough to know they don’t know much!
    To put it another way, they don’t know what they don’t know!!
    To properly understand a subject, one HAS to delve into the history and techniques.
    Part of being a ‘Professional’ Photographer is knowing how to deal with any situation, and to do that you Have to have a thorough knowledge of your craft!!

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