As a self-declared professional photographer the number one question I hear is, “What is the best camera/lens I should get?”
Whilst in itself the question is reasonable the premise is often flawed. That is to say a more accurate question would be, “What is the best camera/lens for me?” or “What is the best for this specific use?”
I also find that the most common statement about my commercial work, from those not directly connected with the images, is “Your must have a good camera!” or “What settings did you use to get that shot?”
Again, whilst the statement has some merit I find it a flawed perception of what makes a good photograph.
Both of these types of comment/questions have a basis in the idea that there is something specifically inherent to equipment which enables a photographer to create engaging and evocative images.
My argument here, is that equipment does nothing more than enable the artist to articulate their vision and it is in the understanding of that vision that we can all learn to make better photos.
I hope to begin demystifying not only the belief in the power of equipment and settings but also, as I hope to show throughout this series, to demonstrate that vision isn’t some mythical superpower of those we respect but a perhaps the result of a deep understanding and questioning of life.
This goal is not set to undermine those who invest in high end equipment or to dismiss the successes of photographers with their own unique voice but to encourage accessibility and experimentation from those who feel they lack the funds or ability to create meaningful or interesting work.
Tackling this I feel a good place to start is with discussing how we came to develop these ideas about photography in the first place. That means we start out with a bit of a history lesson. I’m going to be truncating this history significantly as, with the invention of any new technology the story of photography is one of many different processes, experiments, genres and practitioners. Our focus today will be primarily on the direct influence of certain practices on today’s perceptions of ability and technology.
The term Camera has become ubiquitous for any image making device and with the lens, the main focus for most prospective photographers. The term itself was first recorded in 1604 as ‘Camera Obscura’ the Latin for ‘dark chamber’. An accurate description for what was then the practice of poking a hole into a darkened environment allowing the light to essentially project onto the opposing wall an image, inverted, of what ever was well lit on the other side of that hole. This chamber has been as large as a room itself but even as small as a pin-hole camera, each sharing the same principles. This idea has been proposed to have existed as far back in our history as 500 bc, with some proposing even pre-historic use.
The Camera Obscura whilst only related today through principle to image making machines we know as cameras, it’s use as a drawing aid for artists has influenced the very nature of art appreciation throughout it’s own development. David Hockney and Charles M. Fako proposed that the invention and subsequent improvement in glass lens technology, combined with the camera obscura, can account for the significant increase in the detail, accuracy and perspective of renaissance painting. Their argument being that no artist could reproduce such clarity purely by hand. Whilst they make a compelling argument, their apparent dismissal of the artists skill is controversial some liken it to undermining the artists claiming lens technology was not that advanced at that time. Personally I feel the argument is moot. The work is compelling not solely because of an artists ability and remains a period of art history that was to be the foundation of the composition and execution of early photography and an influence which endures in today’s image making nearly 500 years later.
August 19th, 1839 Louis Daguerre presented the Daguerrotype, quickly promoted as the first photographic medium of its type despite several different variants all coming to fore at very similar times. Daguerre’s breakthrough was the chemical formulation that allowed the fixing of the camera obscura’s projection to a physical medium. In Daguerres case a metallic plat which rendered great detail but a singular copy which could not be reproduced, unlike one of his competitors, William Henry Fox Talbot, who unfortunately wasn’t quite the salesman as Daguerre.
Daguerre’s ‘invention’ wasn’t necessarily photography or the camera but rather the combination of the knowledge of lenses, light sensitive chemicals and the camera obscura into a singular piece of equipment.
So what’s that got to do with how we see photography today? Daguerre in promoting his method obviously extolled it’s uniqueness and superiority. Despite it’s drawbacks it become one of the first open source mediums of the modern age through France’s gift of the patent to the world establishing it through accessibility and cementing it’s history as the self declared first photographic method. The clarity of the medium became the defining characteristic, it’s no coincidence that it shared that characteristic with renaissance art.
This new medium became the go to process for the creation of images. Not necessarily because it was a superior medium but through its obviously exciting new form of representation along with the speed of production in comparison to painting. With the future development of negative print film allowing mass reproduction from a single exposure photography established itself as the medium from the masses. The jobbing painter found themselves at a loss to the photograph as it took over advertising, portraiture, landscape and architectural description. The idea that the camera was somehow copying reality was another feather in its cap and photographers of the time took their cues from those whose work they established their business on.
These new photographers established themselves as ‘artists’ painting with light. The process of coating sheets of metal in special combinations of chemicals gave the photographer an aura of a magician. The furniture like status of the camera added to the mystical nature of photography. Here is a inexplainable, to the common person, contraption that can recreate what we see in a way which is beyond anything seen before and it’s all taking place under cover and behind closed doors involving chemical combinations not only to prepare but to process. It’s no wonder the idea of equipment and unique skill was established, especially as this belief gave the photographer a marketable persona to build their business on.
In the early days of photography British portrait photographer C. James Hughes proposed three categories of photography; mechanical, which he describes as the literal depiction of objects and scenes which we could ascribe to today’s product, evidence, medical and other types of factual photography; Art, by which Hughes describes images which are created purely as beautiful scenes meant for visual pleasure; a final category which he describes as ‘certain pictures which aim at higher purposes than the majority of art photographs, and whose aim is not merely to amuse, but to instruct, purify and ennoble.
The work of early photography in displacing the painter fulfils the category of mechanical, but what of the other two?
The second category Hughes suggests that of art was adopted by photographers who envisioned themselves as more of an aficionado than the mere commercial photographer fulfilling the work of the now redundant painter. These photographers, free from the restrictions of reliance on their photography for income formed groups, clubs and journals around their photographic ideologies. This establishment of rules, through the judgment of imagery and photographer, founded the perceptions of photographic art we still see today in mass and social media. These early publications, such as the ‘Photographic Art Journal’ founded by Harry Hunt Snelling in 1851, went on to foster dozens of siblings with many remaining in publication well into the 21st century. Their purpose was the proliferation of accepted standards, often tied back to the renaissance period’s conventions on perspective, detail and balance between light and shadow. Even today we hear talk of these terms when judging the artfulness of photography yet their position was on,y one of many at the time but through the inaccessibility of making photographs and the careful curation of what was deemed noteworthy became the most prevalent.
Pictorialism was perhaps the largest establishing movement in photography and one which focused primarily on presenting photographs which heavily focused on recreating the painterly effect of a brush like texture and soft diffused areas in the scene. Rembrandt is no doubt the biggest influence on art portraiture but similarly Constable and Turner were the go to reference for landscapes. These aspirations to be of the same ilk as the great painters gave the approving groups power of dismissal when their stringent criteria weren’t met. It gave the progenitors of photographic art an aura of superiority as they alone knew the secrets of achieving artistic photography through the specific use of certain equipment, chemical combinations and print media. All other work could be demoted to that of the amateur or commercial photographer. In turn this hierarchical system was adopted by the commercial photographer who took inspiration from the self declared artists and applied it to their family portraits and product photos. The beginnings of what we see today as gear envy and the lightroom ‘preset’ was already established.
So what then of the third category? Primarily for the late 1800’s this category could be classified as documentary photography, albeit that would overlook both the experimental work completed through the life of photography and the future of photography beyond 1900ish. However I feel fairly safe summarising this category for the purpose of this essay otherwise I’d double it’s length! Documentary was concerned with the representation of the ‘other’, the new and the surprising. War, poverty, overseas, at home, everything was the subject of the photographers lens and the way that was executed varied from the mundane to the sublime. To put aside questions of representation, colonialism and identity etc for now, the overriding theme of the documentary photographer was to show what was happening and to whom with, somewhat tenuously, a sense of neutrality. Here a ‘good’ photo was a bonus but the sole focus and with less emphasis on the how it was taken but more on the why.
Through out the late 19th century and into the early 20th, the ability to make a photograph was limited to the wealthy or entrepreneurial. Their instruction and influence limited to their peers and derided or praised on the basis of rules established by those if not educated in but at least aware of 17th century conventions of art. It was only with the mass production of negative type film and its use as a cheap and easily processed medium through the likes of the Kodak camera that photography began developing in ways we now recognise as modern genres. These amateur photographers were using a fixed focal length, fixed focus point and shutter speed limiting their ability to adapt their photography unlike those with more complex systems. This whilst allowing much greater accessibility to the medium, also fit nicely into the hierarchy of photography further establishing the ideas we see today as gear envy.
It is however also the use of these new low cost and adaptable film stocks that allowed the street photographer to move quickly with the crowds and for more challenging movements to adopt and experiment with the medium. Documentary photographers could now get closer to the action and to react in faster more dynamic ways. And it’s in this third category that we see the shift in the art worlds recognition of photography.
The arts movements of the early 20th century, cubism, surrealism, avant- garde etc began to use photography in new ways. Instead of trying to replicate the conventions of renaissance art they instead looked to find the inherent qualities of photography and to exploit the tool just as a painter tries new brushes or washes. The dismissal of pictorialism by Group f.64 on the grounds of seeking a new vision, one based on the inherent properties of the camera sought extreme detail across all aspects of the image. Their practice evolved the renaissance conventions and established a new order of judgement and hierarchy which continues today through their primary subject, the landscape. Whilst they sought to challenge the medium their approach, at least in my opinion, was to perpetuate the hierarchy of photography through the same means as their predecessors. That is to dismiss other work on the grounds of infinitesimal small perceived defects. Grounds which ultimately rewarded those who could afford both the time and money involved in the process and equipment.
It’s only really in post war 20th century that we see a shift in the art worlds attention from Hughes’ second category, that of making visually appealing images, to the third category, that which informs and ennobles.
This shift was not out of the blue but an acceptance of several genres into galleries and exhibitions. Whilst the shift was not overnight or unanimous the work of street photographers such as Cartier Bresson, documentary photographers Like Dorothea Lange and the conceptual work of Eggleston are just three of dozens of artists who’s work began to define this third category whilst commanding the respect that prewar elitists had dreamed off achieving.
This post war shift in the perception of photography as an art medium has evolved and mutated beyond recognition. No longer seen as a a set of rules to be followed in order to evoke the conventions of renaissance painting, the medium of photography is increasingly seen as merely a tool of communication of ideas whether directly or subversively, the photograph is not the product of the artist but as with the painter merely the canvas they select to present their work on.
Whilst this shift in the appreciation of photography as a unique and definitive art form took place within the academic world was reflected in the exhibitions of galleries and museums, little changed in the public perception. Where today we see original prints from the great photographers are selling for 10’s of millions, we are also as a mass market exposed to 10’s of millions more photographs than ever before. This imbalance between what we as the general population associate with photography, through our experience of advertising, fashion and social media channels, and what is recognised as valuable and significant contribution to art adds to the confusion around what makes a good photograph and therefore how that result was achieved.
Today’s high profile commercial work is created by teams of people with budgets in the thousands and extensive use of the most expensive equipment. This outsiders view of the commercial world lends a sense of glamour, success and recognition to the photographers involved, a sense that is marketed by manufacturers as the result of their equipment. You to could live this wonderful life if only you had this camera, lens or light.
This perception of the first category of photography is shared by the second. Where once the second category was the defining notion of photography as art, the groups involved and their work as been relegated to the position of ‘professional’ which seems illogical to call a demotion but in the hierarchy of photography they are simultaneously at the top, of a little understood localised class system, but no longer deified in the academic world which more actively seeks out the third category in a post modern world of understanding the complex questions of how we all see and understand the world.
Both of the first and second categories of photography exist to produce work for the masses. This position reflects the consumerist intentions of those who create the work, commercial to promote products on behalf of their client and professionals to promote themselves as the producer of product. Both play on their general audiences lack of understanding of more complex works and primarily understand the medium through their limited interactions with it beyond the fashion and advertising images that eeek into every aspect of our lives.
Both categories rely on the perceptions founded in the late 1800’s, the perception of the photographer as some kind of magician. The brand names, the big teams and budgets, the elaborate setup and complex processing all work to both elevate the professional photograph as a highly refined technical process much akin to the chemicals of the past. The photographers of these categories not only perpetuate this ideal in order to enforce their position but are equally victims of the very myth they perpetuate. Their practice is expensive to pay for their extensive costs yet their costs come from building their identity around the expensive equipment.
My statement ‘it’s not about the gear’ is intended to challenge these perceptions and therefore demystify the medium in a hope to encourage others to explore and experiment beyond what is seen as the popular work.
I previously mentioned how technological development within photography enabled artist to try new things, the likes of Edgerton would have been unable to capture those drops in milk prior to the technological ability to set triggers and strobes with fast film and shutter speed. However, when we see those images, even today, I’m not interested in how he set his camera to make that image but rather why he did this work and how he developed his ideas when he had no reference to work from.
This technological development enabled this technical work but also with the development of the low cost easily processed Kodak camera opened up the medium to so many more people increasing the accessibility and democratisation of photography. This is the true technological advancement of the camera in modern times. After Edgerton, the camera has essentially remained un changed. The camera obscura lives on albeit now it is in the pocket of almost every individual and those who don’t have a myriad of other methods to make photographs. The third category is perhaps the only one to embrace this opportunity to experience an unheard of range of perceptions across cultures and generations. The two categorises of professionalism continue to dismiss it as amateur.
Now more than ever, the technical advantages of niche equipment is being diminished. To maintain their position the professional talks of depth of field, low light performance, bokeh and rendering, attempting to close down the dilution of the increasingly precarious positions.
The truth is, in today’s world all that matters is engagement. The amateur is able to undermine the power of the professional through channels which offer more accessibility, some to greater extents than others. Engagement is the measure of the marketer and where the professional played on the ‘ignorance’ of the mass market to perpetuate their myth, the analytical data which follows every digital interaction is proving that ignorance prefers emotional, human interaction over technical prowess.
And that really is the point of this essay.
The ideas we have about the practice of photography are essentially founded in the adoption of existing art conventions of the renaissance period, adopted to help photography become a recognised medium. These conventions took hold to such an extent they continue today through fashion, portrait and advertisement photography. The idea that we must only recognise professional work as ‘truly artistic’ comes from the marketing techniques of the early photographer presenting themselves as a magician of light, managing complex processes only they could afford or understand. The perpetuation of these two myths benefitted the photographer and manufacturer equally and relied on the clubs, journals and awards that supported these ideas to enforce the ‘rules’ of photography and dismiss any amateur who did not meet these standards. Today the accessibility that should open up opportunities for those with no other means of access is closing those doors through continuing the members only mentality and promising entry to the club only through the mastering of presets and brand name equipment.
I’m not here to dismiss the existence of the ‘pro’ photographer but to challenge them to elevate the work to the third category. We’re not going to be using our phones to produce every single image in the future but I do feel that it’s time everyone, and not just the third category, accepted the medium on its output not it’s tools. Some of the greatest photographs ever made are the result of experimenting with limited means, similarly they could be made with the highest quality of equipment however in all case the means of creation steps aside in the face of engaging and emotive imagery.
It’s an old cliche but one which is easy to forget when we carry the world in our pockets but it was no joke that at one time the number one item people would save from a house fire was their photo album. A collection of blurry disposable snapshots, X-rays and sonograms, school portraits and awkward birthday poses. How often do we look to those moments and wish we had used a different lens when our children take their first steps?
I’ll leave you with the words of Barthes from his book Camera Lucida, an apt name as his intention is to bring the mysticism of photography into the light. Speaking, after his mothers recent death, of an image he never shares, the ‘Winter Garden Photograph’
“There I was, alone in the apartment where she had died, looking at these pictures of my mother, one by one, under the lamp, gradually moving back in time with her, looking for the truth of the face I had loved. And I found it.”
Camera Lucida – Roland Barthes (1980)
Photography: A Cultural History – Mary Warner Marien (2014)
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