Something Wicked This Way Comes
Something is off in our modern photographic culture. We’ve lost something. Something… big.
As a professional photographer, and also a consultant on issues of management and strategy for organizations, I often sensed a connection between my two types of work. And yet, when I would read and research between them, they seemed to be worlds apart.
On the management side, when I would work with any group—from large organizations, to small entrepreneurs, to their boards and investors—it seemed there was no sense of taste and aesthetics at play. Considering the idea of composition in, say, giving an presentation to investors would get you laughed out of a room. That was considered the “soft” stuff, more for marketing departments or “creative types”.
And conversely in the photographic world, the vast majority of content created appears to be stuff that belongs on gear blogs. It is material for technologists, but seems to value the more subtle aspects of human connection less and less. It is not built on a sense of curiosity or discovery of the world, and in fact, it is even becoming a common statement that “photography is dying—everything has been shot before!”
This type of tearing pressure between the two worlds sat wrong with me, because as I would work to read and research deeper and deeper into these two fields, I would feel a sharp fork in the intellectual pursuits between them. You had to choose which path to go down, leaving one to follow the other. And yet, that isn’t at all what I felt when I first felt the passion that motivated me to attend photo school. And it speaks nothing of the role of taste and aesthetics that animates so many outstanding projects.
Two Notebooks Diverged in a Wood
As a demonstration of this, I often keep small notebooks on me. For the last 10 years they go absolutely everywhere I go, at all times, and I use them to jot down ideas and observations. In one notebook, I keep my “business” thinking. This is for observations and insights from economics, law, competitive dynamics, behavioral science, politics, literature, science, and etc.
In the other book, I keep my thoughts on photography, art, taste, composition, and related topics.
Mentally, I’ve always thought of these two books as separate. And indeed, in most of the world, these things are treated as quite separate. (Here’s an old joke: what do you do when an artist comes to your door? You take the pizzas from them and tell them “thanks”.)
It is assumed, even if passively and without notice, that to be rigorous in one field requires making tradeoffs in the other. Serious photographers read DXO, and serious business minds read the Economist.
The truth is that it is the combination of these two notebooks that gave me my photographic eye. And it was the human and explorational side of my curiosity that fueled my photography—the photographic culture simply gave me methodologies to practice.
In order to tease this out a bit, we’re going to have to have a talk about modern photography culture.
Two Types of Photographers, or, “You Do You, I’ll Do Me"
Essentially, photographic pop culture has taken a very hard turn into the technological side of the business. There is nothing wrong with this per se, and in fact, it ensures rich innovations in technology delivered at lower prices for photographers over time. I’m very, very grateful for it. And this change has been decades in the making, animated more recently by a global digital culture that allows for very fast technological iteration cycles and expanding consumer choice.
The problem it creates is more about the imbalance that it triggers.
The technological obsessions have spawned a huge mass of what I call “Type 1” photographers. Type 1 photographers are, more than anything else, technologists at heart. They are insanely interested in, and motivated by, the gadgets, gizmos, and objects behind photography. Their photographic eye is motivated by a sense of novelty—of capturing things in ever increasing technical perfection, and getting those “amazing single images” that seem to plumply fill sites like Flickr and 500px.
Type 1 photographers are not bad for photography, and I’m not talking them down. In fact, they are a legitimate part of photographic culture (they may even be the more numerous group, and not a subculture...) But it is also true that they are optimizing for very, very different things than Type 2 photographers.
Type 2 photographers are not pixel peepers by nature. They tire of the gear blogs, even if they dive in from time to time before they make purchases. They spend the majority of their time optimizing for very different types of personal development. And they tend to have a fundamental issue with Type 1 culture—put simply, that it is founded upon systemic discontent. If you convince yourself that great images are distinguished from lesser images by a measurement of megapixels, you have entered a special circle of Dante’s hell where you are doomed to a type of artistic identity crisis whenever better and better “gear” comes available that you do not possess. There is a tyrannical cycle at play in a world where you must measure by microns to determine your level of artistic competence—especially if the market for microns is spitting out new standards of quality every few weeks (and at prices that take months to years to responsibly afford).
Type 2 photographers are driven not by a search for technical perfection and visual novelty, but by a passion for discovery, insight, and exploration. They struggle to understand moods, the interconnectedness of human society, and obsess over what it means to tell a story or to illustrate a human idea. They read different books and blogs than Type 1 photographers--the technologists--and choose very different paths to improve their work. They don’t believe that great images generally come from technological factors of their equipment, but rather, that great images come from having a prepared mind. It doesn’t mean that Type 1 photographers don’t read in the humanities, or that Type 2 photographers don’t love and research their gear. It’s more about where the soul of the two depart from one another, though they share many similarities.
Both types of photographers, along with other types, fill the photographic community. Neither are better or worse than the other—they are just different. Most people are some type of hybrid of these and other types, but for the sake of clarity we’ll focus on these two as distinct entities.
A Trip To The Farm
Consider an irresponsibly simple story--made intentionally binary--of two friends, a Type 1 and a Type 2 photographer, who travel to a working farm for a photographic assignment.
The Type 1 photographer brings his latest gear, refreshed only 8 months since his last major purchase, and has a bag loaded with lenses behind his seat. He’s got every fast zoom that covers all the major focal lengths, as well as some stunning primes. He has a top of the line tripod, several heads, and a case full of light modifiers and flash systems. Everything looks new, and is extremely well preserved and organized in a series of late model bags and cases. His gear, gathered around him like a brood of chicks around a mother duck, are a constant source of both inspiration and anxiety to him. Thinking about which piece of gear to deploy in one situation or another gives him a mental rush, while worrying about which zoom or prime would be ideal causes a firm anxiety and discontent.
He won’t know if he has an image to satisfy him until he gets home, downloads the cards, and has a chance to review each image for 100% crop clarity, edge sharpness, and color rendering (even though he will live tether his camera to his tablet during the shoot).
The Type 2 photographer has only one small bag behind her seat. She's got a good camera, though it’s a few years old by now, with a few high quality lenses. Her equipment, however, is beat to hell and looks much older, and less capable, than it actually is. Her notebooks aren't filled with algorithms or light recipes, but instead, contains bullet points from her previous weeks of research into the farms, the people, and the culture of the region. She has let her curiosity guide her down a hundred rabbit trails in the last few weeks that ranged from agricultural economics, to the differences in family counseling between urban and rural relationships. She dug into local values, and even visited the region a few times to eat breakfast at the local meeting spots. Her cell phone has pictures of the magazine stand in the drug store on main street, in order to get an idea of what artistic and cultural influences the community embraces. She even has her notes from a few casual interviews she had set up with the farmer and some of the members of his family before she showed up with a camera.
Upon reaching the farm, the Type 1 photographer jumps from the truck and gets to work—there is much to do. Tripods are set up, locations scouted, and lighting equipment is pre-staged around the most picturesque (and cliche) locations—the barn, by the tractor, around the livestock, etc. Not having spent much time on a farm, almost everything is visually novel to the Type 1. He immediately spots a rusty old truck beside the barn and almost squeals with glee, knowing it will get a lot of play on Instagram later.
The Type 2, however, does something quite different. Instead of unfolding into the lawn like a circus train, she leaves her bag in the car and walks to the door. The family spots her and they wave warmly to each other through the window. A dog runs from the house to greet her, and she welcomes him by name. There is no piece of gear that teaches skills like conversation, curiosity, and human connection—so her gear remains in the car. A few cups of coffee are shared, the schedule and intent for the shoot is discussed and checked against the family’s feedback before they set out together and the photographer grabs her bag from the truck.
In the hour the family spent with the Type 2, they almost forgot the camera was there. She didn’t hide it and used it often, but she also talked from behind it. She showed interest in the farm’s history, and the shoot felt a lot more like a mutual conversation than like a target propped up in a shooting gallery. They family felt connected to her, and as they unfolded, even offered some more inside information about what it felt like to make a living from agriculture in their little town. The photographer noticed the tiredness in their eyes, but also their happiness. She shot her set, but with her eyes and mind trained back to what it must feel like to life the life the family has chosen. She saw the symbols of their choices that collect around them as they live their lives, and she cleverly incorporated these elements into the set. She had a long list of things to look for that were not in any way cliche, and in fact, anchored the family in their current time and space. She asked if she could return, later, in case she wanted a more dramatic landscape or even for a more formally lit portrait if needed. The family warmly consented.
In the hour the family spent with the Type 1, things were a little different. The photographer was friendly, but hurried. He didn’t seem to know their names, and he directed them almost as if pursued by an approaching catastrophe (“We’ve got to work fast before the angle of the light changes”, he’d say, as well as “Do you think you can move that tractor a few yards to the left and tie that horse up behind it? How long would that take? And do you have a tarp to cover that old chair so it’s not in the frame?”). The family tried as hard as they could to respond to the poses he suggested, but felt awkward and mostly wanted the the session to end. The photographer downloaded all the images taken to a tablet as the shoot drug on, looking occasionally elated, but more often he’d wrinkle his brows in concern at something he saw, and would ask for a reshoot of a pose or situation. The family didn’t really feel the photographer was tied into the spirit of the farm, but neither were they comfortable enough to consider trying to correct or redirect him. So they tried to follow his advice, barked from behind the dark, cyclops eye of the camera lens, to keep their front legs forward as they leaned back against the rusty truck (that was only being stored there for an uncle they didn’t really like, but family always takes care of family in their world…)
At the end of the day, both photographers jumped in the truck to drive home. Both had some great images of the day to deliver. Both possessed a sense of happiness about spending the day shooting.
Sharpening The Photographic Mind
In the following illustration, let’s assume that both photographers got some great images of the day. And let’s also assume that they both enjoyed the field work, happy to be working with a camera. Both approaches were legitimate means to a photographic end.
The Type 1 photographer behaved as a technologist. They had a firm point of view about what leads to a good image, and they optimized for that perspective. They put their equipment, and the technical product it produced, at the center of their workflow and everything else had to orient to it. He prioritized novelty and individually impressive single images. There was a sense of the pursuit of perfection at play, with the humans of the story operating a bit like props set to serve the true star of the shoot—the camera, the lights, and the novel images the technology could capture.
The Type 2 photographer behaved in a much more human way. She also had a firm point of view about what would make a great image set, and optimized for that perspective. But in her case, this wasn’t information that was available on gear blogs. She prioritized knowledge and exploration of the subject, and also the sense of connection she invested in with the subject. They were not props, or gears, in her machine. Her story wasn’t really about the farm itself, but about giving people a lens for insight and understanding about what it means to be an agricultural family in their current time. She wasn’t worried about what had been shot before, or driven by what was novel, but instead was curious about the moods, the symbols, and the rhythm of their life.
Our photographic pop culture is churning out more and more people who believe that being a Type 1 photographer is the holy grail of achievement. It isn’t prioritizing discontent, technology, or disconnection from the broader social fabric as any sort of malevolent agenda, it is simply the result of increasing optimization around those factors. It is a culture getting swept away by a unique type of technological navel gazing, and it is creating a firm disconnection from the subjects it places in its crosshairs. And because there are so many factors that lead to good photographs, the technical mix of factors that can influence the result are endless. You can read, literally, for days on a single lens in a single system and that doesn’t even consider the comparisons that can be made between other lenses across systems. And next week, another eagerly anticipated review will come out that triggers a massive re-comparison of all the technological choices at your disposal, in order to ensure you haven’t been accidentally rendered photographically obsolete.
But what if I told you that I believe that there are many, many photographers who feel trapped by, and abused by, that cycle of technological perfection. Their interest in photography was always deeper, and broader, than the Type 1 and yet they had no real mentor or community to help them separate the media aimed at Type 1 photographers.
What if I told you that your journey to becoming a better photographer can be one of the most rich intellectual paths you have the honor of taking in your life, and that you don’t have to be plagued with technological anxiety (“does this lens have too much lens distortion in the corners? What if 24 megapixels isn’t enough?”).
This is the path of the Type 2.
There are no gear blogs to help you sharpen your photographic mind. It is impossible, because it has absolutely nothing to do, directly, with the technology you employ. It comes from how you see things, the interrelationships between them, and the interactions you employ as you capture them. It comes from insights you gain by interacting with the real world, and with real people. It is empowered by the wandering paths of your intellectual curiosity, and synthesizes insights from subjects as diverse as economics, social behavior, competitive dynamics, human relationships, humor, literature, emotional awareness, and psychology. Your inspiration doesn’t have to come from waking up and reading another gear review, or comparing the technical specs with that rival photographer you’re frenemies with on Instagram. Your inspiration can come from exploring culture, humanity, science, ritual, and by discovering the patterns within them. Nothing says you have to spend more time in Shutterbug than in the Economist or the FarnhamStreet blog.
Over the next few months, I will be working on exploring how to deepen our Type 2 side—on helping photographers to sharpen their photographic minds to balance against the teeming culture of technological discontent. For those photogrphers who are truly in love with the technology side, I mean no harm. It is a legitimate pursuit and one that forms a symbiotic relationship with Type 2s. It is a worthy, if expensive, hobby and I wish you the best. There is room in the photographic community for all sides.
But there is another path, perhaps even a bit of a deeper and richer path, available to photographers. And some are craving those conversations and articles to balance their consumerist diet. You don’t have to become a “photography person", who lives wrapped in these discontented technological communities, to be a great photographer. Pursuing excellence in photography does not mean you must change the intellectual diet that gave you your curiosity and sense of life to begin with.
The same passions that animated your interests in music, literature, science, medicine, fashion, or law are the very same parts of you that will drive you to create images that deeply matter to others. Your photographic portfolio can be built on these raw materials, and you don’t have to accept the fork in the road that says you must become a Type 1 photographer to be “serious” about photography. Just the designation of “professional" gear versus “amateur/enthusiast” gear is a creation of commercial marketing departments to keep Type 1 culture hooked to a firm set of jumper cables—but you can let go of all that worry, discontent, and pressure as your starting point to a rich photographic practice.
Sharpening your photographic mind means that you simply overlay great photographic practice and intentionality—things like composition, reading light, and visual taste—over your existing sense of curiosity, discovery, and connection to the world and the people you find in it. You don’t ever have to measure the difference between edge sharpnesses of two nearly identical lenses on five different camera models, nor worry if you're somehow missing your next great photographic essay because your flash unit is two cycles older than the it could be.
You simply need to invest in your own mind, and your own sense of curiosity, to begin down the Type 2 path. Yes, there are many photographic lessons and methods you will need to practice as you go. It will take time to sync up your sense of taste with your creative output—probably years.
But it will also be one of the most interesting paths you could take. And probably the path you were looking for all along when you fell in love with your first photographs.