Artist as Technician as Artist

Photography is inherently a technical pursuit. Similar to music, you can only truly be free in it’s application when the photographer has enough technical control to ”know what not to play and when not to play it” as Dizzy Gillespie once said. No photographer has to be an expert at all things (although working in a camera shop comes close), but even if highly specialised, the better the skill level, the better the technical application.

Artist on the other hand seem to work best when not hindered by overly complicated processes. This allows them to master their own creative process without too many limits.

As photographers, we need to be aware that the more we obsess about camera gear, the less we achieve.

I speak from personal experience here and would not dare assume others are the same, except that in the job I do, I get to meet lots of technically obsessed photographers and occasionally a few artistically obsessed ones.

Ansell Adams is often cited as one of the more technically competent photographers to come out of last century. He invented processes and terminologies that are still used in the digital age, but he also managed to make his artistic vision come through, almost as .

Brett Weston, a friend and contemporary of Adams was notorious or his intuitive, almost anti-technical processes. He would rib Adams with good natured humour that he could be set up, shoot and pack up before Adams had even finished light metering. Some of his negatives were so bad, his sons (capable photographers themselves) almost destroyed them by mistake when clearing out his estate.

Who was the better artist? That is entirely up to the viewer.

I am personally awed by Adams majestic landscapes and clever nature studies, especially his early colour work, but I am equally aware of Weston’s Pepper images.

Back to the point.

As I have stated before in related posts, the technical side of photography, be it digital of film, is obviously important. It’s importance can be easily over-stated though. The beginning photographer is actually shielded by their technical ignorance. They are free to “point and shoot” and the balance of creativity to technical concerns is well in favour of the former. The steps after this can stifle, rather than release.

Technically sound enough to pass as “fine at”, but a little boring.

Technically sound enough to pass as “fine at”, but a little boring.

As we develop our skills, an awareness that the odd, sometimes contradictory, technical nature of photography can be controlled, allowing us to get closer and closer to the images in our minds eye, spurs us on, but here we reach a tipping point. Everyone is different. We handle learning and growth differently. Some are quick studies of instructional pamphlets, others learn by doing, but the one casualty of technical advancement is often creative freedom. As soon as a parameter is placed on something, it is limited by definition. The artist in us either gives ground to this, assuming the technical side has dominance, or it fights back, breaking through these barriers.

There are plenty of photographers who can spout off facts and figures (it is part of my job), but they are not necessarily as productive as they are knowledgeable. In fact the productivity to knowledge ratio rarely lines up.

I know all too well how easy it is to get caught up in the vortex of comparisons and opinions. It is something I have to fight every day, as close to the industry as I am. I can honestly say, there is not a camera in our shop that is not fully capable of doing what it says on the box and brand preferences aside, I could happily use any (a game I often play is “what would I buy if this was my brand?”). Even the weakest mirrorless or DSLR is better than anything we had 10 years ago in purely technical terms. It always amazes me how a little bad press can make a camera dead wood to the buying public (“Z” Nikon and “R” Canon for example), when it is a technological marvel in it’s own right.

There are no bad cameras, just bad reviews.

Technical control came into the creation of this image twice. The first time was an awareness that the technical side was flawed and ignored (the wrong settings). The second was applying some post processing to retrieve something from an intriguing file. On the bright side, my artistic desire to capture this scene over-rode my technical “brakes” and with some luck, one of my favourite images of the day was captured.

Technical control came into the creation of this image twice. The first time was an awareness that the technical side was flawed and ignored (the wrong settings). The second was applying some post processing to retrieve something from an intriguing file. On the bright side, my artistic desire to capture this scene over-rode my technical “brakes” and with some luck, one of my favourite images of the day was captured.

Personally, this has to be a conscious effort to go against the far more comfortable path of conformity. I am plagued by poor memory when trying to learn something I find dry and boring, but blessed with a reasonably good ability to pick things up as I watch them being done or even to self teach*. This also seems to help me dispel hard jargon, to explain things in plain English (how I understand them), which in turn allows me to share concepts easily. It would be easy to hide behind technical terminology making myself seem far cleverer than I am, but that helps no one.

In my day job, I speak to a lot of people at various levels of skill. The key words I look out for, the things that excite me are when the customer talks about their favourite subject, or the prints/books they have made. I am always in awe of someone who creates high art with low gear**. Conversations that come down to pixels, or edge to edge, wide open lens sharpness measurements from site “X” compared to “Y” leave me cold these days. Conversations I enjoy most are about the process of doing, rather than the processes of doing. The reality is, if you cannot get the creative to dominate, the rest does not matter.

Digital photography has made me more productive, so I cannot complain too much, but for a while I let it change me into a math obsessed analyst. The technical side, as much as I feel I need, is fairly straight forward. I will never be a graphic designer, nor a digital artist, but from a purely photographic stance, I am happy enough. I will admit to having an aversion to too much manipulation and trickery, but that was always the case. A darkroom purist, I was never keen to create an overtly fake reality. The trick is in meshing the digital and analogue sciences with the technically agnostic artistic urge.

Think of your artistic side as the performance, the technical side as the support team.

Always let your inner artist lead from the front.

*I have noticed in myself a strong capacity to learn by opening a book to a random point, read it intently then try to fit it into the bigger picture. I quite literally read what catches my eye, no process that I can see, led by intuition only I like to hope. If I read something from the start, the introduction usually puts me to sleep. This may come from years of learning from magazines with their precise and specific short articles, then transitioning to the internet’s short bites.

** I remember a conversation I had a few years ago with a customer who, after looking at her work (massive full-school group portrait images printed A1 size), stated she felt they needed a new camera as the one she had was not up to it any more. On enquiring it was revealed that the tool in question was a 7D. Arrogantly I assumed a 7D Canon, a current pro model at the time, but that the all too common need for an upgrade regardless of actual need had set in. I questioned the need to change, but assumed a full frame was the direction we were heading in. She relented, admitting that the image was always more important than the camera, so instead she asked for a new battery for her trusted war horse, an ancient 7D Minolta! I always try to remember this before making assumptions.