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Sunday, January 25, 2015


Back in the day, books about photography could run to 100 pages or more. They covered how to mix chemicals up, and coat plates of glass or metal, all the way through composition and seating a person for a portrait.

Nowadays, thank goodness, most of that fiddly difficult stuff has been cleared away. A contemporary book, workshop, or similar, on photography is both short and tends to jump ahead pretty immediately to artistic and creative elements. No, wait. That's not right at all. If anything, instruction has become even more lengthy and tedious! What the hell is going on here?

The first thing that's going on is that you can always make a buck selling a book about so big. So the books are about so big, pretty much no matter what. You can always fill it up with trivia, as needed.

The second thing that's going on is that, as photography has gotten easier, the old guard has always insisted that it is hard. It was hard in the days of glass plates. There was an incredible amount of finicky, dangerous, difficult stuff. As things got simpler, the glass plate guys complained that it was too easy now with these new-fangled dry plates, so the books written in the wet to dry plate transition no-doubt started to put in filler, to replace the no longer relevant stuff about collodion. And so the dry plate guys learned that photography was hard, and so when roll film showed up, they stuck in more filler. So the roll film guys learned that photography was hard.

And so it goes. Now we have books and tutorials that are mostly filler. Sure, they tell you a few things. Now we spend a tremendous amount of time "teaching" things that can be learned by the student in five minutes, by using a process best described as Open Your God Damned Eyes. 75% of the crap about where to put the lights can be learned in a few minutes by looking at pictures, and looking at a model, and moving the lights around a bit. But no, it has to be turned into 150 pages of canned formulas complete with diagrams about where to put the lights, and (if you're lucky) sample pictures of the loop under the model's nose, which are the only part that matters a fig.

And let's be clear here, by "filler" I don't necessarily mean that Chapters 5 through 8 should simply be deleted. I mean that, perhaps Chapters 5 through 7 should be condensed to one short chapter, and 8 should be rolled in to chapter 3 as a single paragraph.

As of this writing, searching the web for the exact phrase "photography workshop" garners nearly eight hundred thousand hits. Everyone wants to sell you a goddamned workshop. It's crazy. There's every stripe out there selling this crap. There are internet-famous amateurs and pros looking to squeeze few more bucks out of their hobby. There's art and design schools or varying degrees of credibility. There's National Geographic. There's honest-to-god credible artists.

I'm sure that in some small subset of these real value can be obtained by the student. Indeed, I dare say it would be rare to go to one and learn nothing at all.

Still, the most useful piece and sage course ever taught in photography boils down to this:

Open Your God Damned Eyes.

Look at what you're shooting. Look at other pictures. Look, for crying out loud, at the settings the camera has chosen for you. If the shutter speed says 8 that's probably why your pictures are all fuzzy.


  1. And what else do you want amateurs to do with their free time than attend a workshop? In a workshop at least, they can get comments on their pictures, get the occasion to photograph new things and can hope to discuss photography with likely minded people without being submerged by trolls.

    What else can an amateur photographer do? He (or she) cannot produce "fine arts", because galleries are not interested in "amateurs". The modern definition of an artist excludes the possibility of being an amateur, since you are supposed to devote your entire life to your art. He can try his family and friends, but these were already bored by uncle Bob in the era of slide projectors. Internet forums have evolved into some kind of beauty pageant contest, as you have noted in your next post. Flickr, Facebook, Instagram and Google+ want pictures, lots of them, and quickly move them into the oblivion of the bottom of the timeline.

    The Internet does not want "amateur" pictures any more. The Internet wants pictures designed to please and entertain its public. Only those will be reshared and reposted. But producing pictures on command is not what an amateur does, it characterizes what a professional does.

    Please tell me: what do you do with your pictures? Did you find a place to have seem seen and appreciated? If you have not, what about paying a small fee to encounter other people who may be interested to view them and comment?

  2. I make little books out of my pictures, and leave them out for people to find. I also give away copies to friends. I mostly manage without any feedback at all, and it works fairly well -- for me.

    As for workshops, well, I certainly don't object to people taking them. People seem to enjoy them, often. I suspect strongly that many of them manage to squeeze 2 hours worth of material in to 3 days, which offends me on a philosophical level, but workshops seem to me as much social and entertainment as pedagogy. And there's really nothing wrong with that.

  3. Count me as a grumpy old man. I've attended one workshop in my life. A workshop, to me, BTW, is one I paid money for. I was treated to The Rule Of Thirds, mostly. I am not saying that I have learned everything there is to know. But I have turned away from workshops to learning how to draw and paint with pastels, and I get far more useful information from fine art magazines and looking at pictures.

    Just my 2 kopecks worth.