Saturday, July 7, 2018

Impostor Syndrome

I was noodling around last night, after writing the previous post on Copyright, thinking about what it is that photographers think they own. These guys who say "it's miiine" in a sort of vague and formless way, arguing against things like fair use and so on. They want total control of their pictures. But what is it that they think they actually own?

Obviously, everyone knows, one can own an embodiment of a picture and one owns only that embodiment. If I own a copy of a novel, I own a pile of paper with marks on them and that's it.

Some people, particularly photographers, imagine a sort of Platonic ideal, a notional object with no physical form of its own, which "is" the picture, or the novel. Some sort of essence of the thing. I suspect that this is, in sort of vague terms, what photographers think they own.

Unfortunately for them, property and ownership are social constructs, and society is when pressed unwilling to define "ownership" of nebulous bullshit. Therefore we have created the idea of a copyright, which is a bundle of rights surrounding the right to produce new embodiments of the whatever-it-is that we can't really define very well. If you're going to own something, it's going to be either an embodiment (a print, a physical book) or a copyright. You can own both, but they're two different things.

It turns out that this is pretty clever. Coming up with a formal, definable, thing which does a reasonable job of capturing the important parts of the abstract Platonic thing is not so easy, and copyright does a fair job of it.

Photographers strike me as particularly grasping and whiny about copyright specifically, and "ownership" of the abstract Platonic object in general.

I think this is, ultimately, because photographers tend to feel a bit like impostors.

There's a strong historical precedent for this. The whole Victorian era hand-work mess was, essentially, a reaction to the idea that photography is not sufficiently creative, it does not involve, let us be honest, all that much actual creation and therefore many of its practitioners decided to do some creating by painting on negatives, mashing gum-bichromate prints with their fists, and so on. We continue with this today, altogether too often we find people saying in a rather shrill voice that they do not take pictures, they make them. Usually by positioning lights, by extensive post-processing, and so on.

"Hey, nobody applies Lightroom presets in the same way I do! I make pictures, I don't just take them!"

In the end though, photography when distilled down, is just choosing a rectangle out of whatever happens to be nearby. At the end of the day, you're just throwing up index finger and thumb on both hands, and cropping out what's there, and then doing some technical whatever-the-fuck to fix that into some persistent embodiment which (let us review) is not the actual Platonic thing.

It's just plain not that creative, in the sense that you're not creating much of anything.

This doesn't mean that it sucks, or that it's easy, or stupid, or lame. It's astonishingly difficult. It's just not, you know, creative in the sense of creating something.

Photography, it seems to me, is very much its own thing here. Sure, you can go to work on it and be a failed painter with photoshop, or whatever. Feel free to run off a gum-bichromate print and do a waltz on it. None of that stuff is photography, although it may be very creative and it may be Art it's not photography. It's dancing, or painting, or scratching at negatives, or whatever. Which is lovely and fine. But not photography.

Indeed, much of this sort of thing is excellent. There are excellent painters out there. I've seen a fair number of collage-y things I quite like.

And no, the line is not clear. Where photograohy ends and other, more creative things, begin is not a precise line. The fact that the line is vague does not mean we cannot distinguish things on one side from things on the other. It's not as if you can no longer distinguish the castle from the invaders merely because the moat is rather wide and muddy, after all.

Photography in its essence is selecting, not making.

You can argue that it is creative after all, and drone on about the various tidbits of creativity you personally do in your work, and try to use that as a justification for whatever.

This is to get hold of the thing by the wrong end. Jut because photography isn't particularly about creating anything doesn't mean that it isn't worthy. Observing, seeing, is a wonderful thing. The ability to say "hey, look at that" and simply point out something worth looking at is pretty marvelous.

Just pressing the button at the right time is a fine thing to be able to do. We're not impostors!


  1. Well, I think our whole concept of 'ownership' could stand a little reinterpretation. While I certainly don't have a better model to propose, I personally have many issues with this concept. For example, when Native Americans 'bartered away' Manhatten, I don't for a minute believe that they said, 'ok, in exchange for these trinkets you can run us off the land, kill us, and eventually built New York City.
    On the photography side, I have been very uncomfortable when photographers insisted that they had absolute ownership of some nude photos they took a few decades ago, of some 'starving' young women who posed to earn some money. When decades later the women expressed discomfort with the photos and asked the photos not be used, they were basically told to go fly a kite, the photographer had a valid model release.
    A few years ago I took several rolls of nudes of a friend, who had asked me to do them. Some of them were really great. A few weeks later she came to me and told me that she was really uncomfortable with them, and was afraid that if the were to 'get out' things would be unpleasant for her. So I gathered up all the prints and negatives I had of that session and gave them to her. I really hated doing it, but could not think of any other way to handle the situation. Unfortunately, over the years she lost them all and now both of us are sorry.

    1. I'm pretty close to being a "property is theft" looney, but not quite enough of one to give up much of my property ;)

      You did the right thing for your friend, although the results are sad. I have long felt that anyone who consciously models for me has at least as much right to the pictures as I. I'm always clear that "these are yours as much as mine, and you get to veto any usage"

    2. Thanks Andrew - totally agree! :)

  2. I totally agree with you, Christian (and Andrew too). This is the only decent way to behave. In fact, I have made it a point of principle not use a model release, so that 'models' (awful word) retain control of the use of their photos.

    1. Hi Eric, I figured that you would be 'on the same page' with this. I certainly agree with your dislike of the term 'model,' and hope that for the most part, I have avoided it.
      On a different subject, I recently ran across this statement of yours, "I've given up trying for awards, but I have had them from ......, blah blah." I was glad to read that, for I have done the same. My major gripe is with the submission fees, which I think are excessive, and the collection of these fees seems too often be the main reason for soliciting submissions in the first place. I guess I am too stuck in the model where publications, etc would actually pay me to be able to publish/exhibit my work.

  3. Coming back to your original piece, Andrew, if I read you correctly, all photography is no more than the act of recording of an image. You could be an X-ray operator, a forensic photographer, a passport photo booth operator, a photojournalist, a Sally Mann, even a person baking in the sun with a bikini top on, image recorders every one. This is akin to saying that knowing how to write (or type) is what links Shakespeare to my shopping lists. True but trivial.
    And look how snitty writers are about copyright infringements and fair use violations of their texts by others ('quotations may not be longer than xxx lines'), and how seriously accusations of plagiarism are taken.
    It's not the mechanics that matter - it's everything else.

    1. It's not even mere recording, the recording strikes me as quite secondary. It is, I think, seeing.

      Seeing is, I argue, not really "creative" in a literal sense. This is not to take away, or to denigrate, but to reclassify. I think seeing is fully as difficult and artistic as, say, painting, or sculpture. We don't really have a word for whatever "seeing" is if it is not "creative" as far as I can see.

      I wish for a word that has the same cloud of connotation as "create" but with a denotation that is more like "discover"

      At least, on even numbered days, I so!

    2. 'Serendipity' covers some of it, no? 'Happy accidents of discovery' ...