Saturday, March 2, 2019


No, not tuberculosis! Not this time, anyways.

Indulge me as I relate a series of thoughts I had, which led me, well, somewhere. You'll see. I read an anecdote about a workshop, a photography workshop in a far off land. In that day's region, there was A Shot which everyone takes, and the workshop organizer performed yeoman's work getting everyone an excellent spot to take the sunrise shot. Well done, workshop organizer. My reaction was why in God's name would everyone want to take the same shot, which is the canonical shot that everyone takes when they're in that area?

Tending, on my better days, to lean toward intellectual honesty, I asked myself if there was any analogous thing that I did. I came up with one. When my family was in Memphis, TN, some years ago, we acquired and ate fried chicken, because that is a thing you do in Memphis. Then we went to Graceland, ditto. Poking around, I came up with more things I have done, would like to do, and that other people do, and the category into which all of these fall became clear.

They were all consumption of one sort or another. Consuming an experience, food, ideas, and so on.

This reveals, I think, something interesting about those Standard Shots that the serious amateur photographer seems to be infatuated with. Taking them is less an act of creation, and more an act of consumption. It is, I think, rather strange to view this act -- the taking of a photo -- which is widely construed to be a creative one, and to see it as instead an act of consumption. In a sense, the photographer is having an experience, they are playing the part of a photographer. Ansel Adams shoots Half Dome, and generations of followers place their tripod feet in his tripod's holes, and for a moment they are Ansel Adams. This is the experience they seek, that they consume. In the end, they have a memento, a photograph, proof and a memory trigger for that experience they had.

Now, I cannot in good conscience condemn this. I consume much in my life. For 20-odd years I did just the same thing with the camera, although I did not recognize it as consumption until today. I thought of it as creation. I read books, I eat food, I watch movies, and so on. I consume a great deal more that I create.

Of course, one does not divide photography into two strictly separated kinds. It's always a little from column A and a little from column B. Column A, in this case, is about bringing things from the world in to oneself, that essential character of consumption. Column B is, naturally, the opposite, it's about taking things from inside ourselves, and pushing them out into the world.

We try, of course, with our Ansel Adams copies, and our Gary Winogrand copies, to push them out. We print them and frame them and hang them on the wall. We put them in books and try to sell those. We go to Art Fairs with our hopeful boxes of mounted prints. Maybe we sell some, maybe we don't. But, whether people take them, whether the world will accept our offerings and carry them away, there is often little to nothing of ourselves in these pictures. They're mementos of an experience, of a moment of playacting, that happen to have a certain visual appeal (or not).

The distinction I draw here, then, is not about whether we can sell these things, whether we can persuade people to take them away, or even whether people like them or not. It is about the impulse that produces these objects. Is the impulse one of drawing out something from inside ourselves, or is it one of pushing things in to ourselves?

It strikes me that the vast majority of photographs made by the Serious Amateur are of the latter kind. They are rooted in an impulse to, say, photograph the moon, or any number of related impulses that boil down to I want to make a picture like that! These all have essentially the character of consumption, these are all about the photographer's desire to experience something, to do a certain thing, and there is nothing, really, of a desire to communicate, to put something out there. The workshop industry, being almost entirely about wandering around a set path taking a series of more or less set photographs is of course entirely this. Workshops might as well be carnival rides.

When people do concern themselves with the fact that all these bloody pictures look the same, they usually seem to salve themselves with the notion that they are practicing, that they are developing necessary skills to be used in some sort of nebulous future. The trouble here is that the skills they're actually practicing are trivial, and the skills they need appear no place on the menu. Dicking around with lights is easy, at least when compared with the labor of revealing some emotional depth, the labor of clawing something from the depths of ourselves and, somehow, rendering it in a picture.

Interestingly, I suspect that the vernacular photograph partakes far less of this. While in Paris, the snapshooter does not want a shot of the Eiffel Tower. The snapshooter wants a selfie with the Eiffel Tower in the background which is a completely different thing. It is, surely, a memento of an experience, but the experience is not that of being a photographer. The experience is, of course, of being in Paris.

The driving impulse is not: I want to photograph the Eiffel Tower (consumption)

it is: I want to show everyone I am in Paris! (communication)

What I want to do, of course, is to take as much from Column B as possible. I want to take things from inside of myself and push them out there. I don't give much of a damn about the experience of Being a Photographer and in fact I don't much enjoy it.

I think one could make a strong argument that much of the Photography Industry is in the business of facilitating consumption, in this sense, while simultaneously selling itself as facilitating creation. What the industry actually sells is Column A, but it pitches its product as Column B.

Which might be the single neatest way I have of summarizing my distaste for the Workshop Industry and its poor relations.


  1. Good ideas here.
    I once got to talking to a small group who were on a guided photo workshop in Florence, Italy; they were having breakfast after a sunrise visit to Piazza Michelangelo for the obligatory view of the city. I was surprised to find they didn't seem to be art buffs, had no particular interest in or knowledge of Florence or its importance in our history. Their interest in photography did not extend to the arts in general. Duh.

    Whether it's consumption exactly, I'm not sure, but I definitely do it myself. I have generally explained it to myself using Winogrand's (is it?) quip to the effect that he takes pictures of things to see how they'll look in photographs, or in Lightroom anyhow. But now I like your suggestion: I take pictures because it's fun to play at being a photographer. Fine with me.

  2. Excellent. I have been to exactly one workshop and I loved it because it got me to a remote mountain location I would not have visited otherwise, with guides who knew the area. I also enjoyed the interaction with fellow photographers. I didn't learn much about photography, as I recall. I probably thought more about creation than consumption, but it's hard to draw the line when you're in a strange and beautiful and wild area totally new to you. Glad I went.

  3. "The narrowing of free political choice to free economic consumption requires the unlimited production and consumption of images." -- Susan Sontag

  4. Interesting ... I think some of that Barthes-reading has rubbed off, consciously or unconsciously. This is a classic Gallic counter-intuitive double-shuffle. "X is not really X, but its mirror-image and evil twin, Y" (or, as Jimi Hendrix once put it, what if six turned out to be nine?).



      <Cut to students busily writing it all down>

      Yes, it has that character, doesn't it? But I think there might also be something to it as well! I do sometimes start with "what if is is exactly the opposite?" just to see where that thought goes, but this one arose 'organically', just as described with fried chicken!