I got the sense from the commenters on the previous remarks that my notes maybe read as an indictment of all photographers, or almost all photographers, and I don't mean that at all. Just... a lot of them.
The thing that got me started on this train of thought is a photograph and some remarks by Mike Johnston
over on his blog, ToP:
Photographs are Gifts.
Allow me to be perfectly clear: I like and respect Mike, I like this photo pretty well, and I think by certain
standards it is a "good photograph."
At the same time, though, this illustrates the point I am trying to make. Mike and I are roughly contemporaneous, he
is slightly older. We both came up to photography feeling that, to a large extent, it's a problem of graphic design.
Yes, to be sure, the graphic design is intended to be the tool by which something else occurs, something larger, something
about communication. At the same time, we get a little too focused on the graphic design. You can read Mike
ruminating a little about "final" versus, I guess, not final. You can tell he's thinking about contrast and shadow
detail. We both spent far too much time learning about Ansel Adams and the rhythm of dark and light, the full range
of tone, etc etc etc. All, of course, in aid of something or other larger and more important which we have for the
It is, I feel, time for an extended and elaborate analogy built around, of course, racing sailboats.
Suppose a fellow buys a boat to go racing. Quickly he learns that polishing the hull makes it go faster, so he
really gets into polishing his hull. In fact, after a while, he stops sailing entirely. A community of people
arise who buy boats specifically and solely to polish the hull. They develop rules and standards, they have
contests, they judge one another's boat hull polish levels.
Now, there's a lot of stuff you can do with a sailboat. You can race it. You can go camping in it. You can
travel long distances. You can seduce lovers. You can get exercise. On and on. And also, you can polish it.
Someone fond of one of the other activities might reasonably get a little testy about the hull-polishers. They
might angrily point out some of the other things, things the damned machine is actually built to do. On the
one hand, this is unfair: who is this asshole to yuck the polishers' yum? There's no law against polishing the hull,
nobody's getting hurt. On the other hand... boy that does seem like a waste of a boat and of your time.
A great deal of photography is done by people whose main goal to to make photographs that their peers will
approve of. That is, they seek to make photographs that comply with the more-or-less arbitrary standards a group
of photographers has invented for themselves, in the same way the hull polishers seek the perfect sheen.
On the one hand, who am I to yell at Mike to stop obsessing over the graphic design (so, obviously, I didn't
and I won't, nobody else should either, and anyways I agree that the graphic design is good, and I was literally
taught that this is what matters, so... I have some feels here, and they're complicated.)
On the other hand, Mike's photograph (like all his photographs) does little more than testify that Mike is
very good at noticing things that make photographs of the sort Mike takes.
There are many things you can do with a camera, including make graphic design exercises. You can also make
dreary grey photographs of nothing, if you're in the right sort of MFA program. You can make warm cozy photos
that somehow evoke the paintings of Hopper without any of the angst. You can make photos with that kind of
weird sheen of plastic-y perfection that get you to the front page of whatever photo sharing site you
favor. You can take portraits with a million lights and balance them just so.
Who am I to yuck your yum, if that's what you want to do?
But in all those cases, you are making photographs intended to be liked by other photographers, and you're
doing that by adhering to essentially arbitrary criteria your community has invented for itself.
The essential action of the photograph, its ability to testify to that-which-was, gets lost here somewhere.
The essential action of the artist, which surely involves complying with the demands of an inner voice in opposition
to the voice of the community, gets lost here somewhere.