A recent conversation with a young photographer and his parents placed me into a position to have to do exactly what the title of this post suggests. They asked me to give feedback on his work as he is being taught photography at school by an art teacher who had no photographic experience. This to them was an issue and so I happily agreed to view the work on his Flickr account. All of the images were technically proficient and included ‘painting with light’, post-produced landscapes/empty buildings and ‘flash-lit’ action skateboard images. The images were all very good of their type but said little of the young man’s life other than that he was excited about the process of creating ‘good photographs’.
However, there was one image that suggested something more. It was of a young boy performing a basic skateboard trick on an ordinary suburban street. It had not been post-produced in any way, the composition was well considered and the whole image was believable. The kind of image that in ten years time would stand as an historical document of a time and place, a feeling of what it was like to be that boy, doing that thing in that place. I explained all of this to the boy and his parents and commended him on the image.
My comments were met with disbelief and some anger. They did not agree with me concerning the image, other images had much more technical skill they suggested and others took more time to create! I explained that their opinions were valid but subjective and as such difficult to defend when placing the work into the context of a professional photography environment where work will be judged from a multitude of different perspectives where technical ability will rarely be the dominant factor. Objective analysis is where they should try and get to I explained.
I outlined how 2 + 2 rarely if ever equals 4 in photography and in fact within many of the creative arts and therefore to progress as a photographer although it is important to develop technical knowledge and ability. Those qualities should be seen as a tool to create the work you wish to create, not as the end product in itself. I encouraged him to be open-minded and to view photography as a process by which he could document his life and passions, informed by all areas of popular, social, political and historical culture. Use your phone to do this I suggested, have fun and fall in love with photography unencumbered by the need to create the ‘perfect photograph’.
“Thats just snaps!” I was told “That’s not photography!”
Our conversation continued for nearly an hour. I gave him names of photographer’s he should check out, suggested exhibitions and gallery’s to visit. I did my best to open his and his parents eyes to what photography is and can be. I’m not sure that I succeeded. I may have.
In retrospect I realise that despite asking for my opinion of the work, what they really wanted were their beliefs to be confirmed, not questioned. They wanted me to confirm that photography was a science and that they were getting the experiments right. That photography could be reduced to a series of right answers and rules you can put a tick next to. Both parents have careers in areas where this is the case and were struggling to understand how this could not be the case for their son and his prospective career.
I have always suggested to anyone that worked for me or with me that we should head for the choppy waters because that’s where the fun is. A situation so easily created by a rough, broken, ruffled, tempestuous, blustery, squally gale that photography regularly supplies. In photography as in life I never want to be becalmed, I hope the young photographer believed what I said and he too sets sail to where the fun is.
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of the United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer in Editorial and Advertising Photography at the University of Gloucestershire, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015).
© Grant Scott 2016
This is mindful to read, it’s easy as an amateur to become caught up in the technique and critique, instead of enjoying it and exploring.
Its got to be about finding a balance, using good taught technique to capture the essence of what you are feeling in the image. I see too much of each extreme – too much technique, no emotion, or too many images purporting to show the emotion of the moment ruined by poor technique and thus a poor image.
Balance and embrace each, embrace you are technically sound, you can use lighting etc, and embrace that you want to get to the core of your subject, and don’t penalise photographers who want to use more technique (I find it absurd that competitions like Taylor Wessing don’t want to see a flash light in sight).
Another well written article Grant, thanks for posting.
Absolutely agree, A well-made cliche’ is just that a cliche’. Oh for the search for the particular, the special. Not just something that imitates ‘Art’ or ‘photography’. But I guess that is students (and their parents) for you.
Nevertheless, the ‘awards’, competitions, magazine portfolios constantly seem to celebrate the cliche’. The HDR drama sky, the ‘canon’ of technique with overblown colour and contrast. (Trey Ratcliff)
If you love using technique, get a pinhole camera, enjoy, great fun.
If you are searching for a significant image, look harder and certainly not at any photo magazines (Digital SLR Photography Magazine). But do look at Vivian Maier.