Learning to speak Photography…

As with the learning of any language developing fluency with a visual language comes from practice and repetition. It also comes from the learning of grammatical structures, idiosyncrasies, technical requirements and forms of delivery. Photographers whose introduction to the photographic medium came through analogue education often speak of the importance in the teaching, learning and understanding of the technical aspects that were once intrinsic to the creation of consistent photographic images. They often see these as the defining aspects as to whether or not someone takes the medium seriously, whether or not the person has the right to define themselves as a photographer.

I never studied photography within an institution and therefore was never taught these rules, as a graphic designer these rules of practice did not exist and therefore, I have never felt any pressure to learn them as I have worked with photography. Whatever I have learnt has been on a need to know basis and I do not feel any less of a photographer purely because there is so much that I do not know.

It will therefore come as no surprise that I have been so rigorous in my embracing of new ideas, platforms and practices when some photographers find it hard to do so. I understand these photographer’s stance even if I do not agree with it, but I do have an issue with the belief that work created without this technical knowledge is somehow of lesser quality than that created with it. This is a belief that seems to align itself with the opinion that work created on smartphones is also not worthy of serious consideration. 

I am neither dismissing or disrespecting the importance of technical knowledge.

I place great importance in the understanding of the fundamentals of any art form in allowing the creative to take control of the creation of their work. However, I am always concerned by teaching that places an over importance on this knowledge that can so often result in work that is both sterile and repetitive, lacking a sense of the personal. Equally, work that is purely personally based and is created with no mastery of the technical requirements in creation can easily lack consistency and a sense of intention in its creation. There is no Ying without Yang.

A language needs to be mastered and used with intention to successfully convey stories and to achieve the outcome that the storyteller intends. Many see the proliferation of easy to use digital imaging devices as being responsible for the ‘dumbing-down’ of the medium of photography and of course in some senses they are correct, but I believe that they can be used as part of a learning process that embraces the past, the now and the future. Of course to focus purely on the creation of narratives without looking at the nature of reading these narratives would not only be remiss it would be nonsensical in an environment where the ways and places in which these narratives are encountered are so multiple and varied.  

Image: ©Jake Chessum 

This article is extracted from Grant’s book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography.

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014)The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Taylor Francis 2015)New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Taylor Francis 2019). His next book What Does Photography Mean to You? will be published in 2021.

His documentary film, Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay can now be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=wd47549knOU&t=3915s.

© Grant Scott 2020

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