I have always been drawn to a lo-fi approach to music, more attitude than aptitude. A ragged guitar appeals more to me than a noodling guitar, energy and passion over professionalism and production values. I feel the same about photography. I’m more Robert Frank than Jeff Wall.
There are two specific reasons for this. One is that I grew up in the London of Punk, New Wave and the ‘Do-It-Yourself’ ethos of the late 1970s and 80s, and the other is that I never studied photography in a formal environment. Therefore I have always been more interested in the doing, than the outcome, the process than the artefact, and I have never known more than I need to know.
I am not a manual reader, instructions follower or YouTube ‘how to’ watcher.
Enthusiasm, ambition and creativity have always been more interesting instigators to making photographs to me than technical expertise, and aesthetic perfection. In an analogue world the happy accident could be turned to your advantage. The darkroom could be your friend or in my case the expert printers to whom I delivered my under, over, or occasionally well-exposed film. I never learnt how to print, or how to master colour transparency film. Colour neg was my weapon of choice, and I soon learnt that with the help of a fast film, a tripod and a stop push at the darkroom I could build a successful photographic career.
Now many of you may be reading this and throwing your hands up in disbelief and anger. How dare someone with so little technical knowledge class themselves as a professional photographer. Well, I mastered my camera (a Hasselblad) and my light meter (a Minolta) and that was all I needed. In the studio I moved lights around until things looked as I wanted them too, and a Polaroid test confirmed or questioned my decisions. My learning was on the job, and not dictated to by pre-ordained classical lighting set-ups.
The move to digital of me was therefore simple. I had learnt to ‘get things right’ in camera (lighting, composition etc) and continued to use my light meter whilst occasionally luxuriating in the joy of automatic focus. I never saw the automatic buttons or pre-set settings as an option, but I did not decry them either. I learnt the minimum amount of Photoshop to meet my needs, and how to deliver a digital file to clients. Again my learning was on a ‘need to know’ basis.
Now, we are in a time when anyone can take photographs with no knowledge or experience. Where pre-sets and automatic settings are not questioned, and the idea of a light meter and manual focus seem to many to be nothing more than unnecessary hurdles to photographic capture.
This has left many technically trained and proficient photographers feeling resentful with their abilities under appreciated. I understand how that must feel, but in a competitive environment creativity is the differential, and not technical competency. So much of the technical competency now in photography relates to post-production expertise, and that is difficult to use as a point of difference, particularly as so much post-production work falls into the traps laid by aesthetic trends and fashions.
I often hear seasoned photographers dismiss other photographers (particularly the young and successful) as not having paid their dues, of not having earnt their stripes in the technical division. I think that is a shame.
Technical learning can come in time but the lack of it should not be used to deride those beginning their photographic journey. I have no issue with any photographer lacking in technical ability, whatever their age. The Sex Pistols Never Mind the Bollocks sounds as fresh, and relevant to my ears today as it did when it was first released in 1977, whilst I cannot say the same for Seconds Out by musical technicians Genesis released in the same year.
Retaining the spirit of the amateur, the beginner, the non-technician is not easy. It takes work to maintain a sense of energy and discovery in any creative endeavour, but it is possible if you see the value in the lo-fi approach and do not become seduced by the technical and a search for production perfection. In this I turn to and raise my hat at Yo La Tengo, audio masters of the long form lo-fi approach.
So, let us praise the non-technical photographer, and not dismiss them as beginners with so much to learn. Let’s exalt the sense of innocence and nurture it within both the young and the mature photographer.
Dr. Grant Scott is the the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com
© Grant Scott 2022
Image: Yo La Tengo: Video: Ohm.