I have been struggling a little with photography writing lately. When I rejiggered how I read I pulled in a few suggestions from Feedly to seed my photography reading, and I have found the experience grim.
I know someone who is a very good, highly trained photographer. They’re just the right age to have received their formal training in film photography, and they made the shift to digital just fine, but their career didn’t really make the same shift: Their clients realized they could get “good enough” with a cheap light tent and a nice phone camera. They could point out a host of technical mistakes their former clients were making, but it just didn’t matter, because a 300x300, 72dpi image on a product page, shot with an iPhone, was good enough.
Lots of professional photographers are feeling this pinch, and it comes out in a lot of writing about photography on the web, which is – compared to other enthusiast niches – very negative, even when it claims to be helpful. A lot of posts are about how to “not look like a newbie,” “quit making these mistakes,” etc. etc. There’s a whole subgenre devoted to the menace of nephew wedding photographers. I recently read an article that suggested no photographer should post anything publicly without charging because it was devaluing photography.
So, a lot of photography writing feels like it is coming from frustrated professionals or pessimistic wannabes who don’t actually want to share the joy of photography so much as they want to scare off the interlopers who just got back from Best Buy with a low-end mirrorless camera and a kit lens, and are now quietly interdicting formerly lucrative wedding, baptism party, and graduation photo gigs. Reading about art from the perspective of people whose primary ambition is to commercialize it is probably a bad bet anyhow, but it gets worse when their revenue stream is threatened.
Which brings me to A Lesser Photographer, a very small book you can read in under an hour that does a lot to help you get your head on straight if you’ve been cowed by gatekeepers who want to make you doubt yourself. It does this in the early going by acknowledging that advances in technology are allowing people to make “good enough” photos, and urging photographers to look at this as an opportunity:
“Is Total Automation the Future of Photography? Yes, and that may serve artists particularly well. Even though anyone can microwave a frozen dinner, what we really want (and pay good money for) is a dinner prepared by someone who knows what they’re doing, has a vision, and doesn’t take shortcuts. Automation in gear will always sell better than the prospect of having to work with a creative problem. Welcome this with open arms. There’s no better way to differentiate your work from the masses than to wrestle with a problem everyone else is avoiding—and win.”
Sometimes the tone gets a little sharp, but one thing I appreciated about it is that it always comes around to something constructive. Consider this bit about cliché subjects:
“There’s a reason articles abound on how to take photos of waterfalls and fireworks. It’s because everyone does it. It’s not unique. There are times when it makes sense to put down the camera and take in the world around you. You’ll often find a scene no other photographer is covering. One of my photography professors, Monte Gerlach, put it this way: whenever there is a sunset in front of you, turn around and start shooting what’s behind you.
“If you can find it on a postcard, it’s already been covered pretty well and by better photographers than you. It’s probably time to move on to a more unique scene. The throngs of budding photographers, reading how-to articles, will take care of the dew-covered flower close-ups for you. Create something you care about, and it will rarely be a cliche.”
There are a lot of photoblog posts that content themselves to tell you not to take pictures of certain things (umbrellas, waterfalls, fireworks, sunsets, etc. etc. They don’t often muster the generosity to suggest even that simple prompt to “turn around and start shooting what’s behind you.”
As someone who tries to follow the advice “be the photographer who goes back,” I appreciated this advice about creating photos that last:
“The longevity of an interesting photograph is inversely proportional to the lack of longevity in the subject. I’ve spent half of my almost thirty years in photography on landscape photography. Now, as I digitize and archive that collection, I realize most of the subjects I captured appear exactly the same today as the day I took the original photo. Plus, the number of photographers traveling those same back trails has increased exponentially. This means, even if I were a modern-day Ansel Adams, my best photos from those years have probably been duplicated by dozens of like-minded photographers. So, what about photography subjects is still scarce? Scarcity must be sought in subjects that won’t be the same in 10 years or even 10 seconds—in the fleeting moments. For those who take naturally to people-based photography, this theory is nothing new, and it’s easy to implement. But for those of us who tell stories with and without people, including landscape, architecture, and abstract photographers, the search must begin for fleeting moments within our favorite subjects.”
So, I appreciated this book a lot. It is written in a spirit I aspire to when I am sharing what I know about my two great creative outlets – writing and photography – and it sort of “helped the helper” to the extent it gave me a small lift I didn’t know I needed as too much photo blogging was dragging my spirits down.
The last note I copied before finishing it is something I may just have to turn into phone wallpaper or something:
"Few people follow your work. Even fewer care. What are you doing with that freedom?"
A Lesser Photographer by C. J. Chilvers 📚