No post for ages then they all come at once...
For me photography is a voyage of exploration. I believe that we all start with a sense of enquiry, a sense of wonder at our chosen subject. The voyage that we embark on is to discover the limits of what we know about technique, to explore the subjects that we photograph and, perhaps, to open up the unknown territory of our spirit.
I was recently asked by Eddie Ephraums to look at a book that reflected the journey to date of a photographer who I have witnessed at first hand grow from unskilled novice to someone who now taking his first unsupported steps on his personal voyage of exploration. The book is called “Writing with Light” and contains the work of Sami Nabeel. It prompted me to think how a photographer might make the journey from “taker” to “maker” of photographs, from technically competent illustrator to expressive photographer as Sami has.
If I had been writing about this journey at almost any other time in the last couple of thousand years there would have been a well trodden route that the artist would have followed, from indentured apprentice to craftsman and, for the gifted few, on to acknowledged master. But no such clear-cut path exists today. The vast majority of people, like Sami and many of my readers, who would call themselves photographers have “proper” day jobs. Photography is something that they are driven to do in the nooks and crannies of their lives, in the gaps between work and family commitments. It would be impossible for most to give up a regular income in order to pursue photography full time. You may have noticed that I make no distinction between amateur and professional photographer. Like any other artistic endeavour, the title “photographer” is one earned by achievement rather than one achieved by earnings.
With little chance of an apprenticeship the two ways that one might learn one’s craft are by studying the example of “masters” in books or magazines or by interacting with fellow enthusiasts. The problem with either of these approaches is that one needs to receive genuine constructive feedback in order to grow. Studying the printed work of masters only gets us so far. Most books, with notable exceptions, are portfolios or technical “how to” treatises rather works that aim to provide answers to why an image was made. Without a dialogue to explain the difficulties they encountered and their approach to finding a solution all we can really do is admire the result.
In the case of the popular camera press things are even worse. The percentage of good work is quite low and genuine critical frameworks are almost entirely absent. The approach more often undertaken by the staffers vacillates between meaningless epithets and snide criticism. I doubt that many staff writers actually give much thought to what might constitute a meaningful critique. Most are journeymen who concentrate on simple narrow matters of technique, that can be learned by rote, and opt for cheap attacks to hide the depth of their ignorance. One UK photo magazine in particular had a long running series where two of the staffers adopted the good cop/bad cop position of alternately praising to the heavens and then tearing the photograph apart. What this was supposed to teach anybody who contributed an image to this futile exercise is beyond me.
Seeking opinions on our work from our peers can be useful. The developing photographer might turn to camera clubs or the Internet and in theory these should provide them with much needed feedback. The main problem here is one of finding the golden ingots of wisdom hidden below the dross. Feedback from Internet forums is often patchy, with either too many opinions on offer or none at all. Sadly, once again, the opinions tend to lack any rigour. Being told that your image is “great” or “crap” or (the worst of all) “nice” doesn’t help you progress. It seems to me that for visual artists photographers in general (and sweeping generalizations are always good!) have an extremely poor insight into why some images work and others don’t. Most avoid thinking about such questions by literally hiding behind the camera. They focus on the technology and don’t ask why they’re making images or what those images might be telling us. Others avoid asking such questions by resorting to the, “It’s all a matter of taste” argument. Postmodern art has been built entirely on this shaky foundation. Despite everything that such artists say, most of which is deliberately obfuscate, art isn’t art just because the artist says it is. It’s no good just saying “It’s Art, innit.” Opinions in art, just as much as in any other field, need to be backed by reasoned arguments. Modernism firmly defined the artist’s role as searching for self-expression but this is meaningless without insight into one’s opinions and the maturity to articulate them. You have to have something to express. Some years ago, Joe Cornish and I were discussing our landscape photography peers (men do gossip) and noted that none were less than forty years of age. At the time we had no real explanation for this. But I now think that it’s a simple case of needing to have had considerable experience of the landscape before one can make significant images. One can master the technology very quickly but a meaningful connection to the landscape can only come with experience. And experience can only come with time spent in the field.
The general lack of a prescribed direction means that many photographers struggle alone for years before they find their way beyond illustration. There may not be the recognised apprenticeships of old but photographers can still seek mentors. This is the role that I and some other photographers seek to fulfil for students by leading workshops. When I began teaching photographic workshops I had no idea how involved I would become in the photographic journeys of my students. Seeing how students grow in confidence and find their own voices has been both a revelation and a deeply rewarding experience for me. For most students the journey that they undertake is quite modest; they wish to master the equipment so that they might make a faithful “copy” of a landscape that inspires them. For others it is a much longer and harder journey: one of constantly trying to fill in the blank areas on the map of their knowledge.
However much the journey varies two things are absolutely clear to me; the student needs to make a serious commitment and they have to believe in themselves. It takes considerable time and energy for the student to find the route to move beyond simple illustration. Even with the outside assistance of a mentor they still need to act as pathfinder through their own jungle of possibilities. All I or any other mentor can do is try to steer them in the right general direction – a little like saying, “Just head west.” It might help in the end but there will certainly be sticky moments along the way. The terrain that they traverse will to some extent dictate their path. There may be ravines that they cannot cross, deep problems to which they have no answer. The mentor can suggest ways to bridge the gap or alternate paths but once again the exact route is for the student to find. They may find pleasant meadows where they wish to linger, but they should be cautious of the easy life. This may lead to complacency and a lack of progress. As I’ve opined before, the life of a photographer is much more akin to that of a hunter-gatherer rather than a farmer. We need to constantly move on and find fresh game.
When I said that the photographer needed confidence to successfully complete their passage from “taker” to “maker” I didn’t mean that they needed to be cocky. They need quiet self-belief that they can manage the journey; self-criticism is essential but they need to be careful that it doesn’t deteriorate into self-doubt. It is easy to remain in the shadow of those who have preceded us – indeed a poor mentor will prevent you from leaving their shadow. The photographer needs confidence that what they have to say is worthwhile if they are to move beyond making banal and vacuous pastiches of our photographic heroes images. A major part of what the mentor does is to provide them with this confidence.
So, what of Sami’s personal journey? When I first met Sami in 2003, he had a 5x4 camera but was struggling with its basic operation. He very quickly mastered the camera but this was only the first and in some ways least significant step. He then began to explore what he wanted to express in his photography. There were many dead ends and false starts, images that failed to meet his critical expectations, but bit-by-bit he began to develop a vision of his own. Four years is an astonishingly short period in the artistic journey of a landscape photographer but he has travelled a very long way since those first hesitant steps. I hope that he still feels, as I do about my own work, that there is still a long way left to travel. The day that we feel we have arrived is the day that the journey ends, the day to turn our back on photography. What keeps us exploring is the quest for unknown territory; looking for ways of seeing that are new to us, images that surprise and delight us. My own journey has been filled with unexpected twists and turns and I pray that it continues to surprise me. If I have taught Sami anything I hope it is that it is better to travel than to arrive.
Workshop at Linhof & Studio
Paula and I will be running another LF workshop in Leigh on Sea in spring 2008. Details will be posted on the Linhof website in due course or if you just can't wait contact Paula on +44(0)1702 716116 for further details and to reserve a place.