Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

Chicken or the Egg?

Posted in art, awareness, Chicago, learning, perception, photography, Uncategorized by Jason Gray on February 11, 2009

I am a member of an online group that helps people interested in learning basic photography find resources that help answer their questions.  Recently, a veteran photographer posted a topic raising this question:    

What is essential in basic photography?

Is it how to take a better photo?  Or how and why does my camera function?  In my opinion, it is both, but more and more, I feel like there is a movement away from “all that technical stuff” to point/shoot/photoshop.  And when growth ceases to occur— upgrade because that must be the problem.

My response:

Kind of a chicken or the egg type of equation. The most unique trait of photography is that it is both an art and a science, so I think that one’s direction in learning it should be tailored to fit which version of photography that you will likely be pursuing. 

All things created are designed with a purpose, or function, inherent. For instance, a car gets us places more quickly, clothing protects us from the elements (and also acts as the first advertisement of our character), and computers enable us to perform a broad range of technical/communicative tasks faster and more efficiently. Photography’s invention is no different; photography was created to perform the task of telling future generations what exactly occurred at the exact moment that the photographer triggered a chemical reaction, resulting later in the image that would transfix the telling of that moment into the perpetual future. The precision of these recordings spelled death to the history painters, who, before the invention of photography, were the previous benefactors of the past to the present or future. The initial question for photography was, “How well can it record what is happening?”; the second question was, “What else can it do?” This is where photography, like art, transcends basic function.
Fine art is maybe the only thing created by man that is non-utilitarian. In other words, art has an intellectual value versus a functional value; it is measured not by what it can do for you, but rather by the long relationship, deep and sincere, that a person is able to form with it in order to increase meaning for life, or reverence, for that individual. I have a small art collection, ranging from Voodoo potion bottles crafted by a practitioner from New Orleans to a magic-realist landscape by a former Pollock-Krasner Grant winner. In each case, the pieces that I own communicate to me on a level that grows and fluctuates as time passes; they are not decoration, they teach me things about myself and raise my awareness of the world around me. This is what art does, and some photography does this as well.

My point is that, in learning photography, having both a technical and a compositional education, as a foundation, will help you achieve success no matter what your intent. However, if you are interested primarily in commercial photography, and have little desire to see your work exhibited in galleries, then an education more firmly rooted in the technical side of photography, including post-processing, would be best for you. You should probably skip the point and shoot, and go straight to a manual focus SLR. This type of education will enable you to react fast with your camera, and get hundreds of usable exposures when you are sent out on assignment. The result of this type of photography is more functional than intellectual. On the other hand, if shooting weddings, events for newspapers, or portraits in a studio for fashion abhors your sensibilities, and you desire the milieu of galleries and the art world, and you want to produce “art” only, then an education rooted in composition and art history would better benefit you. Skip the SLR and start shooting on a point and shoot; when you can afford it, buy a DSLR to complete your technical training later on. What is important for you is getting out and experimenting with your composition and finding subject matter that is capable of leaving your viewers reverent. The result of this type of photography is more intellectual than functional. 

Most photographers do both, or at least, most photographers that are interested in creating art do both. This is because it is extraordinarily difficult to make a living selling “art”. In my case, I mostly skipped college, and spent the last ten years exhibiting and selling my paintings. I have been in countless shows, and worked under contract with numerous galleries. My paintings are in private collections in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and elsewhere. I have a mural in a Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District house. I am not an ego-maniac. The reason why I mention all of this, is that in the last year that I have been working commercially in photography (shooting weddings, fashion shows, public events, family portraits, etc.), I have made more money than ten years of moderate success in the world of fine art. I entered into photography with the understanding that painting was never going to pay all of my bills, and the idea that photography was a reasonably creative and somewhat lucrative profession that I could carve out a career in. Since then, I have also fell in love with the intellectual potential of photography, and I practice making art in photography almost as much as I paint now. So there you go, I think that for most people choosing either the chicken or the egg first will help them get to where they want to go faster. However, for me, they’re both breakfast.

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