I teach an introductory non-credit photography class, where people come from different walks of life to either learn the technical aspect of photography, how to work their cameras or to challenge their seeing and photographing. There are some assignments, which encourage different ways of thinking when taking a photo and training the eye to see light and nuances. A couple of weeks ago I was asked by one participant why I wasn’t more critical when reviewing the assignments and why I wasn’t saying if a photograph was good or bad. To tell the truth I was taken aback and at that split second I was caught off guard and didn’t know what to answer. The thing is, I think that I am quite critical, even too much so at times.
I came into photography by looking at the “masters of photography” like Bresson, Frank, Arbus and Avedon. I sought out these types of photographers in librairies and book stores, if the internet was as diverse as it is now my photographic attempts and inspirations would probably be very different. In 2001 I bought an Minolta SRT 101 with a pile of film and left for Europe for 6 months, on that trip I decided that I was to become a photographer and so desperately tried to capture the “decisive moment”. Once back, I enrolled in a technical photography program at Dawson college in Montreal. It was there that I dug deeper into the style of street photography, documentary and the world of black and white.
Photography, at this point was changing. Digital photography was growing like a weed. Some embraced it and some despised it. I was learning analog and digital together but treated each very differently. I had a soft spot for the nostalgia, a.k.a the world of black and white by the “masters of photography”. For me the world’s of Klein, Winogrand, Wegge and Frank were the images that I needed to capture to be successful or simply to be a good photographer. I soon created rules for myself, which were: shoot black and white, shoot full frame, push my film for big grain, shoot with a wide angle, get close (Robert Capa “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough”), only print on fiber, selenium tone and never, never crop. I came out of school wanting to be a documentary photographer, wanting to show the reality of life and capture the real. – Then I went to art school and all those rules fell apart. It wasn’t the photography or studio classes that made these rules shatter it was the art history courses that broke down my photographic world as I knew it. I realized that I didn’t start at the beginning of photographic history but I just jumped right in it. And it wasn’t only the visuals, in fact it was less about the photos but more about the theory of photography and “the why?”. To be introduced to a dialog about photography and the photographic medium was I think an existential moment for me. This photographic awakening allowed me to tear apart my photographic rules and walls I had built, which once enabled me to create an image. I was able to look at photography and to accept it’s different roles as a medium.
This morning I read these two articles Why Instagtram is Terrible for Photographers, and why you should use it. from Raw File and Instagram, Hipstamatic and the mobile photography movement from The Telegraph both quite interesting articles about Instagram, Hipstamatic or retro phone photography. I use Hipstamatic because for me it’s playful, a letting go of boundaries. Allen Murabayashi‘s comments on the “any one can do it” capabilities of the photo “app” “. But hasn’t there always been a battle of the “anyone can do it”? When haven’t photographers or artists felt threatened by new techniques or new machines? First it was Kodak with the Brownie camera and there slogan “You push the button, we do the rest.” and now we have camera “apps” on phones with immediate photo sharing possibilites. Apart from technological differences, the Brownie, Instagram and Hipstamatic are quite similar. It used to be art vs. photography. Baudelaire had his opinions about the photographic medium in the late 1850s –
“From that moment onwards, our loathsome society rushed, like Narcissus, to contemplate its trivial image on a metallic plate. A form of lunacy, an extraordinary fanaticism took hold of these new sun-worshippers.” – Charles Baudelaire.
Now the artistic fight seems to be photography vs. photography and this isn’t surprising when the medium is expanding in all kinds of directions. Photography is more than studio portraitists, wedding photography, photo-journalists or nature photography. Although those types of photographers are important, we need to include and also think about the visual artists using photography, artists recording their work through photography and the medium itself being questioned. Photography has become a very broad term, which could have a different significance for different people, including the use of photographic “apps” like Hipstamatic and Instagram. Our way of viewing photos and consuming them has changed drastically as well.
With all this said, being critical when faced with a photographic image or photographic works depends on where and who it’s coming from and the purpose of the photograph. The purpose being quite important. I’m continuously trying to break down walls, to avoid setting myself up with rules and constraints, which hopefully keeps me open minded for all types and styles of photography. I’ve realized that I need photography to stimulate, be it if I’m the photographer or the viewer. Whatever the photo, the subject matter or genre, there needs to be something there. I think Michael Snow describes it best – “Seeing means activating the image in ways other than through looking”