If our recent confinement photography challenge results prove anything, it’s that we are all capable of creating wonderful photographs stuck within four walls or within the corner posts of a garden, or the tolerated walks we can take. My cheeky question is : does this lack of freedom actually make us better? 😉
Do we benefit more from opportunity and choice or from constraint and obligation?
My frequent railing against the modern trend of do-it-all cameras that can photograph back cats on coal sacks on a moonless night at 20fps and 80Mpx and a million ISO has often got me into trouble. When comments didn’t skin me alive, offended readers would simply unsubscribe. To the point that it sometimes led me to question my judgment.
And, to me, this is an important point, because GAS should be a source of pleasure but often turns into suffering (and, as we all know, suffering leads to the dark side 😉 ). And so many elements conspire to vindicate my maligned position that it seems appropriate for me to revisit this controversial topic once again, from a different perspective: not just gear, but focus.
First among these elements, is my personal experience. My current camera, while expensive and very high quality is slow enough to make French bureaucracy seem hasty. Nah, kidding. Nothing in the world is slower, more irritating and more brain damaging than French bureaucracy. But that camera is slow. As in don’t ever switch it off, or whatever it is that’s making you think of switching it on again will be long gone by the time the X1D’s awakening beep can be heard. I mean, even a glacier. And AF is slow. And the whole system is buggy and crashes often.
But there’s no doubt in my mind this camera has made me a better photographer. My photographs are more deliberate. My keeper rate has skyrocketed. I no longer snap. Because the camera is slow, every photograph is a decision. Every loud click happens for a reason. And while there are fewer photographs on my card, far more make the final cut. Culling? What’s that?
As for confinement, it hasn’t made me better in general, but certainly better at observing the trivial, at making acceptable photographs from tiny things that would have gone unnoticed to me with more exciting topics at hand.
Now, that single example won’t convince gearheads. It could just be me. Still, it’s amusing how many of those who criticise me for taking that low-key approach to gear hunting are worshippers of masters like Henry Cartier Bresson.
HCB: 1 camera. 1 lens. For most of his life. Film, not even digital, and a 50 mil. And hundreds of iconic photographs collected in museums and prestigious galleries. And he’s not alone in that case. Ah, but HCB was a genius, right? His genius would have allowed him to create masterpieces with any kit, right?
Wrong! I believe his limited gear was a huge step towards becoming a genius. He became great because of his gear, not in spite of it. He practised practised, practised, as illustrated by his famous “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” 😉 As for subjects, well, HCB did roam the world, and did dabble into multiple areas. But he is most remembered for itinerant candids, and what is remembered as “the decisive moment”. That was his focus, his domain of excellence.
Also, there are women photographers, who seem both very talented and largely immune to gas. The two who have graced our community with their presence most often are Nancee Rostad and Valerie Millet.
Nancee recently explained her process to us, stunning us with the photographs on that page while explaining to us how little she cared about gear. Happy with that one camera and those two zooms, keep using them till they die.
Valerie stunned us twice as well. Once when we saw her photographs. Once when she explained her gear : “I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark II that I bought used from another photographer when I started out and I’m still using the same camera” and “My go to lens is my Canon 70-200mm f/4 that a photographer from Australia gave to me after we shot together a few years ago”.
Both explore deeply rather than broadly. Nothing in human history has ever spread our attention and focus thinner than social media: photographs have to be spectacular and meaningless (cute is the intellectual limit, if you want Likes 😉 ). But proficient photographers tend to explore one or two ideas in depth rather than hop about like butterflies. And, while both Nancee and Valerie roam the world, their focus is very accutely placed on one type of aesthetic and underlying idea.
Why should this be? Why do limitations make us better ? Probably multiple reasons, but three speak to me.
First of all constraints foster creativity (a.k.a. necessity is the mother of invention): see this excellent recent World Economic Forum post “Why quarantine can make you more creative”. Or here. Or here. Three good posts on the topic. It’s almost impossible to create something good from scratch, but far easier to think creatively within boundaries.
Secondly, simple gear means perfectly automatic (mental) execution. Visualising a photograph, framing and composition are intuitive processes. Any left-brain intrusion to manipulate one of the zillion hideous buttons on modern gear will instantly pop the bubble of flow that leads to great images. Imagine waking up in the morning with a beautiful dream in your head when the radio starts and that twerp journalist paid to deliver sensationally bad news spews the latest number of covid casualties into your ears. Dream? What dream? Complex gear can do that to your photography. HCB’s one (very very simple) camera and one lens, used a hundred thousand times had become a part of him that required no left brain intrusion into his visualisation of the world around him.
Thirdly, exploring a theme over a period of time helps us develop new ideas. As tempting as it may seem to have a plan for all things to come, that’s as naive as just winging it. Mastery develops through a long series of idea – execution – feedback iterations, which is simply impossible to achieve when there is no focused idea in the first place and no consistent feedback to feed the next round of ideation.
Ultimately, my guess is, deep down, we all want to achieve something. Our instinct makes us want to break shackles, so we lack creative energy when there are none to break.
Just like social media syphons our vital energy and the environment into billions in the pockets of a few (insert explitive) men, modern cameras drain our creativity to make
billions (fewer and fewer) millions for a handful of manufacturers too lazy to think laterally. At least that’s what I think.
But it goes beyond gear and my guess is a great part of becoming a successful artist boils down to elimination of fluff. Focusing on a style and a process to the exclusion of all others. Just like highly-specialised employees get paid much more than others (did you know AI programmers get paid half a million a year by the evil twins at fooble and gacegook?) highly specialised artists receive far more attention than Jacks of all cams.
Exponential growth in scientific knowledge implies that there are no universal geniuses anymore, only highly specialized scientists. It also means that the general public has much more difficulty understanding current science and forming a bond to it. Hence the rise in conspiracy theories and the success of anyone claiming to solve a complex problem with a simple solution such as Brexit or a wall between the US and Mexico.
And I strongly believe the same phenomenon is at play in the art world as well, made only worse by elitist twats and pseudo-artists cashing in on the blur. So much has been said, done and explored, that only specialists break through. And so, the general public feels disconnected to what actually makes humans humans: creativity for the sake of it, everyone’s birth right. And so, manufacturers and self-proclaimed gurus swoop in to fill that void with promises of universality of gear and other easy solutions to complex issues (what can be more complex than human expression and personal fulfillment?).
Now, not everyone wants to become an artist like Hiroshi Sugimoto or Andreas Gursky. And rightly so, it’s a tough, tough life. Does that change anything? I think not. Simplicity brings results and satisfaction, however we want to play the game. Gear, on the other hand? Well if we were satisfied with it, would we crave more?
This post is so obviously a bad case of “do as I say not as I do”, it makes me cringe to proof-read it 😀 😀 😀 For the yellow roses alone, two different lenses were used. So don’t take it from me. Take it from the successful artists who, for years on end, focus on a small number of projects and keep all the rest as simple as possible to achieve the project goals. After all, even a resplendant genius like Raphael was remembered as a very minor sculptor and a really poor poet. Maybe confinement is showing us the way on how to find our focus. It’s certainly helping many realise that less can be more … fun!
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