Summer Slack-Off 2013: The New World Economics Guide to Photography
June 2, 2013
Since around late 2009, I’ve picked up a new hobby — photography. Apparently it is one of the most popular hobbies in the world.
In the mid-1990s, I used to take a lot of pictures. This was with a Minolta X700 that I found in my Mom’s closet, usually with Kodachrome. The lens was a 50/1.4. I took some good pictures with that combo. Some of the prints are still on my wall in frames. The originals are around somewhere, but I haven’t found them alas. I would like to scan them and make some new/better/bigger prints. Lots of very nice frames were never printed. Unfortunately, that camera was stolen, and for the next decade I just used a point-and-shoot digital camera, mostly for selling things on eBay.
In late 2009, mostly inspired by the example of Galen Rowell, I decided to get back into it. Not like I need more hobbies. But, I think I wanted something that was artistic in nature.
Like many things, photography has a lot of pitfalls and dead-ends. Maybe more than most. I’ve learned this over the past three years.
I would say that 80% of serious photography hobbyists are gear-twiddlers. They don’t actually like taking pictures, but rather playing with the possibilities of different gear. They follow new camera releases assiduously, and have an impressive collection of expensive lenses. Often, they take pictures that look sort of artistic — often “street photography” — but they never really get beyond filling their hard drives with these shots.
Of the remaining 20%, 19% are snapshot/record photographers. They take thousands of pictures of their kids and vacations, often with impressive camera setups costing upwards of $3000. In the past, they would fill boxes with prints, mostly unedited, or carousels of slides. Today, they fill hard drives with thousands and thousands of unedited shots. The process tends to stop at the taking and storing, and never gets to the editing, presentation or display. Nobody looks at these photos, and nobody would want to, because they are very boring. Who wants to see 267 photos of a kid’s soccer game or grandpa’s 70th birthday?
If this sort of thing appeals to you, as it appeals to 99% of people who carry cameras and are sort of serious about it, then go right ahead and join the masses.
It doesn’t appeal to me. Gear-twiddling and record-keeping are not exactly unpleasurable, but mostly a waste of time as I have plenty of more worthwhile things to do.
So, now we know what we shouldn’t do.
What should we be doing?
Use your camera to make art.
What is “art”?
Ever since Marcel Duchamp stuck a bicycle fork on a stool and called it “art,” we’ve known that “art” is, basically, anything that you treat as “art.” For some reason, people still seem to be amused by this, but Duchamp had already followed that path to its end when he displayed his urinals as sculpture in 1917. It figures: World War I led to a lot of cynicism in Europe.
Thus, “art” is not defined so much by what it is, but rather the role it plays in our life. Duchamp turned the urinal into “sculpture” by treating it like fine sculpture.
When people say “that isn’t art,” what they usually mean is: that is very bad art. Most contemporary art today — I would say 97% — is crap. Probably you noticed this. But, if you treat it as “art,” then it is art.
Thus, what I mean by “making art,” is: making things that serve the role that art plays in our life. Ideally, good art.
In photography, this basically means: framed prints on a wall, or a book. An “eBook” can be fine, but it has to be something like a real printed book, not just a gallery on Flickr.
Ten thousand prints in a box is not art. They might be very good prints, but until you put it in a format that serves the role of art in our life — traditionally, present it on a wall in a frame — it is just raw material of a work in progress (if indeed there is any progress).
A photo album is not a book. It is a print storage device in a book form.
Most photo books are really extensions of gallery shows. You have twenty prints on a wall in a gallery, and eventually this is expanded into a book with perhaps eighty prints. So, in a sense, they are two aspects of the same thing, with framed prints on a wall really taking the primary role.
One thing about books is that you can combine with text. This is less common in a gallery show of course.
Thus, when I say “make art,” what this tends to boil down is: make gallery shows or make books.
I really mean make them. Make them physically. Make a physical gallery show, or make a physical book (or eBook).
If you have a bunch of pics on a hard drive, and you say “yes, I could print these and frame these and make a gallery show,” that doesn’t count. That is like Marcel Duchamp, sitting in his workshop with a urinal on the bench, and saying “I could display this as sculpture in a gallery show.” It is an idea. It is raw material. It is a work in progress. The urinal didn’t become (bad) art until he actually put it in an actual gallery show. Marcel Duchamp did this, and you can read about it on Wikipedia today, nearly a century later. If he just left the urinal on the workbench, he would have been just a chump with a urinal.
You can make a physical gallery show in your house. It is an easy matter to set up one or two rooms in the house, such as a hallway or living room, so that you can hang a dozen or so photos. Ideally, you will make them pretty big, at least 10″ on the short side. Be sure to light them well, using gallery-style track lighting for example. I recommend traditional mats and frames. Don’t just stick prints to the wall with tacks.
Now you made art. Maybe bad art. Maybe art that only you can appreciate. Maybe art that you will laugh about later as being comic dreck or mediocre sewage. So what. Unlike 99% of photographers, you made art.
If you take your two-year-old’s fingerpainting, and put it in a frame on a wall, you made art.
If you stick it to the refrigerator with magnets, you are a proud mommy. It’s the mats and frame and hanging on the wall with good lighting — treating it like art, so that it serves the role of art in our lives — that turns it into art.
No matter how dismal it is, it is probably better than Marcel Duchamp’s stupid urinal. And he is a Famous Artist. It is probably better than 80% of the work of today’s “serious artists,” that sells in New York galleries to suckers with too much money for five figures and higher — stuff that I wouldn’t allow to pollute my living room, even if I bought it at a garage sale for $4.
So give yourself a pat on the back. You accomplished something. Good for you.
Today, I see very talented photographers, with careers as commercial pros, who have all the gear and technique anyone could ask for, and who sort of talk about things in a vaguely artistic fashion, but they never make art.
In my opinion, they are wasting their time. But, that is because I have higher ambitions than them, if only 10% of the skill, experience and talent. Maybe they are having a good time doing what they are doing, and what’s wrong with that? So, maybe I should say: if I were doing what they are doing, I would consider myself to be wasting my time.
Photographs can serve other roles in our society and lives. Commercial photography is mostly about selling something. You can make editorial content for magazines. You can make snapshots, which you can use later to recall memories, or send to your friends via email or Facebook or tumblr. These can be worthwhile, but they are not art, because they are not serving the role of art in our lives. Annie Liebowitz is an extraordinary photographer, who makes magazine editorial content and images for advertising. It is not until you take the image made for a magazine, and put it in a frame on a wall in a gallery, or in a book, that these photographs become art. Until then, it is just an ad for perfume.
If you did put a photograph made for a perfume ad in a frame on a wall (without the ad copy), you might find that, although it is an extraordinarily skillful photograph of a ravishingly beautiful woman, it doesn’t make good art. It doesn’t engage you artistically. It is more like decoration. Just pretty stuff, like a pillowcase. It is supposed to give you a big charge for a few seconds, while you are reading a magazine, so that you are inspired to buy some perfume. After those first few seconds, you might find that it doesn’t have much to say.
If you make a book, then literally make a book. Construct it physically. Blurb can be good. However, I suggest making regular prints, maybe around 8×10, and mounting them in something like a 12×12 blank-page scrapbook, maybe with some nice text. Aim for twenty to eighty prints. Eighty is a lot. Even a great photographer might take ten years to make eighty good prints for a book.
The quality of real prints is way better than Blurb.
Once you are in the habit of Making Art, then you realize that “cameras don’t matter.”
If your two-year-old child can make art with his bare fingers, and if Marcel Duchamp can make art by shopping at Home Depot, then you can certainly make art with your iPhone camera, or a disposable film camera, or a pencil or the snot from your nose.
Of course, cameras do matter. But, they matter in the sense of allowing you to achieve your artistic vision. If your vision is to use a Holga plastic-lens toy camera, or a pinhole camera, or a 20×24 Polaroid camera, or whatever, that’s fine. You might really love the subtlety of 8×10 film. So, that’s the path you take. Or, you might like the character of wet-plate colloidon. Or, maybe you like the throwaway grunge of the original one-megapixel iPhone camera. You can use a wide variety of lenses, or be a just-one-lens guy. You can even use a modern digital supercamera, like the Nikon D800. Or, maybe you realize that the cheapest Nikon D3200 actually does 95% the same thing, at one-sixth the price. It’s all about what path you want to take, not what is “better” from some engineering standpoint. Often, it is about the way you use the camera, rather than the final product. You might find that using 4×5 film slows you down and makes you take every shot seriously, in a way that digital doesn’t allow. I even use old Nikon manual-focus prime lenses on modern digital bodies, because I like having to focus and do all the exposure manually, while getting all of the resolution of a 24mp body. Plus, I just like those beautifully crafted all-metal lenses, instead of today’s plastic motorized robot lenses. It looks the same as if I used an autofocus zoom lens with automatic metering, but the different process of making the picture creates a different result. You might love the feel of a manual-focus Leica body. Whatever floats your boat.
I would even suggest that the most important thing to do is to set aside some part of your house as a photo gallery area. Buy the frames, install the lighting, and so forth. Buy just six frames to start. It doesn’t matter if you have no prints to put in them. Make the gallery, because the gallery is the necessary tool that makes a print into art. Then, go through your photo archives, or take new pics, to fill the frames. (You can just have a few frames here and there, like most people have art hanging on the walls in their houses, but I think you will like it better to have a more serious gallery-like area.)
This is a more worthwhile use of a few hundred dollars than any new gear purchase, workshop, photo travel tour, etc. etc.
Over time, six months perhaps, you will probably decide that you like two of your six prints, and the other four are kinda blah. Replace the blah ones with something new.
Just make art.
Once you do it a few times, you will realize that 99% of photography hobbyists are just wasting their time.
For some reason I keep coming back to this one.