I was reading a blog post yesterday by education leadership theorist Matthew Evans in which he took apart the idea of The Expert. He goes into a fair bit of depth, and I really urge you to read his post, but essentially he says there are two kinds of expert. Those he calls K Experts, who are experts in complicated systems. These are the folks who fix your boiler and make sure the trains don’t crash. They deal with situations and systems which, while complicated, have ‘right and wrong’ answers and definable solutions; you’ve got hot water, your train isn’t on the news. These are the people we think of as experts. Then there are X Experts who deal in complex situations and systems, like Economists and I’d suggest meteorologists and military strategists. They are experts in situations in which possibly there are not ‘right and wrong’ answers, where things are fluid and they’re making choices against that background. They’re the ones we get angry at when they make wrong predictions or choices because we’re confusing them with K Experts. I think I’ve summarised that correctly, but by now you’ve read his blog and will know: if not go and read it.
So this got me thinking about what an expert photographer is.
I’d say that to be a photographer requires some, in the case of good photographers, a lot, of K Expertise. You’re not going to get far without a grasp of the exposure triangle, lens choice, possibly film stock, processing technique (wet or dry, dark or light room), and the rest of it. The more you understand all this the better technically your images get because, ultimately, there are ‘right and wrong’ choices to making a photograph. Right choices give you a nicely exposed and in focus image, wrong choices give you ones like your dad took of you when you were on the beach as a kid. You can get a hell of a long way in photography and never stray for K expertise, you learn more, you practice more, you get more expert.
But what is it that lifts some photographers, Michael Kenna, Walker Evans, Lee Miller, Robert Capa, The Westons (all of them), Bailey et al above this and into the realm of not only making photos which stay with you but make them over and over again? I’m going to tentatively suggest it’s because they’re X Experts. Sure they can understand all the complicated stuff and do it in their sleep but they can also operate consistently when it’s complex. Because the environment around making an image is complex, the light is changing if it’s natural light, if there is a model they’re moving, the environment is subtly altering. Maybe they’re working out of the studio doing reportage, or more dramatically conflict, photography where everything is an unknown. There isn’t a ‘right’ way to make a great photograph, because that transcends being nicely exposed and in focus, it’s about the composition, the light, possibly the colour, the tones, the mood. It’s about making a choice which works in the situation you have in that moment, frequently actually in that split second. They can be as patient as a cat in front of a mouse hole waiting, and then utterly decisive when the moment appears (see what I did there?).
All of us, however little experience we have as photographers, can nail an amazing photo now and again because sometimes we all just get it right by luck as much as judgement. The great photographers get it right over and over again because in the highly complex environment just before the shutter clicks, they’re experts.