Photographic Expertise

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.

We’re All Photographers Now – or not

A friend of mine has had a couple of annoying experiences lately. In the first she did some photos for somebody starting out as a makeup artist (who had decided what sort of photos she wanted by picking out pro model photos on location from Pinterest and offering her friends in the back garden of course), which started as “I’ll pay you”, turned into “I’ll buy you lunch” and fairly quickly back into “No, You’ll pay me!”. Got her money eventually but no thanks and no credit for the photos when they got shared around. The other was photographing a friend’s wedding, a very low key affair but here we are, three weeks down the line, and the friend hasn’t said thank you yet. So she’s feeling a bit put upon, as though people are taking advantage of her skills.

We thought about this and decided that it’s because everyone’s a photographer now.Only of course, they’re not. Unlike other skills, now everybody has a smartphone, and digital cameras are cheap, and you can clock up hours watching Youtube videos on how to take better landscapes/portraits/kiddie photos/whatever then people lose sight of the fact that actual photographers are skilled experts who understand what they’re doing rather than just clicking away or rote following what they’ve seen on Youtube. Last series of Masters of Photography I’m pretty sure Oliviero Toscani said something like “you give a camera to monkey it goes click, it doesn’t make it a photographer”. It’s odd really, because everybody who can use a spanner doesn’t think they’re a car mechanic and everybody who can mow a lawn think they’re a landscape architect. Part of the blame for this I think lies with the huge volume of online photo sharing; let’s be honest, a huge percentage of the photos on Instagram really just aren’t that great, and a lot of the stuff on Youtube is pretty samey, and if this is all people see then they just start seeing all images as the same. I reckon you could spend a lot of time looking at photos of ‘models’ on the ‘gram before you saw something to even come close to Bailey’s 1962 photos of Jean Shrimpton in New York (and yes, they’re personal favourites of mine, you can pick your own).

I think that, ultimately, as photographers we just have to accept the fact that a whole of people just don’t realise that a good photograph is not (generally) produced by pointing a camera and clicking. After all that’s how they produce a photograph, that’s all photographers on telly and youtube are doing, therefore that’s all there is to it. What they’re missing is that the photographer is thinking and clicking, they’re aware of lamp posts sticking out of heads, of how the sunlight is hitting the model, of how blurry the background is, and they made choices based on this before they began taking photos. A couple of years ago I sat in a cafe in Piazza Navona in Rome and watched, with mounting frustration, people photographing their friends and loved ones in front of the fountains; hell it’s one of those things you simply have to do. But every single pigging one of them had the friend facing straight into the Roman sunshine and I knew full well that every one of them was going to have a photo of their friend or partner squinting in Rome, or at least with killer shadows which was going to make it look like a mug shot. Of course I photographed my wife in front of a fountain in Piazza Navona, it really is something you have to do…but on the other side of a fountain facing away from the sun. I have a photo of her smiling in Rome with her hair (she has great hair) nicely backlit by the same light which was blinding everybody else. I got this because I knew what was happening and made choices about the image accordingly.

Everybody isn’t a photographer, and if people want to get one to take photos for them, then they need to realise it’s no more just ‘pointing and clicking’ than fixing a car engine is ‘doing up a few nuts and bolts’ and at least say thanks and treat the snapper with some respect

Berlin, on Film

@ Andy Smart – all rights reserved

Back in the spring we went to Berlin – mixture a my wife’s work and holiday. On one of her work days (aka, the days I could do the stuff which would bore her a bit) I went to the Stasi Museum and then walked all the way back along Karl Marx Allee to the city centre, it’s fair walk and the sun was pounding down, which while it made for hot walking meant the combination of my Olympus Trip and Lomography ‘Berlin’ film (what else) really came into it’s own. I’ve decided the trip does buildings in bright sunshine better than just about anything else and these are so amazing. I love the woman with the pram, who I didn’t actually see when I took the photo…

Sticking it to the Man (but generally not)

I began following somebody on Instagram years ago, when she was a college kid who bought cute outfits and took photos of herself wearing them with a budget camera. The quality was variable but pretty much they were worth looking at and you could sense the fun. Now years later she’s an Instagrammer (I think it’s her only source of income) and churns out photos several times a week of her wearing something she’s been gifted, or sponsored to wear, or in somewhere she’s sponsored to visit. She’s got a much better camera now and the photos are technically slicker, but the sense fun is missing from a lot of them. She’s now a woman being paid to be a human billboard by companies rather than somebody producing work for fun.

I’ve been racking my brains to find an alternative to the phrase ‘selling out’ for this sort of Instagramming, but, really I can’t. She, like loads of other Instagrammers, are like a band who after their interesting first album, and the hard to produce second, have settled into churning out albums with a direction decided by the P&R and marketing departments who are really opposed to them changing direction with new material. You can see it in the ones who post requests in their caption of ‘what sort of weather do you guys like?’ when you know full well they don’t really want to know what several thousand people enjoy climatologically, but they do know Instagram likes to prioritise ‘engagement’. I saw somebody a while back posting a stories request for action because their last photo got less engagement than usual and they wanted to know what was wrong. There was nothing wrong with it, I thought it was quite good (so did a metric shit tonne of other people, just not as many as normally like their images). But they need engagement in the form of comments and likes to get advertisng revenue and post priority and sponsorship and alarmingly I think self validation. They’re following all the Youtube (and youtube is just as bad for engagement chasing) videos, and blog posts on how to increase your follower count and how to double your engagement. Then they start saying they’re thinking of quitting because their numbers are dropping (though they never do).

Ultimately, they’re in thrall to THE MAN. And in the shape of Instagram it’s a seriously big and influential THE MAN

Now I’m going to draw a distinction here between Instagramming and commercial photography. Commercial photographers are being paid to do jobs; they get paid to photograph ball gowns, or houses, or food or whatever. They take the job, they deliver the photos, they send the invoice, they go home. It’s not the same thing. They’re not selling what used to be their lives as a crafted advert under the guise of it being their lives. I think it’s interesting that so many of them never try to translate this into commercial photography, to rather than photographing themselves in a hotel ‘having a super amazing time’ to offering to do a photoshoot for the hotel, for a fixed price and with paid models. As an aside, I fail to understand the people who suffer from InstaEnvy or whatever it’s called now, who the hell thinks any of this stuff is real and people live like that?

For what it’s worth, I think they’d be better off working filling shelves in Tesco four days a week and then spend the rest producing work that matters, without a time framework of posting three times a week to maximise engagement. Though I stress I’m not necessarily advocating the W Eugene Smith model of spending years in quest of perfection (though that mightn’t be a bad thing). It would be entirely their own vision (like it used to be) and they can change direction if they liked without getting on the wrong end of ‘consistent feed appearence’, and it wouldn’t matter a damn how many people liked or engaged with it.

They’d be artists. They’d be sticking it to THE MAN

Venturing into Polaroid

Ever since I got back into shooting film, I’ve had a hankering for a polaroid camera; it appears unusually none of my relatives ever owned one, I have no recollection of any of my friends having one either, in fact so far as I can remember I’ve never even seen one used! I was in one of Cirencester’s Charity Shops a couple of weeks ago (Helen and Douglas House in Cirencester if you’re interested, lovely people) and they had one. I got them to take it out for a look, and it looked okay but of course with the battery in the film cartridge you can’t test them. I decided as it was very sensible money I’d take a punt, and they even offered to let me return it if it didn’t work! So I ordered a pack of Polaroid Originals 600, watched some videos on how to use it, and loaded up the film. There was a lot of satisfying whirring and the dark slide popped out, all good thus far….so I pointed and shot…

Well, you have to photograph the cats don’t you?

The End of the Digital Nomad?

We’ve all watched them, and probably follow them. The Youtube channels and the Instagram feeds from the people who have no fixed base and travel constantly, living in airB&Bs and running their digital busineses from laptops. They do great travel photography. They spend a month here taking amazing images of fantasic places before boarding a plane to somewhere else to do it again. They’re great, they’re informative and even though for most of us they’re not aspirational then we at least get to vicariously travel to these places with them. I’m not knocking any of this, I subscribe to loads of them.


With the climate emergency, how much longer can this lifestyle last?

There is no doubt among pretty much everybody who isn’t a politician that the climate emergency is real, it’s clear, present and dangerous. The simple fact is that flying is about the most damaging single thing you can do for the climate. All that cycling to work and turning off the lights you’re not using gets pretty much wiped out in your annual return ticket to your holiday villa. The simple fact is that if you really, really want to do something about the climate emergency then don’t fly. So where does that leave the digital nomads? Their lifestyles rely on them flying, a lot. They have built lives and careers around jumping on a plane to somewhere to run a workshop, or speak at a conference, or go to an Influencer press event. To be blunt; their lifestyles are at the expense of the future of the planet. Now, to offset that they don’t own much so they only rent a car when they need to use one, and the airB&Bs are always studio apartment sized, so in many other ways they’re pretty low carbon. But all those air miles almost certainly exceed the savings.

So ultimately, how much longer, morally, can they continue with these lives in their current form? Should they be making their lives look so aspirational for the next generation, are ‘Could You be a Digital Nomad?’ videos socially acceptable now? Fairly soon are they going to have to settle down, or at least be nomadic within the confines of bus or rail travel? Are the (few) people who currently go on their photo workshops in Patagonia, or Iceland, or Vietnam just going to have to forgo that? Is that going to be a problem. Most people run digital business from offices somehwere. Most of the great photographers lived before cheap air travel, I think I’m right that Weston and Adams never left the American continent, Cartier-Bresson was solidly european, Bailey could have done equally well just in London, and Avdeon’s masterwork is The American West rather than People I met in Various Countries .

Is a life based around easy, fairly cheap, air travel not going to be an option much longer?