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.

Totally rethinking

I’ve been to California.

I’m not just bragging here about my latest foreign jaunt, amazing though it was, there’s a really important photography learning moment to this. We had a couple of days in San Francisco, saw the Monterey Bay Aquarium, drove highway one, saw Yosemite, visited Alcatraz. We did the tourist stuff (though as one local chap pointed out “the reason it’s tourist stuff is that it’s cool stuff man”). I took photos I was happy with, had a great time.

But, for a photo nerd moment, two things stood out. The second was visiting the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite and seeing his photos, actually printed by him, not mediated by a reproduction for publication or anything, actually printed in a darkroom by Ansel Adams so you can see the image exactly the way he meant it to be (some are also printed by his long term assistant who Adams said knew the negatives as well as he did), and actually seeing them in Yosemite in a building he knew and worked in was pretty awesome. But, the stand out, OMG moment of my trip, was a visit to meet Kim Weston in the house on Wildcat Hill where Edward lived and worked, I have to admit I was almost embarrassingly star struck by this. Kim and his wife Gina are lovely people who made us feel super welcome and gave us a great tour. We saw that pepper photo, and that portrait of Tina Modetti, actually as photographic prints on the wall, saw Edward’s darkroom, saw Kim’s darkroom (the latter has an enlarger, Edward’s didn’t) and Kim’s studio. It was all great fun and absolutely one of the highlights of trip for me (even Sue enjoyed it and she’s not a photographer).

What I came away with though, and this is something which has grown on me in the weeks since we got back, was that Kim shoots on film, with a Mamiya 6×7 which he inherited from his father, and a couple of lights. He’s up there in the Carmel Highlands producing amazing work with equipment which is probably older than a lot of photographic Youtubers. So I sit there and watch my favourite Youtube photo channels, which I really enjoy, but they’re using this combination of graduated filters, and they’re selling their presets, and discussing if they should make the move to mirrorless, or comparing one really expensive lens to another….and somehow I keep seeing Kim’s studio in my head and wondering why bother?

Now fortunately, I’ve never been a gear nerd. I have very little ‘stuff’ compared to probably most keen photographers, a fair bit is second hand, or that I’ve owned for years, and I’m happy with that and frankly never want to buy new shiny things. I’m also not going to fall into the trap of ‘gear not mattering’ as Mamiya medium format is really nice and Mamiya glass is stunning (I know, because I own some, well I will if the chap I want to buy it off ever gives me a price so I can buy it). But it does bring home the fact that actually you really don’t need new stuff, or a lot of stuff. Investing in something simple but good is frankly all you need.

The key thing is to do what Kim, and his father, his uncle and his grandfather (and his son, and various other relatives) all did. To take photos a lot, to think about the photos you’re taking, and to really, really care about the whole thing.

Am I doing this? You know, I wonder if I am….

What’s a Photograph Worth?

I’ve just been watching a great video by Erik Wahlstrom, a man who produces consistently good, if occasional, Youtube content on photography. In it he’s posing the question of what a photograph is worth, both in monetary terms and personally. I’m not going to recap, go and watch it, then come back…

 

…okay, so now you’ve seen it. I don’t know about you (feel free to comment) but I think he’s spot on, especially in his comment about ‘country club bragging rights bidding wars’, not just photography but what you might call significant art sells for sums of money which are ludicrous. The effect of which is frequently to put art in the hands of collectors from where it never sees the light of day at prices public galleries can’t afford. The prices don’t reflect the art, they reflect the identity of the artist; prove it’s not ‘school of xxxx’ but ‘by xxxx’ and the price rockets. It’s the same art, it looks the same as it did when it was ‘school of’ but somehow it’s worth a whole load more. I always in a way think it’s sad on programs like Antiques Roadshow when somebody finds the photo auntie Dot bought at a jumble sale in the 70s for 25p is a lost masterwork valued in the hundreds of thousands..because now they’ll never be able to risk leaving it on the wall of the living room because it’s going to be a theft magnet and they can’t manage the insurance, so it’s going to be sold and they can’t enjoy it any more. If I had a painting I thought might be valuable which I enjoyed there is no way on earth I’d get it assessed and appraised, I just enjoy it.

So, you’re reading my _photography_ blog, and Eric was talking about _photography_, so where am I going with all this talk about great art and school of somebody or other? Well, I think super-value photography is a particularly ridiculous idea, far more so than a painting really. Because, at the end of the day, the huge difference is that there is only one Mona Lisa, or Bar at the Folies-Bergere, or Seagram Murals; the one the artist created. Okay, so they might have returned to the subject multiple times but the results are all that bit different. With photography, as Fox Talbot rather intended, multiple reproductions are not only possible, but desirable. With a photograph you’re not seeing the unique hand of the artist in the finished work. Okay so Ansel Adams printed his own negatives, and the Weston family are a dynasty of printers, and there are others, but generally for a photograph the act of creating the image in the camera is the ‘thing’, not creating the finished product. I’m not saying that’s not an amazing skill, it really is, but when you look at a photo on a gallery wall generally it’s not the name of the printer you’re celebrating.

So, where does the worth of a photo derive? I’d say from two places. The first is the creative mind behind it and the second is the actual work taken to secure it; we can marvel at the sure eye of Bailey photographing Shrimpton, or marvel at the nerve of Capa on bloody Omaha. Both of these photos have ‘worth’ for that…but I’d also say the worth should go to Bailey and Capa because they were the people who put their minds or well being into the images. A print of one of the photos should, I’d say, be worth far less even if it’s done in a real darkroom from the original negatives. Not worth-less, worth far less, you’ll notice, a skilled professional went into a darkroom and used all that skill to produce the print but the worth again should derive from the labour power of the artisan, not because of the original photographer or subject. Obviously, if you could find a print of one of Capa’s D-Day series, which you could guarantee was actually printed by Capa, then I’m not dumb enough to argue that wouldn’t be worth more!