Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Three Stages of Photography: Stage Two

Chicago Skyline
Olympus OM2n, 35-70mm f3.6 Zuiko lens, Fujichrome 100

 The second stage of progression in photography is involvement with photography itself.  For the more senior among us, it may have been learning to develop film and make prints. More recently, many have come into photography by way of computers and software. Either way, there's a whole new world of things to learn and do. Some people begin at this stage, rather than at the equipment stage, perhaps hooked by the magic of seeing a print come up in the developer for the first time or the gift or impulse buy of a digital camera. They may partially or completely bypass the involvement-with-equipment phase, intuitively understanding that equipment is only a means to a end.

At this level, pictures become more than a by-product.  Good photographs are an earnestly sought goal, and occasional successes whet the appetite for more.  We attend workshops, read books, and find it all endlessly fascinating.  Influenced by photographers we admire or who we have been told are masters of the art, we try to make photographs like theirs. There's a lot of emulation, imitation, and even some outright copying as we seek to master the medium and find our individual place it.

As our skills increase, we may find ourselves making photographs which are considered excellent by others.  They may even win prizes.  Yet, in the deepest sense, they are not really our own.  "Son of Cartier-Bresson," maybe, or perhaps "The Return of Arbus."  Excellent, but not spoken with our own voice, as it were.  Many technically-capable amateurs and not a few professionals arrive at this point and never go any further.

In fact, it could well be argued that professionals are especially susceptible to topping out at this level.  We are involved with photography on a daily basis, most of us are deeply in love with photography,  and some of us find that we can be reasonably successful by producing photographs according to rules and formulas.  In addition, any number of seminars and workshops stand ready to teach us to make photographs just like the hot photographers of the hour.  Imitative photography is actively encouraged by trade associations such as the Professional Photographers of America, with its print judging system which awards merit points to photographs made according to the standards they have established.

My Brother Steve
Olympus OM2n, 85mm f2 Zuiko lens, Kodachrome 64

A skillful promoter/salesman with moderate camera skills can have a financially successful career as a professional photographer without ever having an original thought or making an original photograph.

But that's okay.  It's all good fun, and harms no one.  Even if a professional sells hack work, what of it?  Are his customers harmed?  No, they're pleased.  Kathy the new bride is happy because her wedding pictures look just like Jennifer's and Karen's.

Involvement with equipment and with the photographic process itself  are necessary stages in the development of most photographers, but they are not what photography is all about.  To learn the true meaning of photography, to come to a place where we can make photographs which are truly our own, we must advance to the third level.

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