On the Other Hand…

March 2nd, 2007

DSC 0475 On the Other Hand...In the spirit of dichotomy, yin/yang, good/evil, black/white and all the other culturally biased variations on the same universal truth, today I’ll contradict the last post and explain why I think technical mastery is important for a photographer.

I’ve been tearing the house apart looking for my copy of Mason Williams’ “Flavors,” a book of poetry and essays from 1970. It has a poem that I wanted to include here called “Understanding” or “To Understand” or something like that. I can’t find my copy and it’s too old to be on the web anywhere. If anyone out there reads this and can find the text to that poem, please share it with me and I’ll add it in here.

But, my point is that understanding is important. And understanding is much more than knowing how to get an automatic camera to do its thing.

As I said before, making interesting photographs that have something to say is much more important than being a technical master of the medium. You can take wonderful photos without being a technical master. And you can be a technical master and never take a photo that anyone would want to look at.

But, if you understand, really understand, how photography works it is liberating. Understanding frees your mind and lets you know how to accomplish your goal with a photo. You can set everything on automatic and thrash around until something like what you wanted comes out. Or you can understand how the system works and totally control every aspect of the technical process and then thrash around until something like what you wanted comes out. The later approach may get you there quicker and may get you closer to what you set out to get. And, of course, you can then be smug about it.

I once worked in a photo department where the chief photographer had basically inherited the job. He had been trained on the job by the last chief photographer. All he knew about photography was what the last guy had told him. He didn’t even own a personal camera. When I got there everyone was working with a press camera with a potato masher strobe permanently mounted on the side and a pack film back. How many are old enough to remember pack film backs? 16 shots. Pull a tab after each shot and rotate another sheet of film into position. Develop them in Kodak rubber tanks in rack holders. Flimsy film stock made them hard to handle in the darkroom.

Well, I hadn’t been around too long before I’d submitted a documented suggestion showing the cost savings of switching to 35mm. Jack never gave up his old camera, though. He didn’t understand anything about photography. All he knew was how to operate that old camera. Eventually he had to make a switch because Kodak quit making pack film that would fit those press cameras. We got a Hasselblad. Despite repeated instruction and many, many attempts, Jack never once succeeded in loading a roll of film into the film back correctly.

As a photographer he was a trained pony. He knew a few tricks, but had no idea why he was doing them or how to learn a new trick. Most of us are trained ponies about many things in our lives. My dad was a mechanic all his life. He understands automobiles. He taught me a few tricks, but I am a trained pony when it comes to working on cars. I’ll never understand the way he does.

The more you understand about photography the less surprises you’ll encounter as you work. Some surprises are good and can be worked into a good photo…but the majority just mean you didn’t get what you were after…and if you don’t understand you are not going to know what happened and how to avoid it in the future. Understanding can also help you know what happened when a good surprise comes along and allow you to repeat it if you want. It’s nice to understand.

So, learning about the technical aspects of photography is valuable. I encourage every photographer to put forth some effort in that direction. But it is no replacement for vision. Show me the photos. I don’t really care how much you understand about the medium or what tools you used to capture your photo…as long as you’ve done something interesting.

Here’s a photo of the lovely Joceline from London, England. This was taken in the desert in Southern California a few years ago. Joceline is 6’1” and full of grace.

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About this Blog

Photos and comments by Dave Levingston. This is the place to see my most recent work which may include nudes, dance, landscape, nature and whatever other kinds of photos I feel like taking.

Since it does contain nude photos, this blog is not intended for viewing by anyone under the age of 18.

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