You Are Not a Photographer

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This is a syndicated blog post from James Douglas. The text and the images are being used with permission.

Please allow me to explain the above factual statement in slightly more depth before you roll your eyes and go back to redesigning your logo which is sure to solve all of your photography business problems.

This statement has been one that I’ve said to myself over and over again throughout the years. Sometimes in the form of me doubting myself artistically, sometimes it’s because I’m acting as an art director on set, or consulting on a big time project for a large agency. There’s a reason the degree I received from University of Delaware doesn’t say “Photographer” on it… although I haven’t seen it since graduation day but I’m 97% sure that’s not on it. It says Bachelor of Fine Arts on it… FINE ARTS!!! I’m probably going to go on a bit of a rant here but it makes me sad and hurts my brain when I meet with a budding new photographer and they have never heard of Imogen Cunningham or Yousuf Karsh. It’s nearly impossible to explain how Annie Leibovitz employs Rembrandt style lighting in her work when all too often theplaid clad individual I’m sitting across from thinks that’s a brand of fucking toothpaste.  Ok rant over…

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For some reason photography seems to be the one art form that people can purchase the equipment needed and instantly feel entitled to call themselves “professionals.” As far as we know people don’t stop by the grocery store on their way back from a William Sonoma and think they’re a professional chef. Just like any other art… It takes practice, training, and a fair amount of historical knowledge in order to fully understand how to create and innovate in your selected medium. My good friend and Executive Chef at the world famous Culinary Vegetable Institute, Jamie Simpson is one of the most innovative people I’ve ever met. He spends all day every day reading about, and experimenting with food, most of which he even grew himself.  This practice and training gives him the ability to create new techniques and trends that will undoubtedly show up on dishes in the most amazing restaurants across the globe or even right here in Cleveland. That is what a creative with an in depth understanding of his art can do, they push their craft further and influence others to do the same.

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Jamie Simpson getting real weird in my studio… REAL WEIRD.

In keeping with pushing the limits and influencing other artists, one of the greatest rivalries in which we are all the winners of was the epic battle between two titans of photography Irving Penn and Richard (Dick) Avedon during the second half of the 20th century. These guys would duke it out every month on the cover of magazines and billboards besting one another with technique, innovation and an utter disregard for what anyone said, much less thought. What resulted from these two sparring creatives was essentially the entire fashion photography industry and Vogue/Vanity Fair… heard of em?? These men used the photographic medium to create an entire industry. Read that last sentence back to yourself slowly. They influenced and continue to influence every fashion photographer on the planet because they did it first and we’re all just copying them as far as I’m concerned, although an honorable mention def goes to Helmut Newton. You can probably even put up a pretty decent case and trace the birth of the “Supermodel” to the portrait below of Penn’s wife Lisa Fonssagrieves. This is a long winded example of what I am trying to say when I tell you that you are not a photographer, you are so much more than that… YOU ARE A CREATIVE.

I make it a point to keep art books of all kinds in my home and around the studio, sure they’re mostly photographic in content but there are books on advertising, design, writing, painting and even music because all have an equal chance of sparking that creative fire in me or someone else who comes to visit. One thing I’ve noticed about my most creative and passionate friends it’s that while they’re certainly influenced by others in their chosen field they are inspired by artists in other mediums and that holds 100% true for me as well. I recently researched a few 18th Century Paintings that inspired the Harvest for Hunger campaign Adcom and I put together last year For the Cleveland Food Bank.

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I’ll make a “quick” sidenote here to touch on the photography gear “problem” and I’ll write another post explaining my take on it in Some depth. In order to innovate and create meaningful work you must understand every aspect of the technology involved in your craft. “Photographers” suffer from this gear envy all the time and use it as an excuse to make crappy work.  Here’s what I’ll say about it… And since I’m missing it pretty badly right now I’ll use my experience on the golf course as an analogy. Now will I ever beat Tiger Woods on the golf course?? No… hell no. I’ve got a better chance of walking on Mars. Even if I had the best clubs in the whole world I still wouldn’t be considered a professional golfer and if he had the worst, he’d still be a pro. Now would I pick up a few strokes because of the better clubs, maybe, get out of the sand trap in under 5 swings, probably; but I haven’t honed my skills, or put in the hours to master every aspect of the game like he has.

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Doing my best here guys… Photo by Tony Madalone.

Thus the outcome would be the same… Every.  Single.  Time. In photography that mastery comes from your creativity… aka your brain. Since we can’t lift dumbbells with our minds (yet…) we have to enhance our creative muscles by studying current trends, attending workshops, reading books/magazines/blogs/articles.  A subscription to Communication Arts and changing your homepage to PDN Online News will do far more for your career than just shotgunning Instagram with hashtags and crossing your fingers.  Just to be clear… This is me telling you that my golf game is the equivalent of a train track high school portrait with the Valencia filter on top. But more on this later…

High school senior on railroad tracks. Photo by NAME REDACTED.

High school senior on railroad tracks. Photo by NAME REDACTED.

Now let’s talk about just pure raw talent here for a second.  Talent can often be mistaken for hard work in the arts but unfortunately hard work does not necessarily equate to talent.  It’s undeniable that some people are just better at some things than others (see the Tiger Woods comparison above) and those individuals are just given a huge advantage that they didn’t necessarily have to work for… and that’s OK!!  It’s when those talented individuals find passion in what they do and choose to work hard at it that we see creatives reach their true potential, that’s the real prize.  In today’s digital world though it’s possible(read: normal) for talent go unnoticed due to the sheer volume of content and material being put out into the community.  It’s my heartfelt belief though that talent, hardwork and honesty will always find it’s way through the fog and noise.  It also helps that if you spot someone who is truly talented, help them, teach them and encourage them to keep pursuing their dreams.

In 1+1=4 we touched on the fact that there are so many facets and people that work together to create impactful imagery. Those facets are also inherently present in every creative mind. While we may focus on only one of them for our career path it’s important to remember that we are all producers, designers, art directors, retouchers, stylists, writers, painters, sculptors, dancers etc… with that in mind it’s immensely important to not ignore those disciplines or shut yourself off to their influence.  So go to a symphony, take a cooking class, or visit a museum, I guarantee you’ll feel artistically motivated because no matter what you see or do… the creative inside you can’t help but be inspired.   So as I mentioned at the beginning of this post… YOU ARE NOT A PHOTOGRAPHER… YOU ARE A CREATIVE AND THAT’S AN AWESOME THING TO BE.