Ignorance is not bliss

Among other things, my wife is an accomplished poet. From the sidelines I've noticed that there are a lot of similarities between the poetry and photography communities; anyone with a pen and paper and enough attitude can call themselves a poet just like anyone with a camera and enough confidence can call themselves a photographer.

The attitude that drives me crazy among wannabe poets is the one that goes something like this: I don't want to read poetry, or study other poets, because education will taint my unique, pure voice. What a pile of horse manure! If all you've ever read is bad poetry then that is all you are ever likely to write. If you are ignorant of the history, the different movements, styles and the major players within the world of poetry then you are not aware of what is possible.

Exactly the same attitude exists and argument can be applied to photographers (and photobloggers). Owning a camera, even a really nice one, even a really expensive one does not make you a photographer. There are many, many more idiots than there are idiot savants. Savant without the idiot prefix means a learned person, a scholar which one can aspire to be through self-education. I'm not talking here about learning the details of exposure, aperture and f-stops and the the like although a photographer should be aware of the mechanics and physics of the craft of photograph. I'm talking about learning about the art of photography by studying those who preceded you.

The old cliche "I don't know art, but I know what I like" is redundant, if it was ever valid in the first place. If you haven't been exposed to art how can you know what you like? The same is true specifically for photography; if you don't know which iconic photographers and photographs you like, and, equally, which you don't like and (more importantly) why, how do you know what you want to do within the photographic field?

This rant is triggered by a situation I was made aware of this week, of a photo critique group on flickr, who rejected a critically acclaimed HCB image for not being up to their standards. Even when it was brought to their attention that this was an iconic image they were judging most of the online mob would not retract their damnation of a master's work. Let's put aside that these amateur critics did not recognize the image immediately. Let's also put aside that some of these photographers carry expensive equipment with red stripes on their lenses. They should know better if they are setting themselves up as arbiters of what is a good and a bad photograph. They make all us wired photographers look ridiculous and ignorant.

Getting a little art schooling is not hard or expensive; it should be a joy. Personally I have probably spent more art photography books than I have on equipment but that doesn't need to be the case. Most libraries have at least a handful of photography monographs and a volume of two on photo history. If you want to own your own books, there alternatives to buying them at retail price - exploring half.com online, and my local secondhand book sellers in person, is a great way to find bargains and build a collection that you can go back to. Many museums and galleries have at least one evening a month when entrance is free - seeing prints in the flesh is a totally different experience than seeing images in a book and massively superior to seeing them online. Most of us don't time to go to college to attend a semester of "The History of Photography" but at least one lecture has made his class available as a podcast. There are even some great documentaries available on DVD on certain photographers that you can rent. These activities do take a little time and commitment but I guarantee you will get more out them than you would spending more time on that forum arguing why Nikon is better than Canon or visa versa.

I'm not some photography snob or elitist. Art needn't be inaccessible or aloof (despite what some artists and critics seem to think). Pre-digital photography is not irrelevant. If you don't know the work of HCB it is time to hit the books. It will make you a better photographer.

Posted on Sunday, 2 July 2006 | Comments (1) | Editorial