You Are Not A Photographer

You are not a photographer.

Before you roll your eyes and go back to redesigning your logo, which will surely solve all of your photography business problems, please allow me to explain the above factual statement in slightly more depth.

‘You are not a photographer’ is a statement that I’ve said to myself over and over again through the years.  Sometimes in the context of me doubting myself artistically, sometimes 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 the University of Delaware doesn’t say “Photographer” (even though I haven’t seen it since graduation day, I’m still 97% certain that’s not on it.) What I do know it actually says, is Bachelor of Fine Arts…

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–and it’s nearly impossible to explain how Annie Leibovitz employs Rembrandt style lighting in her work, when all too often the plaid clad individual I’m sitting across from thinks I’m talking about a brand of fucking toothpaste.  Okay, rant over.

This is a Rembrandt…

This is toothpaste…

For some reason photography seems to be the one art form where people can purchase the equipment needed to photograph, and instantly feel entitled enough to call themselves “professionals.” As far as I know, people don’t stop by the grocery store on their way back from Williams Sonoma and think they’re a professional chef. Just like any other form of 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 grows himself.  This practice and training gives him the ability to create new techniques and trends in his industry that will undoubtedly show up on dishes in the most amazing restaurants across the globe, including those right here in Cleveland. That is what true artists do– they learn their craft, continuously study it, and influence their final product by integrating their own creative processes from start to finish– or in Jamie’s case, quite literally from farm to table.

Jamie Simpson getting weird in my studio… REAL WEIRD. Photo by Alex Gradisher

In keeping with the theme of pushing limits and influencing other artists, one of the greatest rivalries from which we’ve all become winners 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 “sparring” with one another through 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, including Vogue/Vanity Fair… heard of them??  You can probably even put on a pretty decent case for Irving Penn, tracing the birth of the “Supermodel” to the portrait below of his wife Lisa Fonssagrieves.  These men used the photographic medium to create an entire industry.

Read that last sentence back to yourself slowly, and really think about what they’ve accomplished.

They influenced, and continue to influence, every fashion photographer on the planet, because they did it first.   Although not referenced before another titan worthy of an honorable mention is definitely Helmut Newton.  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.

Irving Penn’s stunning portrait of his wife Lisa Fonssagrieves circa 1950. Photo by Irving Penn

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 nature, but I also keep books on advertising, design, writing, painting, and even music because all of those mediums have an equal chance of sparking my creative fire or that of anyone who visits me.  Something I’ve noticed about my most creative and passionate friends, is that while they’re certainly influenced by others in their chosen field, they are inspired by artists in other mediums as well.  To prepare my work for the Cleveland Food Bank’s Harvest for Hunger campaign that I partnered with Adcom on, I researched 18th century paintings that ended up inspiring the concept.

Harvest for Hunger 2015.

Switching gears momentarily, I’ll make a “quick” side-note here to touch on the photography gear “problem.”   In order to innovate and create meaningful work, you must understand every aspect of the technology involved in your craft.  ‘Photographers’ suffer from what I like to call “gear envy” all of the time and use it as an excuse to produce crappy work.  The best way I know how to describe “gear envy” is my experience on the golf course (and since it’s January in Cleveland, I’m missing it pretty badly right now).  Will I ever beat Tiger Woods on the golf course?? No… hell no. I’ve got a better chance of walking on Mars.  If I had the best clubs in the whole world, I still wouldn’t be considered a professional golfer, by any means, and if Tiger had the worst, he’d still be a pro, in every sense of the word.  Would I pick up a few strokes because of the better clubs.  Maybe.  Get out of the sand trap in under 5 swings?  Probably. Regardless, better clubs won’t change the fact that I’ve never honed my skills or put in the hours to master every aspect of the game like he has, and therefore, I will always remain the amateur and he will always be the professional.

Doing my best here guys… Photo by Tony Madalone.

Tiger winning The Masters for a third time.

Thus, the outcome will remain the same.  Tiger would kick my ass.  Every.  Single.  Time.  In photography this mastery doesn’t come from what’s in your hand, it comes from your creativity… a.k.a. what’s in 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, and 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.  And yes, just to be clear… this is me admitting that my golf game is as impressive as that standard train track high school senior portrait with a B&W filter tossed over it that we all know, waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too well.

High school senior on railroad tracks. Photo used with permission 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 no matter what your parents told you, hard work does not necessarily equate to talent.  It’s undeniable that some people are inherently better at some things than others (see the Tiger Woods comparison above) and those individuals have a huge advantage that they didn’t necessarily have to work for, and that’s OKAY!!  When those talented individuals find passion in what they do and choose to work their asses off, we see creatives reach their true potential– that’s the real prize.  In today’s digital world, though it’s possible(read: normal) for true talent to go undiscovered, due to the sheer volume of content and material being put out into the community, it’s my heartfelt belief though that talent paired with hardwork and integrity will always find it’s way through the fog and noise of any saturated business.  It also helps, immensely, when people who know better can 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 who 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 artists are producers, designers, art directors, retouchers, stylists, writers, painters, sculptors, dancers etc.  With that in mind it’s incredibly important that we don’t ignore those disciplines or shut ourselves off to their influence.  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 of 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.

 

– J

 

 

 

 

 

For any additional info or to disagree vehemently with this post please comment below or contact Info@JamesDouglas.com

9 Comments

  1. Grego Jan 15, 2016 - 06:29 PM

    Well said. I can see your are becoming quite a writer! I would argue that many people with camera equipment don’t consider themselves professional photographers, but they do muddy the waters when “others” don’t discern how much better the “shot” could have been. You are expanding your peripheral vision which is wonderful to see. It pains me to witness the equipment evolution that tends to make good photos from very bad basics. Like my old golf coach told me many times, “equipment is maybe 5% of the game, and if I’m wrong, it’s only 2.5%”. The real need is for buyers of photography to regain the appreciation for the Creative versus an “it’s good enough” price point.
    Good luck with that!
    As always,
    Love,
    Dad

    Reply
  2. Matt Connors Jan 22, 2016 - 08:17 AM

    A welcomed read. A bit snarky at times, but your points are well made and your frustration that the title“photographer” has taken on a generic feel is evident. You’re right, it’s a busy world with many distractions often that involve screens and wasted time (although I discovered your work through wonders of the web and serpentine hyperlinks), but for those with the desire a well-rounded knowledge of various creative arts is invaluable. A flooded photographic field has been both grumbled about and praised depending on the mentality of the source you find. The simple fact is that the ubiquity of cameras, the simplification of photography as a digital medium, and the abundance of images on the internet do create a lot of noise that is hard to swim through, but Grego makes a good point in his comment: that many may consider themselves “photographers” but not in a professional sense. They are photographing for fun, for memories, not for a living, not to call themselves “photographer” in the historical, professional, sense.

    For those with a true drive in professional photography your advice is valuable. Exposing and introducing oneself to other artistic/creative influences and mediums can help inform and unlock creativity. Knowledge of the past masters of photography can help build a foundation and understanding of one’s own work and that of others work.

    Lastly, and you do touch on this, while personal, solitary study is important, also important is the need to surround yourself with other creatives. Not necessarily only photographers (in this case) but those from other artistic mediums. Meet with them to discuss, well, anything: ideas, work, opinions, current topics. The internet has made secluded art too easy. Salon-type gatherings wherein people from diverse interests gathered are historically influential in the work of creatives. Weston and the f64 group pushed and informed each other’s work as well as challenged that of the east-coast photographers. Evans traveled with Agee during the Dust Bowl and used Agee’s narratives as creative juice for his images. Many more examples exist.

    Thanks for the read.

    -Matt

    Reply
    • James Douglas Feb 01, 2016 - 02:20 PM

      Hey man… I’m glad you liked the post… It definitely helps to take a step back and look at some of these “problems” from a different angle and that’s what I’ve tried to do here. I also looooooooove working with other artists and often seek advice from them. If you haven’t already check out our 1+1=4 post. It’s all about collaborating with others and the benefits of doing so! Thanks so much for taking the time to write us and we’ll definitely try to keep these sort of topics in mind when composing the next post… and suggestions always welcome.

      Reply
  3. Logan Christopher Jan 22, 2016 - 01:27 PM

    Must agree one hundred percent, James. In my arena out here in LA, I meet so many people who give themselves a title and I ask to see examples of their work and they freeze, telling me they’re in school to be a director, or that they just moved to Los Angeles and they haven’t shot anything yet. The look in my eyes must say something, because when I tell them to be a student their entire career, even when they’re getting paid a million dollars a movie, and that you should be proud of the work and not the title, they seem to actually listen. And a few months or years later when I get a link in my inbox to a short film or a gallery opening, or to an article about their next project, I think for a second that maybe what I said landed and I get a little smile on my face. And then I go back to learning more about my passions and possibilities.

    Reply
    • James Douglas Feb 01, 2016 - 02:26 PM

      Brilliant!! Might seem off topic but bear with me here… I garden like crazy and there’s a quote by Bob Jones of The Chef’s Garden, “If you don’t have good soil you have nothing.” I believe that holds true to art as well… if you don’t have good work you have nothing. So I’m always encouraging people to get out there and make great work!!!

      Reply
  4. Chloe Jan 22, 2016 - 09:02 PM

    I couldn’t agree more! This post has taught me more than 99% of the “how to be a better photographer” posts on Pinterest. I am an amateur photographer, trying to get some experience while starting my business. I look up to the greats and can only dream of having a similar creative mind and talent. Would love any and all advice on what to study to get there.

    Reply
    • James Douglas Feb 01, 2016 - 02:29 PM

      Glad this helped!! If you ever have any specific questions that you think I can help with please don’t hesitate to reach out!! info@JamesDouglas.com

      Reply
  5. James Douglas Feb 01, 2016 - 02:30 PM

    Oh yea… Grego is my #1 fan and his support is probably the only reason I’ve got a career to begin with!! I’m glad you liked the post and if it you think it can help some of your other associates pass it along!!

    Reply
  6. Nikki Feb 17, 2016 - 07:11 PM

    Was an accurate perspective, appreciate your passion and respect for your work and art in general, good read.

    Reply

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