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How & Why To Never Look At Another’s Photo And Say ‘I Could Do that’

By Kishore Sawh on August 25th 2015


The art world is a tricky one. A maze of theories and an obstacle course of offense can make it difficult to navigate. There’s also the sense that some art, typically contemporary, can be like fashion – something fleeting and seasonal, whereas classic art and style, are sort of eternal.

In case you were wondering, photography can be art, but probably not all of it, and not all of us photographers, artists. David Bailey lives down the street from my family, and he is sort of known around our little town for making clear that above all he is an artist, and I think if you know his work you’d agree. Maybe. Bailey, along with the Testinos and Unwerths and a host of other photographers today would largely be regarded as artists atop their field, yet, it never ceases to amaze me when I hear, and often, people looking at their images say, ‘I could do that.’ Photography is absolutely rife with this sort of talk, and this phrase in particular.


It’s the easy thing to say because it sort of just rolls off the tongue, requires little to no thought, and no one tends to challenge the claim. But it’s destructive. What’s being said when this phrase is uttered is that you can’t understand why the image you’re viewing is special or noteworthy in any way, and, therefore the artist is belittled. Ironically, you’re also belittling yourself, because saying ‘I could do that,’ suggests that even someone as lowly as you could produce something like that. It’s not a good look, and you don’t need to be as benighted as the next guy who says it.

I was just sent the video herein, it’s from The Art Assignment and PBS Studios to address this very topic, and educate us on what’s really going on when someone looks at a piece of art like a photograph and says, ‘ I could do that.’ It’s educational and short and probably one of the best 5 minutes a photographer can spend this year.


Initially the stock response to this statement by those that ‘get it’ is to say, ‘Well you probably couldn’t do it, and also you didn’t do it.’ But that’s the Cliff Notes version to a response that could be lengthier than War & Peace. A lesson in art appreciation can never be really brief, and artists are typically not known for their brevity in explanation. Don’t agree? Walk into any modern gallery like the Tate Modern or MoMa and it will become apparent in the first corridor. You’ll hear all about everything from the asinine to those who will defend the indefensible.

A lot of the problem comes from people’s assumption or own definition of ‘art’ itself, and that much modern art seems to require little technical proficiency (at least to the untrained mind). This has led a host of ‘artists’ to think they can just throw anything up on a wall and call it art. With the proliferation of galleries around major cities where everyone is trying to make use out of abandoned work-yards by throwing in a blend of low voltage lighting and polished concrete floors, it can seem as if galleries will put in anything to fill the space, and encourage you to patronize local artists.

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But art can be almost anything. A car, a table, a building. Hell, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is more impressive and beautiful than anything inside it. But it’s even more impressive when you consider it’s supposed to reflect the city’s maritime history while marrying it with it’s more current association with heavy industry. And that’s how art is, really. It can be something that strikes you immediately, but the back-story can have everything to do with it.

Jerry Hall and Helmut Newton, Cannes by David Bailey, 1983 © David Bailey

Jerry Hall and Helmut Newton, Cannes by David Bailey, 1983 © David Bailey

My personal thoughts on the matter is that next time you hear or feel yourself looking at an image of a famed photographer and thinking you could do it, try. Try to, or even better, consider why they would’ve done it, and why it has an audience. I think you’ll be only a better photographer for it.

That said, I’m personally more for classic art and photography than contemporary styles, So I’d rather have a Bresson or a DaVinci on my wall than a Richardson or local impressionist – you’re just never going to hear anyone say, “That Bresson and Mona Lisa, so last season.”

Source: PBS

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Ralph Hightower

    Many photographers have tried to mimic Ansel Adams and failed.

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  2. norman tesch

    i ocassionally work in a small gallery. the thing you learn is everyone likes different things. alls i do is help them find what they have in mind. i find allot are also more interested in the process than the actual work.

    i think its human nature to compare yourself to others. the modern art honestly dont care about it and dont pay any attetion to it. now with other photography stuff i will look at it to see if it is better than mine. but if im not it makes me try harder.

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  3. Jim Johnson

    I worked with a copywriter once who said, “The hardest thing to do is say what you mean in one word; no matter how perfect the word, the simplicity will confuse people into thinking it was easy.”

    So true for every creative form.

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  4. Tom Marvel

    It’s been attributed to Thelonious Monk:
    “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture”
    If you have to use words to explain it, then it’s the wrong medium for your art

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  5. Jason Markos

    Maybe I’m too much of a newbie… but I tend to find myself saying: “I’d like to have a go at that” . Which I think is pretty much what you were saying in the last paragraph.

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    • Jim Johnson

      There is nothing wrong with that. Students of art often start by trying to copy what they admire. You’d be surprised by how much you learn about yourself when you do it.

      You’ll also be surprised at the discoveries you make that make your “copy” different.

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  6. Graham Curran

    Many times “art” is what is made by an “artist, its value depends on who made it rather than what it is. Old oil paintings can multiply in value if they are attributed to a “master” rather than a student at his school. My unmade bed is never going to attract the modern art world in the same way as Tracy Emmin’s, even if I had thought of it first and decided to give it artistic meaning. There are many talented amateur photographers who can and do create images as good as David Bailey but it’s his body of work that gives them weight greater than the wall of the local photographic society.

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    • Jim Johnson

      So right. Never confuse art’s value and its worth.

      And I think one element everyone forgets about art: context. Tracy Emmin’s unmade bed said something because of its context. It’s not a decorative piece for someone’s living room. Your bed… well it’s just another bed.

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    • Gabriel Rodriguez

      Well said!!??

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  7. Christian Santiago

    Art is whatever you can get away with.

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  8. Dave Haynie

    Sometimes a big part of the art is making something difficult look simple. Like taking a posed shot that looks candid… if you get it, “anyone can do that” because it’s just a snapshot. If you fail and it looks weirdly posed, no one want to “do that”.

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  9. Lauchlan Toal

    Whatever, I could’ve written that article. ;)

    It’s funny how much goes into some of these seemingly simple works – the same goes for writing, marketing, and any other form of art.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      it’s really tying into the whole, ‘know the rules before you set out to break them’ thing… and then actually breaking it well

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