NOTE: I am going to start this article off by saying that it isn’t my intent to be “preachy” although it may come off that way. My single thought and highly idealistic goal is simply to hopefully foster a more open minded photography community. If not in our industry, at least here on SLR Lounge.
I am always amazed at how strong of opinions people have in regards to photography. Now, when I say “people” let me be clear that what I really mean is other photographers. Most non-photographer people will simply like or dislike an image for what it is. Let’s be honest, when was the last time any of your non-photographer friends said “That would have been a great photo, but unfortunately they used studio lighting”? I think the safe answer is never. Non-photographers like or dislike an image for its artistic and aesthetic value, period. However, the photographer makes up arbitrary criteria for what makes an image “good.”
Photographers will choose to dislike an image because it has a vintage fade or filmic effect that makes it look like “Instagram garbage.” Photographers will dislike an image because it uses non-natural light. Photographers will dislike an image because it has been manipulated or composited in Photoshop. Some photographers will dislike images due to a lack of technical perfection. Extreme “purists” will even choose to dislike an image because it has been edited outside of the camera.
In this article, I am going to address each of these arguments and tell you why in general this contagious and pervasive “elitist” mentality is not only ridiculously unjustified, it is also completely detrimental to one’s own growth as a photographer.
Trying to Dam River with a Twig
Regardless of the argument, elitists in whatever form are simply attempting to limit photography as an art form. To me, this is not only silly it is also incredibly pointless and utterly impossible. Would you try damming a river by using a twig? How about filling an ocean with one bucket of water at a time? No, why? Because it is a endless and purposeless exercise.
Regardless, people do it and will continue to do it despite the futility. In addition, I have generally found that most elitists tear down and attempt to devalue the works of others for 4 common reasons:
1. Dogmatic Beliefs – Unjustified concrete beliefs in subject matters that are highly debatable, unproven and/or subjective.
2. Ignorance (most common) – The individual doesn’t understand the techniques employed by the photographer.
3. Jealousy or Spite – The individual is jealous of either the image or the photographer’s abilities, or perhaps just dislikes the individual.
4. To be Different – The individual refuses to acknowledge something is good, simply because too many other people like it as well.
Regardless of the reason behind the hater’s misdirected hate, I want to address each of the most common arguments I frequently hear.
The Dogmatic Purists
The Purist is the individual that for some unjustified reason believes that photography is bound by some sort of higher power. Whatever doesn’t conform to their dogmatic belief in what photography “should be” is simply declassified as photography. I find this argument the most puzzling as I often wonder how these opinions/mindsets are developed in the first place.
A commonly dogmatic purist argument comes from those that use historic photographers as icons and role models when it comes to photography must be devoid of ANY digital manipulation.
The hilarious part of this argument are the photographers who proudly shoot JPEG and claim their images are non-manipulated and pure since they are SOOC (Straight Out Of the Camera). These photographers completely dismiss the fact that any non-RAW image is already digitally processed from within the camera!
Often times I hear the purist defer to other photography greats as sort of a “higher power.” On that note, if there was one single historic photographer whose name I have heard more than any other in this idiotic argument, it would be poor’ol Ansel Adams.
Ansel Adam’s namesake has been used and abused by purists around the world attempting to make a successful purist argument that an image should never be digitally manipulated in any form. Unfortunately, most of these individuals probably never have studied the life or work of Ansel Adams. Instead, they just pull quotes and attempt to state that this great photographer would never touch Photoshop were he shooting in our age and time.
This argument is so ungrounded that I find myself feeling a little silly for even bringing it up. But, let’s give it a moment worth of thought and look into his work briefly.
Ansel Adams was born in 1902 and began his career in a time where photography was in its infancy. Constantly trying to push the boundaries of what he could capture in his images, he developed the Zone System for determining the optimal film exposure and development. He used lens filters when shooting his landscapes to modify colors and exposure. He extensively post processed his images and even wrote several technical books including “The Negative: Exposure and Development.”
Hmmm… Seems like he didn’t mind manipulating his images so far. What about Ansel Adam’s beliefs in photography? Did he have any of these dogmatic beliefs in what made up a true photograph? Well, let’s take a few looks at some quotes that aren’t generally used in the purist argument.
There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.
No rules for good photographs? Interesting, tell me more Ansel.
“Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.” – Ansel Adams
You offend me Sir Ansel, how dare you say God made mistakes in anything?
“The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance.” – Ansel Adams
Wait a minute, are you saying that a negative isn’t necessarily a finished image? That it actually should be processed? Preposterous!
“Some photographers take reality… and impose the domination of their own thought and spirit. Others come before reality more tenderly and a photograph to them is an instrument of love and revelation.” – Ansel Adams
There is room for artistic expression in photography? Ansel, you are really stretching on this one. Seriously.
“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” – Ansel Adams
Said the Nikon user, Canon cameras take amazing photographs SOOC!
“Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas. It is a creative art.” – Ansel Adams
I would continue, but I think all of you are probably tired of reading my sarcastic commentary.
No matter, I think you should all be getting the point by now. It is impossible to assume what Ansel Adams would say or do were he alive today. But, in looking into his body of work, his advances to the science of photography, his broad range of educational material and his personality and believes in the craft, it is my belief that Ansel Adams would be absolutely thrilled by the potential with current technology and digital image manipulation. “RAW files, Lightroom, Photoshop? YES PLEASE!”
The bottom line is that Ansel Adams is known for being one of the most chemically manipulative photographer in the dark room. We would even probably be safe in saying that Ansel Adam’s is the father of present day HDR processing methodology. Would Ansel Adam’s use every tool today to achieve his vision? Most likely.
That being said, while we can make educated guesses, we aren’t going to ever have an answer to this hypothetical question. On top of that, why does it even matter? Why in the world should someone else’s beliefs in photography impact our vision and thoughts towards the art form?
The Ignorant Elitist
The next group of elitists that I want to address are the “Ignorant Elitists.” These are the photographers that claim to be “natural light photographers” simply because they don’t know how to use flash or other types of artificial lighting. They are the photographers that refuse to edit or manipulate their images digitally because they lack the post production skills to do so.
Instead of working towards expanding their craft, they seek to pull others down to their level by internally eliminating them as “true photography.”
My suggestion as always, use the best tool for the job. Want a natural light look, use natural light. Want an edgy editorial look, bust out the studio strobes. If after learning each tool you decide that one specific style of photography is all you want to do, then more power to you. But, at least understand the different tools available before making that decision.
This is probably the most common type of “elitist” that we run into, and frankly it is the most detrimental to the photographer’s success. This mentality forces the photographer to stick within their comfort zone, which is the antithesis of promoting personal growth.
Bottom line is, show me an innovative photographer that is on their way to being one of the next “greats,” and I will show you a photographer who is constantly working outside of their comfort zone.
The Jealous Elitist – “Damn that Annie Leibovitz”
Similar to Ansel Adam’s, Annie Leibovitz is another name constantly targeted and ridiculed by photographers, but simply for a different reason. Photographer’s look towards Annie Leibovitz success and name within the photography industry and find every occasion to tear her down simply to placate their own jealous rage.
“Annie’s work isn’t that great”, “I could have done better, are you serious?”, “I can’t believe she is considered a professional!” I could go on and on, but I don’t think it is necessary. As people and really a society in general, one of our greatest and most unusual habits is in attempting to justify one’s own failures by tearing down the works of others. I suppose it is simply easier to look outwards with failure rather than into the mirror.
First thought, Annie is one of the most published photographers in the world. Maybe you think her latest shoot isn’t “all that special.” But, having the ability to create amazing and professional photographs, on any set, with any budget, day-in and day-out makes her the consummate professional.
Second thought: Tearing down others’ work will never really help you improve your own craft. Invest your energy on supporting the people you love, ignore the people you don’t, and focus your energy and efforts on your craft!”
The Anti-Pop Culture Elitist – “That’s Instagram Garbage”
The last most common reason I see for the elitist to casually dismiss a photograph is simply because it is enjoyed by too many other people. For the Anti-Pop Culture Elitist, there is a tipping scale of enjoyment. It is okay to enjoy something so long as most people stand on the other side of the scale. Once the scale has been tipped too far, and you stand on the side of the majority, it is time to move to the other side, if for no other reason than to simply be different.
These are the elitist photographers who claim to “only shoot film” when most others use digital. They despise Instagram and iPhones because now “everyone claims to be a photographer.” When introducing themselves to other photographers they append the type of camera they use in their images; “My name is Sam, I am a medium format professional photographer.”
These photographers stand on the opposite side of the spectrum, simply to stand on the opposite side of the spectrum. They will refuse to shoot digital, despite of its obvious advantages over film in many situations. They will avoid purchasing an iPhone, or using Instagram to take photos, because they don’t want to be grouped into that same class of photographer. They will claim to shoot only medium format, rather than admitting that a camera is simply a tool for their work.
I will fully admit that there is value in differentiating yourself and your work from others in the marketplace. There is also nothing wrong with nostalgic appreciation for classic cameras and techniques. If you have fun shooting film, great!
However, being different for simply the purpose of being different, is a pointless undertaking. Not to mention the fact that in doing so, you are potentially robbing yourself of creating a better overall image and product were you to simply use the best tool for the given job.
Many of you are probably wondering “When will Pye come down off of his high horse?” I’ll admit, that I have even annoyed myself with the length and amount of time that I have put into this article which was supposed to be a 10-minute undertaking.
Let me be honest. I don’t say any of this with the intent to preach or put myself above anyone else. In fact, it is the last thing on my mind nor do I remotely believe I am above anyone of my peers. I say this because frankly in looking at our industry and peers, I often find myself quite depressed.
I am depressed at the fact that we all embarked on this journey into photography to explore our creative vision, yet we seek to limit that creativity for unknown and irrational reasons. I am depressed at how often we seek to tear down others, in an attempt to flatter our own failures. I am depressed that we refuse to acknowledge greatness, because we may not currently see it within ourselves. Most of all, it depresses me that we refuse to acknowledge the success found in failure, because it discourages ones desire to continue trying.
I’ll admit that I am an idealist. It’s probably what makes me so happy as a wedding photographer. My focus in photography has always allowed me to focus on capturing ideal moments in people’s lives. But, while I am an idealist, I am not self-delusional to think that my opinion or thoughts are important enough to make much of an impact on our industry. But, I do believe that if enough people agree with what was said here, you all can make the difference.
A more open and supportive photography industry may be a idealistic and ultimately unrealistic goal, but who in their right minds ever set out to attain a less than ideal goal in the first place?
As always, your comments, critique, and thoughts are welcome below.