That’s a hell of a question, isn’t it? When everyone and their mother has a camera and platform to publish their captures, what is it exactly that defines a photographer? I often have heard it said that you aren’t a professional photographer if you’re not generating the lion’s share of your income via photography. I can poke holes in that argument from dusk till dawn, and I’m but one person. I mean, Vivian Maier made no money from her images and died before her work came to light, and most of the photo world, I’d wager, wouldn’t dare deny her referenced as a professional of metaphoric status now.
And that’s just it, I’m not so sure there is a valid definition (or set of criteria from which to draw one) that can give an answer that’s irrefutable. Ken Van Sickle, in this short 2-minute episode from PBS’ ‘Brief But Spectacular’ series, gives his take on the matter,
There are a lot of things that make a good photograph. You have to think about texture and gesture and composition, and all the things that painting has in it…. If you were there when the Hindenburg caught on fire, and you took a picture of it, that’s a great photograph. But you’re not a great photographer, because you can’t repeat that in everyday things.
What a great photographer does is, they are consistently able to make something in a style that’s personal to themselves. My pictures don’t depend on extreme sharpness. They depend on the composition and on the subject and on the way I see it.
So here Van Sickle seems to suggest that consistency in style and ability to deliver are high ranking factors, and it’s hard to imagine anyone in our community disagreeing. Looking into his life, however, shows a broad background and experience where it may seem clear his position was born. He’s in his 80s now, served in the Korean War, and is actually a highly-practicing and recognized martial artist, which probably explains his impressive virility. But in the past, before his military experience, he benefited from his grandfather’s artistic teachings on the classical aspects of art, and Van Sickle put them into practice through drawing and painting far before he began photography.
With such an education from such a formative age, it sort of stands to reason that he would put value on those classical art foundational pillars. It also would explain some of his feelings on the democratization of photography. In the short clip, he continues to say,
Technology doesn’t change the way photography is. It just — it makes it available to more people, which means there’s going to be much, much more really terrible pictures taken or pictures that are totally dependent on subject, which is all, all right.
This is a highly polarizing argument he presents because it can certainly be construed as a photography elitist speaking down to the proletariat. And then some could possibly argue that even after achieving his success, he may carry a chip on his shoulder because of the blue on his collar, but do we really think that’s what he’s doing? Because whatever his real feelings are behind it, what he says can hardly be denied.
Photography is available to everyone now, and it has created veritable fountains of utter artistically-devoid images. I’ve mentioned before, but it’s warranted again that there are supposedly more images taken every two minutes today than were taken in the entirety of the 20th century. Surely they aren’t all great photographs, and not taken by those we could define as photographers.
But, who are we to say? Do we keep judging what makes a great piece of art by the standards set some centuries ago? If we do that, and I’m inclined to, for now, it suggests photographers as artistic creators are actually re-creating under influence of old ideals. It makes me think of a conversation between Lord Henry and Dorian Gray in ‘The Picture Of Dorian Gray’ on the very topic of influence. Dorian sits as his portrait is being painted, and listens to Lord Henry as he says,
There is no such thing as a good influence, Mr. Gray. All influence is immoral—immoral from the scientific point of view. Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him…. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays…Courage has gone out of our race.
This truly sums up so much of what I feel is a problem with photography today; there is a lack of courage to fully self-express, probably in no short part due to the pressure of having our work accepted, so there’s just so much carbon copying occurring with little development of one’s true self and self-expression. How on Earth can that be conducive to art and good photography? And can we who follow this be called photographers?