Education. It’s a funny thing these days. The age of the online educated, the YouTube expert and vanishing barrier to entry. Education seems slow in some ways. And why bother if your goal is following? I get it. But I also witness something else happening. Burnout. Many of the best, online-educated, YouTube celebrity “photographers,” and I use this term VERY loosely are hitting the wall. (This has been building for years and not just with photographers.)
You hear the stories. “I’m taking a break.” “I’m going offline for a while.” “I decided to only post once a month,” they say through forced smiles and phony admissions. Yep, you could see this coming from outer space. And here is the real rub for these folks. Many never had a solid foundation in photography. They never had any real education outside of following who was hot, copying as much as possible and then building their own superstorm of noise. When they leave this online party they are left with someone else’s work. Not theirs.
Now, to each his/her own. What other people do is up to them but if you have a serious interest in photography and you truly desire the ability to make unique work then you have to consider real education. And I’ll add real, ONGOING education. Learning doesn’t end with your millionth subscriber. Learning doesn’t end with publication in some editorial outlet. The best photographers I know, and I know plenty, are ALWAYS learning. They are ALWAYS attempting to continue their education. They hire consultants, they confide in one another and help one another to better understand certain images, certain projects or even certain failures. And their education transcends into incredibly diverse fields. Art, history, bee-keeping, gardening, falconry, sport, reading, language, travel, cuisine, philosophy, psychology, geology, anthropology, etc. The best photographers are only PARTLY photography. They are so, so much more. And you don’t get this way without continuing education. (One of the best photography conversations I’ve had in recent years was about basketball.)
Photographic education has nothing to do with gear, technology or the nuts and bolts of how images are made. IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH ANY OF THIS. The technical side of photography is boring and historically has been monumentally influential in HOLDING PHOTOGRAPHY BACK. Why did the public grow weary of photography so quickly? Why did the art world laugh at photography for so long? Because many photographers were geeks and had no real understanding of photography outside of the technical side. About the gear and technology, let me clue you in. Not a single person of meaning cares anything about it. Not one. People of meaning care about the quality of the final product, context, history, process and the unique aspects that make the project truly yours.
To be great you have to understand you. Just you. At first anyway. And to do this you need time and you need practice. I wrote recently about doing portfolio reviews, and the first question I asked the photographers taking twenty-minute turns in front of me was “Why are you here?” Not one had an answer. This is what I mean. Why are you you? Why are you making pictures? What’s the end game? And can you produce high-level work consistently? It’s okay to say “Nope, can’t do it.” Making great work is rare and difficult, for everyone. But peeps, this is the FUN part of the process. Like solving a puzzle. The day you understand you is a pinnacle moment and wildly satisfying.
So last summer, while sitting on a beach, a fellow photographer asked: “Hey, you want to take a workshop in Albania?” Without much thought, I said, “Sure, sounds interesting.” I didn’t need to tell anyone. I didn’t need to use the opportunity for anything other than education. All I could think about was “Hmm, I’ll be isolated for two entire weeks and will do nothing other than shoot, look, write, design and practice.” What could be better? Well, actually, I’ll tell you what could be better. Getting feedback. Having my work edited, sequenced and critiqued by another photographer was also pivotal and eye-opening.
I am fortunate. I’m older, so getting a degree in photography, prior to the Internet, was a reality that has continued to pay dividends all these years later. I was also able to take two workshops at Santa Fe Photographic Workshops going back to the mid-1990s. I already had a degree in photojournalism and had already worked as a photographer for ten years prior to taking my first workshop. But total immersion for one week with a world-class instructor blew my mind.
Again, these workshops had ZERO discussion in regard to gear or technology. We spoke about IMAGES, process, editing, the industry and what it actually meant to be a professional. One of the most memorable moments came when the instructor looked at me and said: “Man, I’m so jealous of you.” “What?” I asked puzzled. “Why would you be jealous of me” He looked at me and said, “Because you have done more personal work in the last year than I’ve been able to do in the last ten.” He was giving me a gift. The gift of knowledge that being a pro was perhaps not what I imagined. (And I’d been working for TEN YEARS by this time.) He and I are still friends, and I’m still friends with several of the students in the class, two of whom have been incredibly influential in my career. In fact, one student convinced me, later in my career, to quit my job and return to full-time photography.
I think modern photographers are skeptical of education because they don’t want to appear as if they don’t know something. Insecurity and ego are dangerous things, as is the Internet microscope, but ten minutes around a master and it is impossible to feel like you know anything remotely close to everything.
Last year a master printer came to my house. I had just left the darkroom with a set of “finished” prints. He took one look at the prints asked: “These are work prints right?” Ouch. He then proceeded to talk nonstop for twenty-minutes in regard to how I could improve the prints. I finally cut him off and admitted: “I have no idea what you are talking about.”
I recently visited a master photographer who lives here in Santa Fe. Standing in his darkroom I was again dismantled, politely. Last year I went camping with a master photographer and a master painter. The campfire discussion was PAINFUL. They were so much more intelligent, so much more well rounded and so inspiring. All I wanted to do was sit up in my tent and read. I just wanted to catch up.
I don’t know jack shit people. Not in the grand scheme. Not even close. Now, I could get defensive and retreat, puff out my chest and check my IG feed, or I could get to work and learn. I choose the learning path. It’s endless and so damn fun.
So if you haven’t taken or created the opportunity to engage with the educational side of photography then I think you should make a plan. You may love it, you may hate it. You will hear negative things about your work and process, and some people can’t handle that. While others will be a moth to the flame. Either way, it’s good to know where you stand. It’s good to know the truth.
Great post, Dan. Lots to think about here. Final prints are the ultimate goal for me. I’ve been learning the darkroom process for over 30 years and are still just scratching the surface of all the possibilities. Some prints come easily, while others can take agonizing weeks or months to fully realize. Sometimes they don’t happen at all. I recently went thru stacks of contact sheets from a decade ago and pulled out frames that didn’t speak to me back then, but now they’re screaming at me to start printing. I guess it just depends on my state of mind and expectations at the time. I’d love to be able to work with an experienced printer someday, if nothing more than to be shown what I don’t know. I have a 50’s-era Eugene Smith print hanging in the hallway, and every time I look at it I’m inspired and humbled at the same time. These are some of the things I think about while I’m on the bike.
Yes, those elusive prints. These days I’m confined to the book and the magazine, but there are so many options I don’t feel limited. Throw in the MagCloud offerings and it gets even better. Speaking of MC, I’ve got to make my Albania magazine into a MC Digest. One of the best formats ever. I have a solid collection of silver prints too. Nothing like walking by those and seeing the black blacks and the depth which the image lives IN the paper. Not on, IN. Beautiful.