Thoughts on the Dangers of Tools
I used to offer tutoring on the ins and outs of a digital photography workflow. This is a subject that I learned about back in 2012 when I was enrolled in the now defunct Publishing Arts certificate program at Seattle Central Community College.
I know, community college is like the headline for mediocrity in a lot of peoples minds but SCCC's Creative Academy programs are very highly regarded by both industry and other educational institutions in the Pacific Northwest.
And, in my experience, a lot of people offering tutoring in this area are self taught. Which is great, I'm a huge fan of self-directed learning, but also leads inevitably to gaps in knowledge either because of the whole "you don't know what you don't know" problem or because it's simply very difficult to learn about some subjects without access to a professional.
I also do color correction work for a smallish but still international publisher. So, I have experience prepping images for professional printing as well as digital display.
So, one of my big selling points as a tutor was that I had actually learned this stuff in an organized and methodical way in school as well as from using the software professionally for a number of years.
I noticed a number of tendencies in my students and I've been reading some other blogs lately that have touched on the subject in oblique ways so I wanted to write a blog post that explores how I think about post-processing software and the dangers and pit-falls that I've seen people fall into in my tutoring.
I did encounter a few exceptions to what I'm about to talk about, people who were only interested in the post-processing tools as a means to an end. But as a group almost all of the people I taught became so lost in the seductive wonders of software that they seemed to lose their grasp on the fundamental fact that photographs are made in the camera at the moment you press the shutter.
They got lost in the candy store that is post-processing software and became so enchanted with it's near magical ability to twist and shape pixels that their idea of the purpose of their camera changed from "the thing that I use to make photographs" to "the thing that produces the raw material I need to make pictures".
That's a huge conceptual shift! The roles of the camera and the software have inverted!
I don't want to argue that there's a "right way" to do photography because there's no right way to make art. In a previous life, I was a musician and so a lot of how I understand art comes from the experiences I had during those years. I played whatever I could: folk, jazz, swing, musicals, classical, pop, rock, metal, electronica, improv, anything. I just loved playing music. And the thing that I learned from playing whatever I had the opportunity to play was that all music can take me on an emotional journey that affirms and celebrates some part of what being human is about.
These days, the art that I make is about exploring the day-to-day. Celebrating the mundane for the sheer immensity it has in our lives.
So, what I am arguing is that it's critical for an artist to have a conscious understanding of what their goals are before making decisions about the tools and process that they use. Because what I saw with my students was that since they generally had no clear idea about what they were trying to do, explore, or say, they were easily waylaid by the seductive power of the tools they were learning to use.
These days, I just teach people how to operate a camera. I stress the implications of how a camera works that offer opportunities for creativity. I try to reiterate in every way possible that being able to operate a camera doesn't make you a photographer any more than being able to type makes you a writer.
I think people tend to fixate on the parts of the digital photography process that they perceive as being a) the easiest b) the simplest c) offering the most dramatic improvement in output while d) requiring the least effort.
That's an output oriented decision tree. It might be a good decision tree for someone who makes their living working as a photographer but it's probably an actively bad decision tree for someone who is trying to make art.
I know, art is a huge, labyrinthine, sprawling, possibly meaningless term. And I think that if you are going to try to make art you need to think about what that means to you, about how you define art, before you get too enmeshed in trying to make it. And you need to continue to re-appraise and re-evaluate your goals as you move through time as well. Because you can't get there if you don't know where there is. And nearly everyone you meet already has their own idea about what art is and if you don't have a clear understanding of what art is to you then you are likely to get pushed and pulled and turned around by other people.
And how are you going to make art if you don't have a clear idea of what you are trying to make?