My head is full of things in no particular order. I just got back from Nordic Light. I’m a month away from graduating from the Norwegian School of Photography, and I’m about to start working on my exam project where the assignment is basically “make some motherfucking art” and who the hell knows how to do that? I have no idea what I’ll be doing after June 10. Still, mental mess aside, I have learned a few things about photography this past year. Maybe I’ll unlearn them in the years to come. But right now, this is what the world of photography looks like from my vantage point. Some lessons learned:
The primacy of the print. You haven’t really looked at photographs until you’ve seen photographs off the screen. This is a point that’s hard to appreciate if you don’t have access to quality exhibitions and books. Before school, I had a few (dearly protected) photobooks I owned, and I’d seen a couple exhibitions, but I lived far away from everything. The library had maybe a half-dozen photobooks, none of them actually concerned with anything more than postcard-looking natural beauty. There was maybe one real photography exhibition every year, none by any well-known photographers. I knew almost nothing beyond the JPEG, and let me tell you, the JPEG is not a photograph. (Of course it is, but it’s to a good print what an ebook is to a beautifully hand-caligraphed manuscript. The former is a “book”, the latter is an object of art.)
There are so many reasons why the print is superior to the screen. It’s not just resolution, but resolution is certainly part of it. It’s not just the way colors are rendered in subtractive ink on paper that goes beyond the additive colors of a computer screen, though that’s also a part. It’s the way that certain imperfections are hidden and others are accentuated; it’s the way the worries of pixel-peeping on 400 percent magnification give way to other, perhaps more pleasing worries. It’s the way you get to see the photograph as the photographer intended it, because there are no photographers who make their photographs with the jpeg as a final result in mind. It’s hard to appreciate if you don’t have access to quality prints, and many of them. It’s a rare thing for me to see a photograph in print that I liked better on the screen; the opposite is common.
Of course, jpegs are great. The internet is great. I still live far away from almost everything that happens in the world of photography, from the big shows, the expensive books, the great libraries; all that is still far away — although comparatively closer — and I’m happy that I still get to see a lot of that work, the work that would otherwise have been unavailable to me on account of geography and economy. But the jpeg is no match for the print.
Books over pictures on a wall. I like prints, but I’ve learned that I prefer them to be inside books. A book moves at your own pace, while a gallery show does not. A book is a much more intimate experience, and I’m convinced that it is, by and large, a superior one, although I still like to see pictures on a wall. To me, the ideal would be to sweep into an exhibition, have a quick look, then take the book version home and spend hours with it.
This is not a universal, of course. These are just heuristics. Some photographs work best in large prints on walls, some work best in books; some may even — gasp! — work best in tiny jpegs on blogs. But generally, I much prefer a book to a wall.
The most important photographic equipment you can own is a car. Not a tripod, not a camera, not lighting equipment or films or scanners or printers. This, obviously, is also a general but not universal truth. But for every time I’ve thought “dammit, I could have gotten that picture if I had a different camera/film/lens/scanner/printer/tripod/flash”, there have been five times when I could’ve gotten the picture if I could go where my feet and public transportation can’t take me. Things might be different if you never shoot beyond where you’re comfortable walking (or live in a place with great public transportation) — many great photographers have done so with great success — but for me personally, and for many others, I guess, the most interesting things are further away than that.
In the same vein, the most important photographic skillset you can have is social skills. Not knowing your shutter from your aperture, knowing how to create complex lighting setups, knowing how to print well or being great at Photoshop or knowing art theory or anything like that. Knowing how to talk to people, how to get places you need to go and have situations you need unfold before your camera, knowing how to get where you need when your challenges are interpersonal rather than technical or artistic — these are the things that I, with my limited experience, would recommend to other aspiring photographers. Even when there are no people in your pictures, even when you’re shooting a landscape devoid of humans — landscapes don’t talk back, they don’t have to sign model releases, they have no opinions about the way they’re presented — you may still need people skills. Think of Taryn Simon getting into all sorts of hidden, strange, or secret places for An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar. Even when you need no one’s permission to do what you want to do, you still need to somehow secure the financial means to allow you to spend your time photographing, and that usually involves people.
Helpful people, a printer, and a car. Those are the things I need, and I’ll make do with whatever else I have lying around.May 8, 2011