The Internet has raised the quality of my photography – and my anxiety about photography – to new levels.
Websites like Nikonians introduce me to exciting new ideas and techniques, but also show me images that raise the bar for what I consider a good photograph. As a result, I’m almost never satisfied with my own images. I’m reminded of an old cartoon I saw in The New Yorker: a man stands on a chair grimly examining a painting, as his wife explains to their hostess, “He knows all about art, but he doesn’t know what he likes.”
Some people believe perpetual dissatisfaction is a necessary condition for continuous improvement. Maybe, but there’s a fine line between self-critical and self-defeating assessments of one’s own photography, and that line is defined by personal goals. Must grabshots of my kids meet the same quality standards as panoramas in Patagonia? For that matter, must my “art” meet anyone’s standards but my own?
Soon after I became president of the Ojai Photography Club, we surveyed members and visitors, learning that people want the club to offer more camaraderie and education, less competition and self-congratulation. Some want to produce art, but many just want to take better pictures of their cats. On any given day, most members can fall into either camp.
At my first meeting as President of the club, we eschewed our usual guest judge presentation and critique for a different kind of exercise. I asked people to present a photograph that illustrated why they love photography. People who had never before brought an image for critique participated, and I consider broad participation the mark of a successful club. Perhaps more important to me personally, few of the photographs presented would have won prizes in our usual critique sessions.
They were wonderfully imperfect images. Highlights were blown, horizons were skewed, subjects were out of focus, compositions were staid, and exposures were all over the place. But they were interesting. And each one brought with it a story and a personal connection to the photographer.
Many of these images featured something we rarely see in club competition: human beings. I submitted the attached photo of my father, which I never would have brought for critique. I love this photo, but cannot show it to other photographers without mentioning that I wish it were sharper, better exposed, better composed, etc. etc. etc. My standards are at odds with my goals, and the conflict can make photography less enjoyable. The photo was taken as my father and I headed home from the dedication of the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC. We had spent a week in DC, but I saw sixty years of thoughts weighing on his brow, and knew I had just one click to capture them. I did my best.
There’s a stunning moment of poignancy in the otherwise hyper-silly film Bean (Polygram, 1997). Mistaken for an expert and forced to give a speech about the painting known as Whistler’s Mother, the reluctant, untrained Mr. Bean has an epiphany: the painting is a great work of art because it’s a painting of the artist’s mother, “Even though Mr. Whistler was obviously aware that his mother was a hideous old bat who looked like she’d had a cactus lodged up her backside, he stuck with her, and even took the time to paint this amazing picture of her. And I think that’s marvelous. It’s not just a painting. It’s a picture of a mad old cow who he thought the world of.”
I’m not drawing a parallel with my father, except that I do think the world of him. As such, any picture of my father means more to me than any work of art. My overall photographic ethos dictates that the light is more important than the subject, but sometimes I just want to document a moment for a keepsake, not as art.
Which brings me back to the line between self-defeating and self-critical analysis of our work. Many visitors to Internet photography sites wish to improve their art and even turn professional, so they seek guidance and/or support for that direction. But I suspect a lot of us just want to enjoy taking and making pictures for the sake of the doing and because of our relationship to the subject. We come here for education and camaraderie, not added pressures. I want to put a stake in the ground right now and say it’s okay to PLAY with photography, to shoot with reckless abandon and just have fun. It’s okay to be an amateur. In fact, it’s something to be proud of.
Author and professional storyteller Donald Davis describes himself as a “perpetual amateur storyteller.” When people think he’s joking, “we have a remedial Latin lesson.”
He explains that the word “amateur” comes from the word “amo” – to love. Says Davis, “Being a real amateur has nothing to do with pay or with ability or quality. Rather it has to do with something that we must do because of the pure love of it.”
“Professional,” on the other hand, comes from two roots: “Pro” means “in front of,” and “facia” means face. So a professional’s basic reason for doing something is so that we can do it “in someone’s face.” I can think of several photographers who illustrate the concept, but let’s not go there.
Of course, this also means that professionals in the modern sense – those who get paid – can also be amateurs. That’s the spirit we’re cultivating in the Ojai Photography Club – that we are perpetual amateurs who love the light, love the subjects, love the technology (usually), and love to create or capture something meaningful to ourselves.
In future Camera Club Confidential columns, we’ll discuss many of the same topics you’ll find elsewhere, from portrait techniques to off-camera flash to whether tripods should be considered a threat or a menace. But as that last item suggests, we’ll consider all of these topics from the point of view of fun-seeking amateurs who simply want to enjoy our personal experience of photography. If you’re in it for the fun, please join us.