We live in an age of phoney confrontations with reality. Television and online computer technologies let us feel like we're really living. And living really fast. It's bullshit of course. The real world is outside, far from our desks and computers. As the first decade of the 21st Century comes to an end, photographers and other artists need to confront what's real, capture it on film or digital sensors, and share it with the rest of humanity.
But too often, the simple act of using a camera to record a moment in time, a fleeting connection with a stranger, the way light falls on a group of trees, is complicated by a fetish over photographic technique. It's a sickness that festers in camera company marketing departments and at universities and photo schools all over the world.
Of course, you have to know how to use your camera. But in the end, there are really only three things you can control on any picture-taking machine you use: focus, shutter speed, and aperture. The rest is, or should be, about making art. As one photographer said, you have to know where to stand. As another said, f8 and be there. Andres Serrano said there's a difference between photographers and artists who happen to use cameras.
I feel as though I am anti-photography because I have no interest in the medium except as a means to an end. -- Serrano
Thinking, reading, and putting yourself where interesting things happen will make you a far better photographer than spending years studying technique, worrying about megapixels, or working some dead-end job to buy the latest, greatest digital cameras (which it turns out, don't make better pictures than film cameras).
I meet photographers every day who think that creating pictures is about camera operation (ufortunately, many of them are teachers, spreading this silly nonsense to young people who don't know any better). It's not and it never was about technique. It has always been about making pictures.
The greatest photographs in history are also the simplest. Photos that rely on high-dynamic Photoshop imaging, nocturnal streaks of light, or perfectly balanced color make nice eye candy, but they don't rock. They are quickly forgotten. Steve McCurry's Afghan Girl, meanwhile, is perhaps the most well-known photograph of the 20th Century, competing for that title along with Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother and that boring photograph of Che Guevara. Afghan Girl was shot with a manual focus Nikon on Kodachrome film using an 80mm lens. You can buy a D3. But you can never buy your way into shooting an Afghan Girl. You have to be there. You have to get down in the trenches and see, feel, and shoot.
Robert Capa's photographs of Allied troops landing at Normandy are among the most important war photographs ever taken, despite the fact that the film was brutally mishandled and nearly destroyed by a lab technician. Why? Because people look at pictures to see what's in them, not to find out what the photographer knows about circles of confusion or depth of field.
Using lead, straw and paint, legendary German artist Anselm Kiefer turned technically lackluster photographs of the countryside into powerful statements about history. Think like Anselm Kiefer, not like Ansel Adams.
Poet Allen Ginsberg's photographs are technically awful. But they are fascinating because of when and where they were taken, and what they show us. The lesson: technique is not an element of timeless photography.
I never think about technical stuff. I simplify everything so that the old Nikon FM2s I use practically operate like point-and-shoots. The world moves faster than the eye and much faster than the hand. I don't have time to think about numbers, distances and other geek issues when I'm working. I'm too busy thinking about what's in front of me, and what a photograph is going to say when it's finished. My advice: spend six months learning technique and then forget it. Study great art, not just photography. Go out and shoot something Meaningful, something Spiritual, something Mystical, something imperfectly focused and badly composed, but full of life. Make yourself a student of the world, not a student of photographic technique.
Live. Take pictures. Don't be a camera operator. Be a picture creator.