"Real Artists", and Professionals

Posted: December 14, 2013 3:23:10 • 897 words

I've ranted about this elsewhere, but I'm a firm believer that every artist, of every medium, must develop their own style and techniques, in their own time. It's perfectly fine to have influences, but if your reason for a creative or technique choice ever includes "because so-and-so does it", you're Doing It Wrong. This is generally accepted as common sense in most artistic media, but in photography, there's an entire industry built around copying the successful pro of your choice. To put it bluntly: Screw that.

Part of the problem is that most people who pick up an SLR see themselves as potential pros. I did too, for a very brief period of time, and the thought still occasionally crosses my mind. Thus, if your photography is a business tool to you, it would make sense to follow the business model of someone doing it successfully, right? That's what every other start-up business does. Unfortunately, that logic is deeply flawed, because it forgets that photography is an art, and creative processes cannot be copied. You can certainly try, and there are some pros who've put out some excellent books and tutorials that are genuinely helpful. But doing so won't make you a better artist; in fact, it will actively prevent you from finding your style and developing your skills.

Compare it to visual artists: If you buy a series of books on drawing comic books, and buy all the right materials, and spend all your effort trying to make a comic book because that's what professional artists do, you may come up with something that looks like a comic book. You may even be excellent at it. But what if you're not? What if you suck at comic books? If you take this approach, it would be pretty easy (and justified) to say "Well, I'm just not an artist" and never touch it again. But maybe you're a brilliant artist, who's just not very good at comic books. Maybe you're a natural at landscape painting, but spent too much time convincing yourself "professional artists are comic book artists, therefore I must become a comic book artist" to try doing something else.

That scenario is laughable to anyone who is, or knows, visual artists, because there's no one way to draw. Everyone knows, and accepts, that pretty much every style is valid. But, hundreds of years ago, this wasn't the case; the only accepted style of painting was photorealism, and if you sucked at that, you were generally considered a failure as an artist. Photography has a similar (but thankfully not as stifling) culture today. Diversity of style is becoming less niche, but there's still an extremely strong perception that to be able to call yourself a photographer, you must be excellent at professional-style portraits. And, the internet is stuffed full of galleries owned by people who are desperately trying to be great at portraiture, but they just don't have a knack for it. Usually, these galleries contain one or two token shots of some other type (macro, landscape, street, architecture), which are often spectacular, the best shots in the whole gallery. But they neglect them, instead trying to force portraiture skills that may never come, or abandoning their craft entirely.

Similarly, I've heard photographers talk about what "real artists" do. As in, "a real artist waits for the light to be perfect", "a real artist only gets keepers", "a real artist only shows the top 1% of their work", and so forth. Pretty much any statement of what a "real artist" does is pretentious garbage, and few things irk me faster. Especially when used while out shooting. A real artist tries, without making excuses. A real artist does whatever they feel is right, because a real artist doesn't do things based on what they think an artist should do. If you, personally, feel you shouldn't try for a shot, or should/shouldn't do something, based on logic or personal experience, that's fine. But the claim that anyone calling themselves an artist or photographer must also follow that advice is, as I said before, pretentious garbage. A real artist doesn't listen to any statement containing "real artist", except for these: A real artist, first and foremost, creates, or tries to create. And, a real artist finds their own way, and their own style, without patterning themselves off someone else.

So, by all means, learn from those whose work you admire, but do so with the knowledge that, when it comes down to it, you are your own artist. You must be the one to experiment, try new things, see what works and what doesn't, and explore what makes you pick up a camera in the first place. And never, ever take someone else's advice as The One True Way of photography, there's no such thing. Aside from "point the lens at the thing you want to take a picture of", the only "right" way to be a photographer is what you decide works for you and makes sense, on your own, based on your own interests and passions. Lastly, if you hear someone use the phrase "real artist" attached to any advice other than encouraging creativity and exploration above all else, ignore whatever they just said. The only people who claim anything other than that is the mark of a "real artist" have no claim to that title themselves.