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« urban ku # 119 ~ racing the sun | Main | urban ku # 117 - the image has a life of its own »

urban ku # 118 ~ scarey things

Ghosts, goblins and fresh vegetables and plants. • click to embiggen
I received an email a few days ago from Gordon McGregor, who, if I remember correctly, used to call himself a stranger in a strange land, because (again, if I remember correctly) he is a Scotsman living in Texas. That sounds like a sure recipe for culture shock if ever there was one.

In any event, his email was in response to my mention regarding the 'silent' visitors to The Landscapist from The Radiant Vista where it was noted during a forum discussion about Aaron's Cinemascapes, that he was my son and I am not a fan of The Radiant Vista. In his email, Gordon states that; "...I'm also a friend of Craig's, having taken a few workshops with him and also having spent a bit of time with him outside of that sort of environment. He's a talented photographer with a real passion for teaching. That passion and inspirational side of his character comes across strongly in person - I'm not entirely convinced that it comes over at all well in his daily critiques. I know his aim is to try and give back what he's been lucky enough to get on workshops, by doing this - that's the aim - perhaps it gets lost in the execution ... His podcasts do also ramble a bit and the metaphysical leanings can be hard to swallow on occasion, but past that, he is good friend to me, an inspiration to my photography and always seems to find the positive when helping his students, no matter at what level they are at ... In the Daily Critique sense of things, people are actively asking him 'how he would have done it' - they are trying to learn, looking for an opinion, or some direction ... Maybe that isn't a valid way to learn. Perhaps our own vision should appear perfectly formed. Certainly eventually we should learn to reject the suggestions of others and present work, finished, as it is, how we feel it should be. But for the people aspiring to be decorative photographers, or in a more mainstream sense, commercially viable photographers, the guidance of someone who makes his living shooting landscapes to promote environmental awareness or sensitivity, doesn't seem to be a terrible place to start."

First and foremost, I would like to thank Gordon for his earnest and sincere response. He was the only visitor from The Radiant Vista to break the silence and I applaud him for that as well.

Leaving aside my thoughts re: The Radiant Vista and Craig Tanner's sincerity (which I do not doubt), I would like to address Gordon's point about "people are actively asking him 'how he would have done it'", and how that "doesn't seem to be a terrible place to start."

IMO, I think 'that place' is, indeed, a terrible place to start. It has been my experience that most people who start out that way, end up that way - once a follower, aways a follower. To a practitioner in the medium of photography, there are 2 important realms - one quite tangible - technique - and the other, very intangible - the vision thing. Of the 2 realms, technique is of lesser importance and it can be taught quite successfully. The vision thing is far and away the more important thing and, while it can not be taught, it can be fostered and encouraged.

The vision thing is very personal and it must come from within. At its root, it is the result of being your own person, or, put another way, the result of fostering your own individuality. Now, to my way of thinking, fostering your own individuality can not be accomplished by following the crowd - even if the crowd is being lead by a sincere and passionate leader. No matter how you slice it, you still have a ring in your nose and we all know how hard it is to get those things out once they're in there.

Here's the absolute bottom line that most 'teachers' refuse to teach -

a.) Technique/technical-wise, the medium of photography is not rocket science. In fact, it is quite simple. It can be easily learned and 'mastered' by just about anyone - and if it takes you more than 6 months to do it even without a 'teacher', I would recommend pursuing another hobby or profession.

B.) Vision-wise (the 'scarey thing'), it simply can't be taught because, quite frankly, it has nothing to do with photography. Vision is 'simply' (yeh, sure, sure) an outward expression of the inner you. It is 'simply' the ever-evolving manifestation of what you believe and how you live and think. As the sportswriter Red Smith is said to have claimed, "writing (or in our case, photography) is 'easy'. All you do is sit down with a typewriter (or in our case, pick up a camera) and open a vein."

So, my question to you is - how do you 'teach' that?

Reader Comments (22)

I hate to disagree, but there have been times when you thought I could use some advice on "how you would have done it" when it comes to photos. I think of Sophie and Hugo in the snow cave, a first day of school snap shot, etc. You freely offered advice, without perhaps realizing that I was expressing my vision (that you should not be able to tell the kids are in a snowcave, unless you were there).

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterthe wife

hey, that don't count cuz it's just payback for you telling me how to drive. And, besides that, we're married and you're the wife ...

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered Commentergravitas et nugalis

Teaching the unteachable

First off, I agree. The technicals are easy. They might take a long time to master, or not but they are something that can be pretty easily discussed and taught. There are generally accepted 'right' answers (which can and should be broken in the pursuit of vision) but there's a commonly accepted framework. I might argue over the 6 month designation, if you want to get in to lighting and other areas, but in general, I agree and I think digital is making it easier too. I'm self taught. I started using a camera 5 years ago. The fact that I could make mistakes and see results 5 seconds later or an hour later, with a complete set metadata of all the camera settings meant I could learn and experiment much faster than if I was developing or paying someone to develop film. I would also know how I screwed up, rather than wondering what the shutter speed was, in that blurry slide. I could also shoot a lot more. Economic realities aside, digital feels cheaper. Deleting a shot or trying something new doesn't cost anything. You've paid for it all up front.

So the technical stuff is easy to teach and talk about. Witness the huge number of photography books that just talk about that and nothing else. It is easy to grasp, get your hands around and write about.

Then there's the middle ground. Composition. Design. Colour theory. Golden means and rules of thirds. Leading lines, curves, parsing pictures from top to bottom and left to right in some cultures. Short hand clues to things that have worked well in the past or were intuitively known by the artistic masters that went before.
All the aspects of visual language that most of us are instinctively aware off, but probably still need to learn to put it in to useful practice. Harder to teach, but still something you can get your arms around and describe. Don't learn them as rules, don't slavishly apply them, but an appreciation and understanding can help you say the things you want to say in a way that'll be understood. Jam someone tight up to the side of the frame if you want them to look uncomfortable. Stick something bang in the center of the frame if you want it to be static and the center of attention. These aren't 'rules' as such, but understanding the underpinnings of the shorthand, glib rules can be a useful means to express vision.

Vision - the hard stuff. I remember a Brooks Jensen podcast where he talks about people who learn photography, master all that darkroom stuff, view cameras etc, then stop. They learn the technical thing and think they are done. But really, that's where it can start. That is where it gets scary for many people. So I've learned how to use a camera. I know how to design a decent picture. I know how to say what I want to say.

What do I want to say ?

There's the metaphorical blank page staring back at you. Perhaps I don't have any vision. Perhaps I've got nothing interesting to say. Where to start ? I've been struggling with that ever since I picked up a camera. I read a lot. Have a stack of those aforementioned books that cover the technical aspects. I have a few good books on design theory. Freeman Patterson is one of the few authors that I know that starts to touch on some of the vision side of things. Craig Tanner is about the only photographic instructor who I've met that tries to lead people towards finding their vision. He isn't trying to teach a vision, but lay out a path that might let you find it. Call it being a guide I suppose.

The workshop I mentioned that I did recently was all about that. Not technique. Not critiques, but where to go to find that vision (inwards) and how to maybe move towards doing things that are more personally interesting. That's why I get frustrated at the daily critiques too. He is good at teaching this unteachable stuff, but it doesn't yet come across in his
daily critiques and podcasts. So few people even try to get at this when it comes to photography. The RadiantVista is one of the very few web sites that I've seen that even tries to approach talking about this sort of thing in photography and lead people towards it.

Many people aren't interested in expressing their own vision. They want to emulate or take pretty pictures. Nothing wrong with that. They want to go somewhere beautiful and capture
that experience. Just one valid approach to photography. Other people want to try to find something personal.

What's a little vexing is that there are so few people even attempting to do this sort of thing. You seem to be one of them and taking pot shots at one of the few other people trying to get to a similar place doesn't seem too productive.

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterGordon McGregor

You're probably right about the technical thing: although the mechanics of a camera are different from the effective application to achieve desired results.
On the "vision" stuff, I think the teacher comes into the equation in guiding the student as to whether a particular vision is being conveyed and in assisting in means by which the gap (between not convery and convey) can be closed. There are various ways to help there, technical and artistic, the study of other works or the development of exercises.
What I would hope for from any teacher (any field) is that when I state I have an objective in mind that I gain benefit from the teacher's greater knowledge and experience.
As an expert in my professional field (definitely not photography) this is certainly the approach I try to take in teaching others: guidance on methods they may apply to achieve their goals.

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMartin Doonan

Gordon wrote:

"Then there's the middle ground. Composition. Design. Colour theory. Golden means and rules of thirds. Leading lines, curves, parsing pictures from top to bottom and left to right in some cultures. Short hand clues to things that have worked well in the past or were intuitively known by the artistic masters that went before."

I think those middle ground elements are the worst of all to teach or instill as important. I have an opening for the media in NYC, some of the harshest critics in the land, in less than 3 weeks, so I am not yet capable of saying anything other than "in my humble opinion"...but I never knew what any of those middle ground elements were? rule of 3rds? leading lines? I question myself and others on how my work might be different if I used some of the middle ground knowledge in my images? I just took images. Whether there were leading lines, or my character was on the left, right or center was not even a thought going through my head.

Imagine this. 2 photography classes. One where there was no history lesson or prior examples of artists works shown or taught and the other class had full history of medium and it's artists through history up to present day. Which of these 2 classes will produce more original work? maybe not innovative, but I imagine you wouldn't see the obvious style of someone else's work reflective in the first class's results.

So, are art schools a small reason that we no longer have Michaelangelo's, Picasso's and Warhol's? After 4 years of schooling have the artist completely lost themselves and their own process of creative thinking?

just my 2¢

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered Commenteraaron

the one critic that has written something did say...

"Photographs as un-captioned movie stills are nothing new, but Hobson’s have a touchable personality that prevents them from feeling aloof"

perhaps that "touchable personality" is partially responsible from me not knowing the golden rules?

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered Commenteraaron

Gordon wrote:

"Then there's the middle ground. Composition. Design. Colour theory. Golden means and rules of thirds. Leading lines, curves, parsing pictures from top to bottom and left to right in some cultures. Short hand clues to things that have worked well in the past or were intuitively known by the artistic masters that went before."

They are just guidelines. The vision can use them, or not. That is the function of vision and inner being. My vision has been to shoot to hell the guidelines. Am I wrong in others people's eyes? Who cares. I express for myself, and could care less if the masses do not accept it.

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJim Jirka

As Mark has pointed out, "It ain't rocket science"

There hasn't been one time that I thought about composition during the image making process.

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJim Jirka

"They are just guidelines. The vision can use them, or not."

I agree with you Jim and applaude you, but don't you think they can still fuck (am I the first person to say fuck on this website? I feel so dirty.) with a young/old or aspiring artists mind? or even someone not aspiring to be an honest, but just wants to shoot beautiful pictures on their travels to Asia? even if in the very far back of their mind?

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered Commenteraaron

That is where the abundance of books written offer the way it should be done. I read John Shaw's book and said this is crap. I have looked at Eliot Porter's and said this is cool stuff, as is Friedlander. I have moved beyond the pretty picture. I have taken pretty pictures during vacation that have been quite a bit different than my normal way of seeing, almost on the verge of beautiful.

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJim Jirka

on 'the rules' (which I thought I quite clearly said, weren't rules - or even really guidelines - but anyway - everyone always jumps up with the 'I reject those kind of things' even if they get mentioned with the notion of rejecting them in the first place, got to love the internet)

I view most of that as a shared visual language. Much like learning English I suppose. Or another language. We could also not teach basics of sentence construction and then come up with wonderful unique personal languages, but would anyone understand them ?

Superficial nonsense like 'use the rule of thirds' or 'don't center a subject' is trite, useless and in no way an effective means to communicate. In a similar way, slavishly learning your ABCs and using purely grammatically correct sentences isn't going to bring you to poetry.

But I'm not sure that rejecting the entire notion of a meaning for words is the best way to express yourself verbally, though it did work for Lewis Caroll on occasion (Jabberwocky et al). Even then though, there are meaningful, understood sentences amongst the new figures of speech and forms of communicating ideas.

So a framework and common frame of reference doesn't seem like such a terrible thing to learn at first, even if you come to reject it later - which I'm all for too. I'm not convinced that reinventing wheels and ignoring the past is the best way forward.

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterGordon McGregor

It's also somewhat amusing that everyone continues to talk about the easy to talk about technique and design parts and still little discussion of vision (or how to have them). Mushrooms ? Painful introspection ? Following subconscious urges ?

It's pretty easy to talk about how you don't do things or what you reject. But what do you do ? How do you do it ?

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterGordon McGregor

One last random thought as I head off. I think it takes a particularly strong willed, sociopathic nature to plough your own furrow and break out in a new direction. It's probably required to do anything really interesting artistically. You have to really live that 'I don't care if nobody likes it' lifestyle for a while, before maybe, some people will like it. Probably after you are dead. Then someone else will get all the money.

I think many hobbist photographers aren't even interested in going down that path. Most are nervous, looking for approval or just worried that photography isn't even a valid art form at all. In fact many of them just like to collect cameras and argue about technical crap from what I've seen.

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterGordon McGregor


Well said. I am a hobbiest, not nervous, don't look for approval, but I do value my photography as an art form. I bought stock in Canon, so that most of them will make me money with the camera upgraders. To maybe answer your question on how I do it, look at my images on the Photo Gallery section in this forum. See where the guidelines are. As I stated, I do not construct my images with a thought as to guidelines. If they show up after development, I am bright enough to recognize that some of the compositional and design guidelines exist.

This is a step by step operating procedure for how I do it.

I walk in the forest with a piece of cardboard with a hole cut in it. I see something that is cool looking. I note with my other senses, moistness in the air, the smells, the stillness and the silence. I look through my cutout frame. If it still looks cool to me, I set up my Large Format camera and make an image. If not, I walk on until something stirs me again. I do not think you can teach vision only nurture it. It takes a great visionary to nurture it. Just to name drop, Mark Hobson comes to mind. He encouraged and nurtured my vision, and am grateful to him for it.

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJim Jirka

And if Mark would exchange out image number 12, with the one I sent him in March the vision would continue. ;>))

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJim Jirka

"So, my question to you is - how do you 'teach' that?"

I don't think you can teach that. I think it's something that comes to a person through doing. Sorta like falling in love. One day it's not there and the next day it is. And you know when it is, but it's sure as hell not something you can learn or knowledge that can be applicably transferred to someone else.

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSean McCormick

Who is the question directed at?
Me? I agree with you.

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJim Jirka

Never mind, I figured it out.

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJim Jirka

yes, well said Gordon.I still like my own silly language and don't want to learn...yet.

but in answer to this...

"It's pretty easy to talk about how you don't do things or what you reject. But what do you do ? How do you do it ?"

I think it is too personal or too complex to explain for most...I think you would have to peyote trip with me, but even then I wouldn't be making sense.

but if pushed too far an artist just might explode and do this in an interview (which I will always love this scene):

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered Commenteraaron
October 10, 2007 | Unregistered Commenteraaron

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