Monday, October 19, 2009

Education of a photographer

Luis Lei
I would like to reflect a little upon “Education of a photographer”. This book, as far as I have advanced in it, offered me quite a straight-forward and undistorted view of how photography evolved in the 20th century. Is photography art? I always considered it to be one, yet I could not translate this certainty into words. What is the difference that separates artistic photography from its ugly cousins? What are the parameters used to measure the realm to which an image belongs? Is it the visual aesthetic, the medium, the lighting effect? All those components matter, but it is more than all those things. It is the commitment to a set of values, a philosophy, a belief, or even some sort spiritualism. Having a Katana in ancient Japan would not make one a Samurai. In a similar fashion, having a camera does not instantly transform a person into a photographer. Lee Friedlander believed that the instantaneous act of photographing required similar mental qualities than that of a sportsman. Cartier-Bresson, along those lines, referred to it as trained instinct. Minor White, on the other hand, felt it as a “blank” state of mind, almost as a trance.

The key to the rise of photography as a form of art, as valid and valuable as painting or sculpture, lies within this great generation of photographers. They possessed a kind of intelligence that once infused into their work, can transform simple images into a statement of some sort. And most importantly, this intelligence found a matching partner on the other side of the curb; from curators to editors, collectors and the general public, there was a boiling exchange of intellectual ideas, directly linked to the refined visual sensibility of the era.

Though time changes, I am afraid it is not always for the better. After something reaches a peak, there is always invariably a depression. Last week I met a colleague who has just started his first photography class. When he mentioned he had interest in fashion, I felt curious about the root of such interest. I first thought about earlier iconic fashion photographers, such as Avedon, Steichen and Penn. His constant nodding and lack of response struck me as if he had barely heard those names before. When I lastly mentioned Leibovitz, his expression came to life and all of a sudden he became the one talking. Unavoidably, I asked him the reason why he liked her work, to which a simple “her pictures are nice” was all I could get from him.

We are, as I perceive it more and more intensely, in times in which the market’s demands bends the will of any photographer who seeks commercial success. Is there any major circulation magazine that still sponsors personal projects the same way grants are given? Or are the same magazines the ones who dictate the images to be created? Is there any student left who decided to become a photographer after falling in love with Ansel Adams’ landscapes? Photography as art seems to have been relegated to a small group of stubborn old-school folks who refuse to embrace new technologies and trends.

Who has the fault to such a dramatic change? Is it the arrival of digital technology, or maybe the magazine editors? In order for something to happen, there must be a perfectly concocted and orchestrated coincidence of factors. Does the decay of the education system play a part in all this? Recent studies show that this new generation will have less bachelor degree graduates than the previous one. Whatever the case may be, by the end of the day, blaming will lead to nowhere.
Obvious facts to some, the reason why I had to write all this is simply because my project proposals are going to be directly linked to it. This reasoning and understanding, regardless of its accuracy, truthfulness or objectivity, are essential in the sense that they provide me with a solid base. A project proposal implies a commitment, a choice of allegiances and sides. Only this way can one come up with something worth developing, pursuing, and eventually showing. It is true that I have read the masters’ essays, seen their pictures, and admired their influence. However, I cannot say that I have carved for myself a polished sculpture mirroring the kind of photographer I will be, nor the techniques I may develop. Being a photographer in the 21st century; what does it mean, imply, require? Is digital technology merely a utilitarian tool unworthy of our consideration? Does the fact that it has been widely used as such equal an irrevocable death sentence? Even thought today I am reluctant about it, I am confident it will not stay the same for long. After all, this is how the history of photography has been. New mediums need time to be improved technically, aged until its maturity.

As any young person, I have questions, uncertainties, doubts. The best and only way to answer them is by doing. I shall mimic, explore, experiment, mix, and hopefully shape my own vision, philosophy, beliefs of what photography represents for me.

• What makes a good portrait?
Cartier-Bresson once said that a successful portrait should achieve a true reflection of the person’s world. He further added that we should include the habitat, and avoid complicated equipment that may inhibit the essence of the subject. On the other hand, Penn felt that environmental portraits are simulated naturalisms, and was always more comfortable working in the stylized, yet contrived space of an indoor studio. To what degree is acceptable posing or directing a subject? Is a portrait weaker or less valid if it is posed? To what extent it is different from early painted portraits?

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