Photography, The Invisible Art Form
Something occurred to me recently while thinking about photography. You often hear photographers trot out the old trope of: "It's not about the camera, it's about the photographer", but in many ways that's not really the whole story either. Another way of looking at it is: "It's not about the photographer, it's about the image". Last week, there was a very powerful image in the media, showing once again the importance of photography. The disturbing yet moving photograph of the child's body washed ashore on the Turkish coastline shocked the world into action, and yet how many people know who the photographer was? Outside of the photographic community, I doubt anyone who is not into photography can name the photographer of that striking image.
This is the case with most famous photographs. Outside of other photographers, very few people of the general public can name, not only the photographers of many of the worlds famous images, but even any famous photographer at all. Apart from Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson the world's most famous and influential photographic artists are just not that well known by regular people. Their work may be well known, but the artist that created them, to most of the world, is invisible. By contrast, everyone knows the names of famous painters, and many people who aren't artists will know who painted certain famous paintings. Everyone knows who painted the Mona Lisa, yet who (from the general public) can name the photographer that took that famous picture of the Afghan girl from the cover of national geographic. Almost everyone knows the famous haystacks painting of Vincent Van Gogh, but who knows who the photographer who took the iconic image of the Soldier and Nurse in Time Square in 1945 is.
To the general population, the photographer is an invisible artist. Despite the protestations of some photographers that they "make the image, not take the image", to the average person, a photograph is something that was a moment in time that was captured by someone who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. To many, the image is the important thing, and the artistry that may have gone into capturing that image, is never really thought about. That's why, when some people look at your photography they somewhat infuriatingly proceed to say to you: "Great picture, You must have a really good camera." Of course, as photographers we know that's far from the case. Today's famous photographers are only really famous to other photographers. I love the work of Jay Maisel, Joe McNally and Vincent Laforet for example, but when I talk about them to people who aren't photographers, most have never heard of them. This isn't just photography either. The same is true of Cinematography. Everyone knows the names of famous directors, but few people, unless they're movie buffs, or work in the industry, know the names of famous cinematographers.
If it sounds like I'm bemoaning the anonymity of being a photographer, I'm not. I love the anonymity. To me, being an invisible documenter of life is part of the appeal. I love looking through the lens and being part of a scene, and yet somehow removed from it. Having spent years working in film and television as a visual effects artist, much of my work has been, by it's definition invisible (if you see it then I haven't done my job). Of course, wedding photographers, portrait photographers and so on have more direct interaction with their subjects and clients, but the end results still get seen by the average person, and the invisibility of the photographer to the viewer is often the same.
Thinking about all this has made me realise something else too. There's so much nonsense written about photography these days, and so much of it is needlessly negative. If you read certain blogs and photography websites, time and time again, you'll see the same headlines, telling you all the things that as a photographer, you shouldn't be doing, or all the mistakes you're making (instead of offering advice on what you should be doing). I've read so many articles that say, real photographers don't do this, or real photographers don't do that, often about things that little effect on the actual image. You've all heard them: "real photographers don't chimp", "real photographers only shoot in manual mode", "real photographer's only manually focus" or "real photographers don't pixel peep" to name but a few. This is all nonsense. A photographer who really cares about his or her art, doesn't come to a scene and then go through a check list of things in their head that they can't do lest the not be considered "real photographers". Here's a little secret, do you know what real photographers really do? Whatever it takes to get the image. That's all there is to it.
When an average person sees a photograph in a magazine, they don't think: "oh, that's a lovely image, but I sure hope the photographer didn't look at their camera's lcd screen after they took it". In most cases, the fact that the photograph was taken by a photographer, doesn't even enter into their minds. If you love photography, then you need to realise one very important thing: photography is not about the photographer, it's about the photograph. Don't listen to the people who tell you what not to do, because what you do is far more important. At the end of the day, no one cares how you took the image, the photograph is all all that matters, and thats all that people will remember.
As photographic artists, we may be invisible to the average person in the wider world, but that's ok. After all, invisibility is a pretty cool super power to have. Photographers and photography have the power to change the world. The worlds most iconic images have inspired and moved whole nations, and you know what, that's a pretty cool super power too. The secret identity is just the price we pay.