Monday, November 9, 2009
On Saturday my friend and web designer Tom Seibert stopped by the studio. Like many of my “amateur” friends, Tom is a better photographer than he thinks. Together we looked at a number of his pictures and at a number of other people’s works that he admired.
I found myself profoundly jealous. Because Tom doesn’t know “the rules,” and doesn’t have to follow them to earn his living, he isn’t bound by them. He brings a perpetual sense of play to his photography, and both he and the work are the better for that.
By play, I mean he’s willing to try stuff just to see what happens, without a fixed outcome or “salable print” in mind. He’s just following his passion (as time permits), making things up as he goes along, and having a wonderful time doing it. His eye and his imagination are working together, and the result is often terrific.
You can visit Tom’s “lightandpixels” site to get a sense of the guy and his work.
What happens to many of us when we turn pro is that we lose that sense of discovery and play that Tom (and many other amateurs) bring to photography. That’s because we have to achieve predictably good results that will please the customer, time after time, and in as little time as possible. Time, after all, is money.
We learn that innovation is fine – in certain channels. We learn about the “PPA corner” and other approved ways of composing photos. We learn that cute kids and smiling moms outsell sad kids and pensive moms 50 to 1 – so we don’t even try it the other way.
Not all professional photographers fall into this trap. The commercial and product photographers in particular get to bring something extra to the job. And whatever the specialty, some photographers hang on to their artistic playfulness and willingness to just try something new.
I’m not suggesting in this little essay that photographers should willfully ignore technique, and just “chimp” away. That’s not what play is about. Play is “what happens if I try shooting this shot from ground level instead of standing up?” But if you want to grow as a photographer, you take notes (even if only mental notes) about what you did and the results you got.
I’m sure that somewhere in the distant past a caveman got curious about the shadows his hand was casting on the walls – he fooled around with it and invented shadow puppets. After that, perhaps he learned how to make a number of different animal shapes. And maybe traced some of them on the wall of the cave with charcoal, just to see how it worked out …. And art was born. Or maybe it was religion. Or maybe he just entertained the kids in the tribe with his nifty trick.
What matters is that play can lead to interesting, valuable, and repeatable results --- sometimes. Being willing to accept the goofs, mistakes, and ugly results is what makes this kind of exploratory play authentic – and fun.
“Amateur” doesn’t mean incompetent. It means someone who loves what they’re doing. The difference between amateur and professional has more to do with the expectations of earning a living than it does with quality. And if we professionals lose our ability to play, we are losing something more important than money. We’re losing a lot of our chances to grow and invent our art anew.