Friday, April 15, 2016

The Education Biz

Where on earth did this idea that everyone who owns a camera is somehow qualified to educate others, and indeed, ought to charge for this?

It seems like every dolt who gets "serious" about cameras pretty quickly launches a web site where they offer a complete suite of services. You can buy prints, canvas wraps, portfolio reviews, video tutorials, and you can probably join some sort of Online Education Thing or another. Maybe it's an email school, or a for-pay blog, or a fifteen dollar video about how to cut shit out out Photoshop, or workshops, or workshops, or workshops, or portfolio reviews.

The way education is supposed to work, the way it was worked for quite literally millennia, is that the people who do a task communicate with one another. They talk, they discuss things they have tried, they try other people's ideas out. Gradually, over years, decades, centuries, there is distilled out a set of best practices, and these are passed on by the experts from one generation to the next. Master to apprentice, professor to student, and so on. At any rate, that's how it works when it's working well. The set of best practices is organic. Everyone contributes, things change, new ideas enter, old ideas die away. At any given time, though, there is a good-sized corpus of these best practices. Education is the process by which someone who knows what the best practices are passes them on to someone who does not, yet.

The important distinction here is that what is taught is not a way to do a thing, but the best way to do a thing.

Those best ways are usually tied up in details. You do it this way instead of that way because if you slip at this point you don't ruin the piece. You do it this way because when a gust of wind comes along, it won't knock it down. You do it this way because even if you don't line it up perfectly it still won't leak, see where it overlaps? And so on. This is the stuff you can't really work out on your own. This is the stuff that three of you sharing youtube videos over a couple of years are not going to work out. You just don't experience, personally, enough of the things that can go wrong. You don't run across all the weird corner cases. That takes, as they say, a village.

This is the stuff that's worked out over decades, or longer, through many gusts of wind, slips of the hand, rain-showers.

I know the best way to do a lot of things, most of them having to do with mathematics. I don't know the best way to do much of anything with a camera. I know a way to do most anything with a camera. This suits me fine, I am comfortable with my clumsy methods. Photography isn't that hard, and my methods serve my needs adequately.

Guys like Eric Kim, Michael Reichmann, Ming Thein, Crash Taylor, Zack Arias, Fro, David Hobby, and the litany goes on and on, generally know a to do a lot of things. They probably know ways to do a lot of things that are better than my way. I may well be misrepresenting one or more of the names I have listed here, but I'm after then general thrust here not specifics:

The web is simply littered with self-taught photographers, who have learned some things by fiddling around with their gear, and a few other things by watching youtube videos made by other self-taught photographers, and they've generally practiced quite a bit. What they have, as a general rule, not done is hang about with the grey bearded old bastards, talking, sharing ideas, learning about and contributing to that alchemy that distills out the best way to do a lot of these things. They have not apprenticed, as such.

My little efforts at pedagogy are, I hope, almost never about how to do anything. I have no inside track there. I try merely to open minds to imagination and possibility. I do, by dint of a moderate amount of research and reading, rather fancy I have an inside track on how to imagine what you want to shoot. I do, by dint of a moderate amount of research and reading, and by slightly re-tasking a lot of knowledge from my father about how to perform certain classes of physical work (which he got from his father and from other people who Worked, and so on and so on) know a few things about the best way to build a couple of book structures, how to apply glue to paper, how to fit together the parts of a book.

Being self-taught works out OK. I take pictures that I like, and I perfectly satisfied with my methods and, to be honest, I've probably spent more time reading, talking to people, and generally "apprenticing" than many people who are offering up Educational Products. I am, despite this, woefully unqualified to teach anyone anything about methods and techniques.

The point, though, that self-taught people haven't anything particular to offer in terms of education. I could tell you a lot about how I solve my own problems which may or may not be useful to you, as you try to solve your own, different, problems. It's actual education, by people with access to the lineage of passed down and accumulated methods, that will help you to solve your own problems. Or, you can just work it out yourself.

Or, to put it differently, paying some know-nothing idiot (for example, me) to teach you how to shoot is stupid.

You might get some value, sure. Perhaps even value beyond the thrill of hanging around with some internet famous doofus. But it won't be as valuable as if you gave some money to someone who's got access to the accumulated history, the accumulated wisdom of the trade. Go find those guys. Sweep their floors for a month, carry their lights. Maybe even buy their videos. And then watch for the little side notes where they say 'And sandbag the light this way, not that way, so that when you stumble into it it doesn't fall over' or whatever the little bits turn out to be.


  1. Spot on!
    In the rush to make money, we have forgotten how to 'step off the path' and spend TIME learning the craft.
    My personal belief is that a developed eye is more important than the gear or the tricks in Photoshop.
    My wife is an artist with considerable skill, be it painting, drawing, sculpting; she has taken the time to learn from, and with, highly skilled artists in these fields.
    However, she has cultivated an eye, based on her learnings and practical experience, the use of which puts my technically perfect photos to shame!
    I don't want my photos to look like XYZ's, which is why I refuse to attend workshops; however, I have several photographer friends who share wisdom and knowledge and that's more important to me.
    As always, a thought provoking piece from you.

  2. Yep. I've been living in and around the German-language areas for a coupla decades now and oh boy, when you do an apprenticeship, you know something at the end of it - if you chose a good master to start with. I've seen it in winemaking, brewing and at second hand with photography.

  3. While you're on a roll here, I would like to read your thoughts about the quality / value of the photography education provided by many (most? all?) college art departments.

    1. I don't have a huge amount of exposure to this, to be honest. What little I've seen suggests that it's a wildly mixed bag.

      Some "photography" programs seem to be mainly Photoshop courses, others are trying to teach journalism, still others labor under the hand of some sort of Fine Art department.

      I have no firm evidence for this, but it feels like one of those disciplines where various departments war over who gets to own the program. Is it Fine Art? Is it Journalism? Is it Computing? Is it its own thing?

      Some programs, I will warrant, are excellent at what they do. Others, I suspect, are not.

  4. I think the situation is not as bad as you describe. What is happening is that people create a body of work, display it, and then basically say:

    "If you want to make images like mine I will teach you how."

    The photographers to not need to offer "the best way", just "a way".

    Potential customers are free to pick which photographer's style they want to emulate and do so by examining their works.

    Customers may even pay different photographers so they can learn different styles, even if the techniques they learn from each contradict each other.