"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Adaptability // Creativity
June 24, 2014

Who Is A Photographer Anyway?

Narrow definitions of what it means to work in a creative field are increasingly unhelpful in the world we live in now.

This morning I was reading a fascinating review essay by Jörg M. Colberg of Mark Durden’s new book, Photography Today. In the essay, Colberg made some pretty bold claims, starting with,

“We’re all photographers now. Or are we? Certainly, it has its uses to paint with a brush wide enough to turn everybody who takes photographers under whatever circumstances into a photographer. It makes writing nicely populist, feel-good pieces easy, pieces that crop up on the internet like weeds.”

At the risk of sowing more “weeds,” I had issue with pretty much everything Colberg had to say. I certainly do agree that limiting one’s artistic education to just what’s available online (and maybe by extension, just what is available for free online) is dangerous. But, everything else in this essay felt unhelpful to me, as a photographer and as a creative soul.

Colberg writes, “Let’s assume that we are not all photographers.” Why? This is a huge rhetorical assumption. Especially if our goal is, as Colberg claims, to have a non-ideological conversation. And, starting a definition with a person’s “ambition,” with their aspirations, feels to me to be a very culturally-laden, dare I say it, very consumerist way of looking at art and creativity.

Who Is A Photographer

I believe a photographer is someone who creates photos. That’s it; nothing more. Anything else we add to the definition, any restrictions we load into the word will always say more about us than they say about the field of photography.

Besides, we have an ample array of adjectives – professional, hobbyist, fashion, sports, fine-art, mobile – with which to define photographers if we feel the need to do so. Though, again, our very need to narrow the definitions, restrict the debate and exclude people from the fold may well say far more about our motivations than they say about that photographers and photographs we want to discuss.

Definitions Matter Less Than Ever

Part of me feels like this whole debate belongs to a different era. Most of the people I know who do creative work don’t fit a straightforward singular career description and don’t really care to try and do so. We are, after all, the slash generation.

One of my favourite examples in this is Bryan Adams, whom many people know as a Rock singer/songwriter, famous for hits like ‘Summer of ’69 and ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It for You.’ But many don’t know Adams is also a highly successful, award-winning fashion photographer, perhaps best know for his campaign work with Guess Jeans.

Sometimes we hear people like Adams described a “renaissance types” because their ability to succeed in multiple fields reminds us of a simpler, pre-industrial age. But, what if our recent history is actually the exception, rather that the rule? What if the apex of the modern age into which we were born was really the aberration, forcing people to specialise to an alarming degree?

Well, if so, wouldn’t we need to make our definitions a little more open and flexible?  Wouldn’t we worry less about who is “in” and how is “out” and focus more on what the art has to say to us?

Ekta Saran 10 years ago

The last decade is proof that one can have AND be good at multiple careers in just one lifetime. However, the problem is as you’ve said, definitions still look to pigeon hole people.

Also, I feel that culturally, people want to have definitions because life is a ladder of pre-written check-lists. Because traditionally thats the path you take to be ‘successful’.

But wait, definition of successful is changing too 🙂

Great post!

Ray K 10 years ago

“As a matter of fact, all too often, debates about photography center on money or success – as if those two factors were what mattered the most.” Looks like he also hit the nail on the head with this statement.

I wonder if these kinds of reality checks somehow feel like an invalidation to those who dabble rather than focus. Real success takes focus but then in today’s paradigm we are all creative and all geniuses (measured by the commercial work we do) so you may be right, the new “renaissance types” are everyone with free time and disposable income to go on a workshop or two. Confusing craft with art is the first step to everyone being a creative and gaining fame plus fortune. I’ll look forward to the Adams show at MOMA.

Pretty rare I agree with Colberg but this is one time i find him hitting it pretty straight, at least as it pertains to the art of photography.

It isn’t about who is in or out; it is more about how to filter the chaff from the wheat. Since we are now all creatives who don’t need the weight of learning more than what we find online or from our favorite cheerleader/guru, this gets increasingly difficult for many. If we don’t filter then anything is ok and we can all go back to “exploring beauty” and call us all creatives because we made something whatever media we choose to use.

I take art and photography seriously enough to use definitions that have some weight, meaning and are rooted in the conversation that art has been throughout history. Education matters in those definitions, the kind of education that goes beyond the weekly post on “look at this master”. No I don’t think everyone who “takes” pictures is a photographer. They may make photographs but that is the act, not something more. If the act is the definition of being one, then my random banging on a piano makes me a musician because a few of the notes sound good together on occasions.

The book is on order for me since it just might provide a bit of insight not found in online or the popular masses opinion.

Fernando Gros 10 years ago

Ray – Can I ask – why do you comment on my blog and Twitter timeline, since clearly you seem to dislike everything I have to say?

I think Adam’s fashion images are decent, in a knowingly retro way. I grew up surrounded by fashion magazines and Italian cinema and I get where he is coming from and don’t really care if it fits anyone else’s definition of art. In fact, I believe making every conversation about photography into a conversation about art is deeply unhelpful. Then again, I come from a working class background, where free time and income were scarce, so I always see creative work as a trade and a craft first and foremost.

And, having read your thoughts here I stick by my claim there is something here that is not culturally universal. If you make something that sounds like music, you made music. Any first, fumbling harmonies may be a step to something greater and exist on a continuum with those. And, even if they do not, they are not made less than music by the lack of a final great destiny.

Finally, I take my craft and creative work seriously – as seriously as I took my work in the years when I was an academic and philosopher. The way I see it, in both fields, definitions, principles and commitment to learning are important.

Fernando Gros 10 years ago

Ekta – yes. I guess having lived in so many places has, for me at least, made me a little sensitive and maybe over-sensitive to each culture’s definitions of “success.”

Ray K 10 years ago

I asked my son who is in the final year of his PHD in philosophy about definitions in philosophy ideas and writing, his response was that precise definition is the core to any clear discussion in philosophy. I am pretty sure that sort of definition isn’t cultural at least in philosophy and would expect you to know that being a philosopher. If music and art is that loose on definition then it is meaningless as a definition of those disciplines. Then all we have is description.

If creative work is a trade or craft then it is also a different definition i have for creative. As to working class background i not only grew up in one but lived one to finance the art work over the last 40 yrs. Being working class hasn’t changed my definition of what art, creative or important is.

As to why i comment i expect a discussion and believed you had the potential to think and have a conversation on a different level than most bloggers. I guess the expectation online is to only comment with praise for the insights in a post. Only agreeing in comments doesn’t leave much room for discussion or education. Unless i am blocked i will promise to refrain from comments in the future unless i am able to write agreeable comments.

Disagreement isn’t the same thing as dislike. Potential also isn’t the same thing as deed.

Fernando Gros 10 years ago

Ray – you once said, in a comment on this blog that “If you live with the fear of being “found out” it is probably because you are pandering to the lowest common denominator and really aren’t an artist…” I personally know musicians who have performed on the most important stages in their fields (jazz, classical & rock) and have collaborated with real legends, who have had to work through this fear and have also talked to me about how commonplace it is.

This kind of comment is a huge slight on people I love, respect and look up to, people I feel honoured to know and have worked with. Moreover, it puts a frame around the comments I have read from you here and on Twitter. I understand your perspective and while I don’t agree with it, I would be, under normal circumstances, more willing to have an open conversation.

I feel here you are making comments that maybe don’t reflect me but reflect others you have issue with. I think it would be better for everyone, certainly for those who read this blog, if you came clean about who you mean when you say “most bloggers.”

Ray K 10 years ago

Sigh – it isn’t any single person or blog although that would be good way to invalidate my ranting I suppose. Spend a little time on G+ or reading blogs by people with a camera and it is not hard to find a lot of folks who consider craft the same thing as art. In my view there is a huge difference, and no, not everyone is an artist.

I hold strong opinions and am well aware of being a bit abrasive, I am not on any vendetta. I pay attention to you because I believe the crossover from music to visual art has huge potential to reveal new ways of seeing and photographing the world.

I have spent an entire adult life around folks who show work at the highest levels in the art world and they are too busy working to worry about being “found out”. Driven by a need or curiosity they may have doubt but it isn’t something that becomes a badge of honor, which seems to be a new thing.

It would be a lot easier and shorter to list those blogs and places that don’t pander to the mass fear of not being validated in some way. My apologies for taking up your time.

Rhian 10 years ago

As someone who does not have the gift of photography as yet but a long grown longing to want to learn the methods I have to say that whilst everyone can be a photographer, I wouldn’t say everyone is artistically inclined.
I see what I want to capture in my mind and eye but fail to capture it with my camera because for one I don’t use anything more than a typical family camera and secondly, I have not been taught how to use the tools that are on something like a DSLR camera. Once taught I think I could extend my capabilities with out picking up a degree to do so.

Fernando 10 years ago

Rhian – the kind of camera you start with is far less important than just starting. Thankfully there are so many resources now for learning how to take good photos.

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