Photography and Art

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Duality of Technical Proficiency and Creative Ability

What makes a great photographer? Is it technical proficiency -- the mastery of the camera and the printer? Or, is it creativity, that elusive quality that marks the true artist?

The scientist in me likes to think of these two qualities on a two dimensional axis with technical proficiency on the x-axis and artistic ability on the y-axis. This model can be applied nicely to photography, but can also be applied to other arts, like music for example.

This model is often used in marketing and marketers divide the diagram into four quadrants:

  • Quadrant 1: low technical ability, low creativity

  • Quadrant 2: low technical ability, high creativity

  • Quadrant 3: high technical ability, low creativity

  • Quadrant 4, the magic quadrant: high technical ability, high creativity

I thought it would be fun to explore the type of people who occupy the four quadrants.

In quadrant 1, we find the great unwashed. Let's call them the snappers. These are people who own point and shoot cameras, have not read the manual and have no idea what to do with their images once they've captured them. The digital camera revolution has created millions and millions of people in this quadrant. Their skill level varies from people like one of my relatives who keeps all his photos in the camera and can only view them by scrolling through them using the screen in the camera, all the way to people who have mastered the ability to upload photos and print them. However, people in this quadrant have not mastered basic skills like the ability to control shutter speed and aperture or the ability to edit photos using a computer program. They are also average to below average in creativity, so the photos have that generic snapshot quality that you see on facebook and myspace where you see millions of photos of inebriated people leering at the camera. Nevertheless, these folks love their digital cameras (and their camera phones) and get a great deal of joy from taking snaps and sharing them.

Quadrant 2 is an interesting one. Let's call the people in this quadrant the artsies. Can a creative person with little or no creative ability produce good images? Of course they can. Think of musicians that have only mastered three guitar chords yet have produced wonderful pop tunes (Creedance Clearwater Revival) or, better yet, musicians who can't sing and can't play any instruments (Leonard Cohen). Creative people just have a knack of mastering just enough of the medium to get their message through. A friend of mine takes pictures with toy cameras, complete with light leaks and fuzzy lenses. The results are beautiful. He has a terrific imagination and a wonderful vision of what he likes to portray. His photos of found art, such as the patterns on stained mattresses, are unique, individual and would qualify as fine art by any definition.

Quadrant 3 is where I sit, along with many of my friends and colleagues. Let's call ourselves the geeks. We love everything there is about the technical side of photography: the cameras, the printers, the paper, the lighting etc. etc. We pore over websites hunting for the latest bit of news from Canon, Nikon and Leica. We hang out in camera stores, panting over lenses we can't afford. We envy the pros, not because they produce wonderful work, but because they get neat stuff like giant white lenses provided for them. When we see images hung in galleries, we critique them for their technical failures. We see blown highlights or poor prints. We see noise in the picture or lens distortion. We read about software and buy every Photoshop plug-in that comes out. Our hard drives are littered with demos of new software products as well as old raw converters that we don't use any more. We may even be professional photographers, working on the fringes, taking photos of weddings or cows or children. Our work is well-executed, but predictable. People admire our photos because they are always in focus, always printed on beautiful paper, always composed nicely. They may buy our photos because they immitate iconic images (canoes on rocky lakeshores, muskoka chairs in the sunset) and we charge market value for our prints. But, we don't get galleries knocking on our doors.

Quadrant 4: Let's call people in this quadrant the elite. The older ones (and the dead ones) are household names: Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, Amy Arbus, Richard Avedon etc. There are also plenty of artists in their prime who exhibit several times of the year and are selling their works to private collectors and museums. People like Ed Burtynsky, Alec Soth, Bill Atkinson, Alain Briot etc. These folks know the technical side inside and out. But, they are obsessed with creativity and are passionate about their art to the extreme. I've watched interviews with these people and they would much rather talk about their vision, their projects and their philosophy of the world than they would talk about their camera equipment, yet they are perfectionists about their craft as well. I watched a documentary about Ed Burtynsky in China and he is completely anal about light and finding the right vantage point for his photos. He also runs a lab/printing shop called Toronto Imageworks and is an expert on printmaking. For another example, look no further than Alain Briot who sells DVD's that follow his workflow and document the many, many layers that he uses in Photoshop to build his lovely landscapes.

Perhaps the most interesting question of all to me (and I would guess to most aspiring photographers) is this: is it easier to become an elite photographer if you are creative first and then acquire technical skill or vice versa? Is it even possible to become creative if you are the kind of person who is drawn to the technical side of photography? Can creativity be learned?

I certainly hope so with all my heart. There is a body of thought that says that creativity can be learned and the Internet abounds with great advice. Here are a couple of my favourite articles:

Ken Rockwell: How to Make Great Photos

Michael Reichmann: Learning to See

George Barr: Taking Your Photography to the Next Level

I've been at this hobby of mine in a serious way for about 3 years and I must say that my creative side is improving. I've taken a lot of good advice and now work on a series of projects so that my art has purpose. I have created an artist's statement and have thought long and hard about what I'm trying to say in my work. If I take a lot of pictures, I'll occasionaly find one that says something special. And, my art-loving relatives have started to ask for specific prints for their living rooms.

I'm not out of the woods yet. I still take lots of iconic stuff like sunrises and sunsets. I still love equipment and pixel peeping. I'm not sure I can discern a particular style emerging, although the choice of subject matter, composition and vantage point is starting to become more consistent over time.

How about you? Are you a geek too? Do you prefer downloading a new piece of software to getting up at dawn to catch the right light from the right vantage point? Do you have something to say to the world? Something different from everyone else? Do you have a philosophy, a vision, something that you long to communicate?


  1. Anyone can be a "good" photographer. The "great" photographers know how to market their work. It's all in the marketing.

    ps- i'm not there yet either.

  2. First of all, thank you for taking the time to write that blog and post it.
    What I like about what you say is the fact that it's a work in progress. Anything, the technical part of it, discovering what you want to say, all that is a question of taking daily steps.
    So, it's hard to know if you are original, different, if you have something to say. I see it more as to what extent do you let photography, and your other interactions to the world outside of your head or in your head, change you. That change, for me, is what you bring. I love Wynn Bullock for that reason.