There are two considerations in becoming an artist—one objective and the other subjective. Objectively, we learn our chosen medium. For a poet, it is the written form of the spoken language—generally one’s mother tongue. For a pianist, it is fingering, pedaling, time and notation. For a photographer it is light and colour, exposure, printing, presentation and all the details that each entails. However an intuitive understanding of the relationship between film/sensor speed, shutter speed and lens speed is just the beginning. While one may grow up speaking the local language, it does not make one a poet.
Larry Bolch: The art is created when the artist transcends the medium and makes statements that communicate with the recipient on a subjective level.
In photo competitions, it is not uncommon to see photos being evaluated on their objective, rather than their subjective merits. Many judges take the easy way out, judging the grammar and syntax rather than the impact of the message. So did a dry old English teacher I had the pain of enduring all too many years ago. She taught Shakespeare, not as some of the most powerful and moving plays in the English language, but material to be analyzed for language only.
The beauty and drama was entirely lost on most of the class. We all had to memorize a passage and were marked only on the accuracy of our memories for word and punctuation, not for the sensitivity and understanding of the character we were playing. In fact, it was fine just to simply write the speech—which made it easier to grade. We could get a perfect grade without an iota of understanding of who the character was, what the passage was expressing and how it fit into the flow of the drama.
This is not in any way to say that learning the nuts and bolts of photography is of little relevance. Only when the poet is transcendently fluent in the language, can great poetry be written. It is almost pure luck if someone still struggling with the basics of photography manages to pull off a good picture. A photographer, who is technically fluent and has the artistic talent, will consistently produce fine work every shoot. Occasionally brilliant, but the weakest work produced is above a reasonably high threshold that most would envy.
Furthermore, the technique will become more and more invisible as fluency increases. I had the privilege of studying stage lighting with one of the great masters. He once said that if someone comes up to you after the show and compliments you on the lighting, you have failed. Great lighting is so organic with the show that it should never be seen as something apart from the drama. Great photographic technique enhances the impact of the image content, but never competes with it.
When one is fluent with the language of photography, one is able to almost instinctively set the camera for the situation one is photographing. One does not think of a wide-angle lens as a tool to get more into the frame, but rather as a lens for subjectivity that lets one inside the personal space of the subject. Likewise a telephoto allows a much cooler and less involved feeling.
Shoot a distant person in a crowd with a long lens with a wide opening, with that person being the only sharp subject in the frame for a feeling of loneliness in a crowd. Compare that to the same person, shot the same size with a super wide, and the crowd and person are deeply entwined. Formal portraits are generally shot with lenses in the 85mm to 135mm range. It puts enough distance that formality is preserved. Environmental portraits are shot with very short lenses, presenting the subject in a very intimate, subjective way and vividly relating the person to their surroundings. It is through fluency that focal length takes on an expressive meaning unrelated to photographing cramped interiors or distant birds.
Becoming technically competent is only the prerequisite to becoming a photographer. It is not a goal in itself. It is also a pursuit that never ends. Just as a concert pianist practices hours for every minute spent in performance, so does a photographer spend hours of testing and practice for every minute spent on a shoot. It is simply the way, no matter the medium.
While photography seems to be immensely “technical” for many people, it is no more difficult to become a photographer than it is to become a performing musician, dancer or poet. All demand a reasonably substantial investment in learning the medium and constant practice to extend the knowledge and skill with the language in order to have the fluency to express the ever more profound.