The Case for Education-At Least Self-Education

RedAndGreenNo2, originally uploaded by carolsLittleWorld.

Many times, and in many online forums, when you start to talk about photography, somebody will come along and say (or post) the old “I know what I like” defense. What they are saying (or trying to say) is that they don’t know why they like (or dislike) a certain image. They saw the image, they either liked or disliked it, but they can’t articulate why.

Many other times, in many of the same forums (spoken by the same people) you see a lot of people who are uneducated (or under-educated) about photography. They can’t name popular photographers, list schools of photography, even list the larger genres of photography. (They don’t understand what “fine art” photography is and why or how it’s different from “social documentary” photography, for example and they wouldn’t know an aesthetic if it jumped up and bit them in the….)

The two events (surprise!) are not really unrelated.

Educating yourself as an artist and photographer allows you to better articulate what you see when you look at a photo. You can talk about lines, colors, texture, tone, composition (formal rules of composition or not,) historic content, semantic meaning, style, genre, and a host of other things. For example, you can say, “I like that photo. It reminds me of a Walker Evans.” Alternatively, you can say, “I like that photo. The subject has stoic quality about it. It looks like the subject is rising above a given situation with a quiet reserve.” (Yada Yada.) By putting the photo in historic context though, by saying, “Hey, that looks like a modern day Walker Evans” you have given the image new meaning-or, at least, assigned a meaning and context in which that image can be viewed. It’s a kind of short-hand notation that’s awarded only to those who study-those who are in the “in crowd” as it were-those who look at, appreciate, and can process photographic images, not just those who run film through their cameras without having any sense of what they are doing. (Drop the context, lose the meaning, live in the moment is not really an admirable quality for a photographer who wants to make quality work over the span of a career.)

The old “I know what I like when I see it” is a nice way of starting to look at and evaluate images, but it falls short in many ways. If you don’t know (or can’t articulate) *why* you like an image, if you can’t tell us, in so many words, what it is you like about the image, looking at an image (and, in turn, discussing it with others) really does no good to anybody. You can’t recreate, you can’t capture, you can’t continue the discourse the original photographer had. You can’t build upon previous work. Like the old saying about “genius standing on the shoulders of giants” you can’t even climb up to the bottom rung-to reach the shoulders of the giants who have come before you. You’re stuck trying to fumble with words and don’t understand what it is you’re really seeing (and, in turn, what it is you’re doing with your camera.) Modern day equipment has made it easy for us to get pictures under many circumstances but getting pictures is not enough. You need quality, you need meaning, you need a sense of context. You need to move beyond the single shot-stop working the frame and work on the work.

Now, I’m not trying to say that you need a PhD in order to look at a photo, no, but, if you want to be a serious photographer, if you are serious about pursuing your craft, you owe it to yourself (and your work) to bone up a bit on the history, on the work that’s come before you. You need to educate yourself, on some level, about what it is you are doing. Sure, you can hide in that little bubble, and stay comfortable in that ignorance but, at some point over the course of your photographic development, your work is going to be evaluated by some outside “force” (be it a portfolio review, a gallery owner, a curator, a judge for a competition, or something) and I hate to break the news to you, but you’re going to fall face-first into that language, that context, that history. You’re going to be evaluated, not by “what looks good” or “what felt ‘right’ to you at the time,” not on that single frame of “goodness and light,” but by how your work looks in relation to the work of others. Your work will be evaluated not on it’s technical merit, not on your skills, mood or influence, no, rather it’s going to be judged based upon how well it fits into the great context of photography-both modern and historic image-making. It’s at that point that you’ll be faced with the language, the shorthand, the history, the context, the “greater” goal of the photographer and the role of the image in a greater tapestry of image-making (and society in general.)

Again, I hate to be the one to break the news to you but, at some point, you’re going to fall into that hole, so you might as well fall in with a map, a compass, and a feeling of preparedness. Go study a bit. Bone up on some of the photographers who came before you. Learn to talk about work, even if you start out selfish, and learn to talk about your own work. Say something! You’re going to have to at some point anyway, so you might as well start now.

There’s another old saying that comes to mind. “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” As a photographer, sure it’s convenient to bypass all that “boring” study but sometimes you need to ask yourself. Do you really want to re-write photographic history on account of your own ignorance? Before you answer that question, remember too that, at some point, somebody is going to come along and force your hand-evaluate your work in a more articulate historical-based context. Do you really want to be left out in the cold when that happens?

Until next time…



  1. Jim McQuaid
    November 23, 2009 / 3:07 pm

    Fine insight. Is it an American thing to believe that education somehow makes no difference and we are "all equal" especially with something so "obviously easy" as photography?

  2. mythopolis
    November 23, 2009 / 7:41 pm

    It's an interesting post, especially for those aspiring to find a cutting edge. The arts, as with the sciences, has frontiers. To get to that frontier is a lot of work. Frankly, I have never cared to work that hard. I read whatever I feel like reading, and do what I want to do. This is just my personal feeling, life is too short to be a professional at anything. I mostly dabble through life, and snack on culture. I would like to make art, but never be called an artist. Art is a verb.

  3. Carol
    November 23, 2009 / 11:01 pm

    @Jim_McQuaid, not sure about the American thing. I mean, there's a lot of the "camera club" mentality in America, that's certain. It's here way more than in Europe and Japan. But, I think too a lot of photographers (myself included!) start out dabbling and sort of "get serious" at some point in their development. Because we started out as "dabblers" it's very easy to skip over education and it becomes difficult to play "catch up." In a lot of ways, especially in the 'States, photography is a victim of it's own success.

    Maybe a larger part of the blame can be placed with budget cuts and the status quo of our education system. I mean, we've cut training and funding for the arts so much, so now we have generations of people who don't recognize photography as art (since they didn't do it in school) and who can't do basic skills, like draw. Since they did not receive training for these arts in primary school education, it then becomes difficult (maybe impossible?) for these under-educated students to take the study of art more seriously. How can you get an MFA in photography, for example, when they don't even teach such classes in primary and secondary school anymore?

    @Mythopolis, you indeed make art and I've always considered you an accomplished artist, though maybe one outside of the "norms" and not always in lock step with the gallery system. That makes me think though that there's something more "wrong" with the gallery system and less with you, since I've seen your talents as a writer, artist, sculptor, etc. Not to mention your son is also an artist, so, whatever you did to foster artistic development in your home and training (education of your son) actually worked. The proof is in the pudding, as they say. Maybe the art educators have suffered many budget cuts and can't get their act together but, here again, that just makes me think somebody like you should show them the ropes, since you've obviously been successful at it, outside of their "normal" (whatever that means!) system.

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