Fables of Deconstruction

DowntownBuilding_0024, originally uploaded by carolsLittleWorld.

As a photographer, I get asked a lot of times, “what is your background?” Many people assume I have a background in art, and I do, to some degree. I started doing ceramics (painting them and firing them with glazes) as a child, but my “real” background is somewhat surprising. I went to engineering school. Yes, it’s true. I was an engineer (a working engineer) long before I became a photographer.

An interesting thing about engineering and art-they maybe aren’t as “unrelated” as you might think them to be. At least, I have always thought of good (proper) engineering and art to be somewhat like two sides to the same coin. They have more in common than one might think.

Now, it’s true that some of the worst photographers I know happen to be computer programmers and engineering types. If you look over the course of the history of photography, it can be said too that there are very few engineer types who really make it as photographers. This might lend one to believe that engineers are horrible photographers and, heck, I’d be the first to admit, often they are. At least, they can be. Of course, I know some great photographers who are also technical-being technical does not preclude one from being a great artist, in fact just the opposite can hold true-some of the best artists I know are somewhat technical, almost “left brained” in nature at times. (It’s certainly true that some of the most successful artists have a bit of “left brain” in them-at least enough of a “left brain” like quality to be able to organize and promote their work. As we all know, a lot of the behind the scenes of the art world is actually business sense and know-how and there are some very pointed “left brain” type of activities that go into that.)

So, how does one translate the left brain of the engineering world into the right brain of the photography (or art) world? (Photographers are artists too.)

There are two big factors at play here. One is what I like to call “ego” (actually, you probably call it that too) and the other is something I call “fables of the deconstruction.” Allow me to explain.

Many programmers, engineers, and even business moguls, are the type of people with over-inflated egos. They tend to think of themselves as “the smartest people in the room.” That’s all well and good, I suppose, I mean, it’s great to view one’s self with such high regard, but it leaves the door open (and I do mean wide open here) for making crappy art. For starters, if somebody thinks so highly of themselves, if they honestly believe they are some kind of “gift to God’s green earth” then they feel they cannot make mistakes. Often, what we do in the art world is make mistakes. We make big messes, we clean them up, and then we make even bigger messes. To put it another way: it’s humbling to be an artist. There’s always somebody better than you. It’s a tough field, everybody wants to be a creative and, time to face facts, you aren’t all that talented. (Well, most people aren’t.) Sure, you might have *some* talent, you might be able to take an “OK” picture but, believe me when I say this, there are a lot of people who can do that too. Equally well as you can do it. And they are more driven than you are (or you might be) to be a success, simply because they aren’t so in love with themselves that they are above working at it. Yes, it’s true. You’re ego is actually working against yourself here. I’ve seen it happen, many times too, where somebody just assumes they can take a great picture, simply because, well photography is “easy” heck we all know that, right? Everybody can take a great picture, right? Sure, it seems easy, and it can be easy, for the most part. That is until you actually try it yourself. The very nature of it being so “easy” is what makes it so hard. It’s harder to really excel in part because so much is stripped away.

Another thing that comes into play is that a lot of the “prima donna” programmer and engineering types lack something very important in the arts: heart. They have mad skills in some areas, yes, they understand XML files and can explain “circles of confusion” as easily as a duck can demonstrate how to “quack,” sure they can. But no heart? Did you ever see a lifeless image? One that lacks heart? Oh, that’s not a pretty picture, let me tell you. At the end of the day, it’s much better to take pictures that aren’t so “technically precise” but have heart than it is to get each and every last “circle of confusion” in the right place but craft something nobody wants to look at again. Trust me on this one. (If you are an engineer, a programmer, heck even an accountant, and you’re thinking about taking up photography, stop and ask yourself this one question: How can I put my heart into it? If you cannot answer that question, stop! Put your camera down and go back to your day job. I’m sorry to be so cruel here but tough love is sometimes necessary.)

OK, so assuming you’ve taken your ego and checked it at the door (it’s possible, as not all programmers have their heads up their, ahem, anatomy as it were) let’s move on to item number two on my great big list of common ground: Fables of deconstruction. What exactly does that mean? What is it and why do I need to know about it? What is this silly “fables of deconstruction” of which you speak?

Engineers and artists have one thing in common, one big thing, and that’s the fact that they both like to take things apart.

Engineers like to take things apart, put them back together again, observe how they work, break them into systems, and subsystems, and look at things from different viewpoints. They analyze data points and try to reconstruct things. They use models and blueprints so they can visually represent things in different stages or states of construction (or even, “deconstruction” as it were.) Very rarely does an engineer go over a bridge, go through a tunnel, drive an exotic car, etc. without looking at how it was made, without looking under the hood. Heck, sometimes, they’ll ever crawl around on the ground to see how things were made, to make connections, to examine, to poke, to mentally “take apart” and put back together again. They’re almost always doing it and they sometimes take apart things you didn’t want them to touch. (Back! Away from my shiny new large screen LCD TV set your pesky programmer, you.)

That’s great. OK, that’s what engineers do. But what about artists?

Well, artists like to take things apart, they like to put things back together again, they like to observe how things work, what makes people tick, they like to break things into systems and subsystems and re-craft them in their own special way. They look at things from different viewpoints. They use models and sketches so they can visually represent things in different stages or states of construction (or even, “deconstruction” as it were.) Does it sound like I’m repeating myself here? I bet it does!

And that repetition? Why, that’s the very thing I like to call “fables of deconstruction.”

Take things apart, look at them, really look at things. See things not (only) how they want to be seen but how they are seen in different light, in different surroundings. Look at things over, under, beyond, up close, from far away. Dissect things. Be observant. All of these traits make for great engineers and great artists and, in fact, I’d go so far as to say this is, in part, what’s wrong with modern day engineering school and why people like Leonardo da Vinci were such great engineers AND artists. Once our education strays too far from this sort of “deconstruction,” once our engineering schools start teaching kids to rattle off Java class names but not to bother taking things apart, that’s when engineering education really starts to fall apart. (The same can be said for art school, by the way. Run, and I do mean run very far away, from any art curriculum that discourages taking things apart or deconstructing artwork in some format in order to teach new skills.)

So, if you’re an engineer, computer programmer, architect, accountant, or otherwise a “left-brained” type who wants to try your hand in the arts, I have some advice for you. For starters, check your ego at the door. Artists are some of the smartest most hard-working people I know and many have talents you can’t even begin to comprehend. Don’t think you’re overly special, just work hard and learn as much as you can. Never stop learning. And, secondly, never, and by never I really do mean “never, never, never, never, never” forget your fascination with taking things apart and putting them back together again. Your ability to deconstruct things is what will help you make the transition from “left-brained” pencil pusher to “right-brained” artist type sooner than you think.

I’m sure there will be many who disagree with me about these points and I know I’ve probably offended some of you out there, but I’m also certain that, if you take what I’ve said here to heart, it will do nothing but help in the long run, no matter how painful it might be to hear upon first read. As always, I welcome your comments on this subject, please feel free to drop me an email if you are so-inclined.

Until next time…

1 Comment

  1. Great Grandma Lin
    May 31, 2012 / 12:15 pm

    interesting…I started college as an engineering major and graduated as a dance major…my husband is an engineer who reads all of the manuals…lol! I enjoy reading your blog please take off your robot id process. 295 roadditl it's driving your one constant viewer batty!

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