October 20, 2012

Richard Koci Hernandez on modern photography

A thought provoking video essay by the Emmy winning, Pulitzer Prize nominated, UC Berkeley professor, strongly counters the naysayers who lament photography's "demise" at the hands of the filter happy Instagrammers.

I believe anything that makes it easier for humans to make art is always a good thing.

but, as if to clarify this wide open point, he laters says:

If you put lipstick on a pig, it's still a pig.

So we have the problem defined. Social smartphone photography has exploded and is everywhere. And the ease of the technology it's wrapped in lures people into creative laziness. Creative laziness is the enemy of art. An aspiring photographer who desires to rise above this morass, must begin to ask fundamental questions. Why do I photograph? What is my intent? What is it I wish to communicate? How can I use the tools available to me to most strongly convey my message? The answers to these questions will help define the direction one should take in advancing their photographic skill.

Hernandez's philosophy is to "get there any way you can". He's arguing that "photographically, it's about how images make someone feel, not the camera the image was made with". One specific example to illuminate his point:

"In the end I care about destination. Is it cheating to take a plane to Los Angeles? Are you telling me that it would be more authentic to take a horse and buggy?"

And here we differ. Destination (the end photograph) is indeed important. But the journey the photographer takes and the process employed in arriving at the destination is, to me, fundamentally more important.

Compare the casual smartphone photographer who applies a "tintype" Instagram filter to a snapshot family photo versus the photographer who painstakingly works with actual tin and chemistry to create a true physical tintype, of which a digital representation is loaded up to Instagram. True, the casual viewer on Instagram may emotionally react equally to each photo. But, upon learning how each photograph was created, which creative experience is more authentic? Which photographer is richer for the experience? Which journey would you rather take? And what then is the viewer's interpretation of the photograph if given such contrasting context? Taking the horse and buggy could indeed make all the difference.

I believe what lies behind a photograph is as rich in communicative power as the photograph itself. Yes, by all means "get there". But mind the road you choose.


Art is affirmation.

N. Scott Momaday