The Slow Death of Photographic Artists, Part One: The Glowing Box of Control.

The LCD on my camera isn’t looking so pretty. I acquired the camera from a local photojournalist here in the mountains of Colorado. He didn’t think much of the issue, which got me thinking – why should anybody? Since when do we need instant review? What has happened in our world that we need to immediately assess what we did two seconds ago? Can I blame the NFL for this? And what the heck is up with all the menu options on cameras these days? Thinking about one of my previous cameras, do I really need nine (count ’em: NINE) pages of options to make a successful photograph?


I started this as an essay (okay fine, let’s call it a rant) about instant gratification. But as long as we’re calling things what they really are, let’s acknowledge that instant gratification is really control, or at least the perception of it. Several years ago, I shot a few wildland fires in the Rocky Mountains using only two film cameras and ISO 64 film. In the heat of the moment (no pun) I would just let my instincts take over and let my analytical mind idle. I had little idea which photos would be the most successful, and I’m thankful for that (to learn why, take one of my classes or stop by one of my lectures). I had no way of reviewing my images, no way of adjusting my white balance, no way of quickly changing my film sensitivity, no way of doing anything other than affecting my exposure through a finger ring on my lens and a thumb dial on my camera. Fingers and thumbs. Those are hands. Recent scientific research is showing what many photojournalists have known for decades – the hands know what to do before the analytical mind does. This is otherwise known as muscle memory. When a copious amount of control is put into software driven, multipage menus, the most essential controls to the art-making process are taken away from muscle memory. When this happens, art begins to die, eventually taking the artist with it. And yes, it really is that simple because art isn’t about more control. It’s about finding the courage to lose control. While you’re deciding whether you want ISO 204,800 or ISO 409,600 (really), adjusting your High Dynamic Range setting (seriously), or deciding which video frame rate to use (OMG), many potentially great photographic moments walked on by. Life walked on by. I paraphrase the great American philosopher Rogers – there will be time enough for counting when the dealing is done. So stop looking at that screen. If you don’t, the educator in me is going to have to figuratively slap your wrist. And it’s going to figuratively sting. Not literally. I’ll save that one for a different rant.

So how did all these menu options come to be anyway? The digital sensor, combined with LCD technology, made it possible. Essentially, the technology afforded it. However, that’s not to say that technology is to blame, because it’s really not. Ultimately, technology is a neutral player. At no point along the way did any camera manufacturer (save perhaps Leica) stop and ask the most important question which is, “Wait a minute, how does all this control benefit the art-making or story-telling process?” If they had, they would have realized that it doesn’t. And not only does it not benefit these processes, it actually interferes with them. But what if it could be marketed as “functionality?” Sure enough, the uninformed hordes of technology consumers were more than willing to buy into yet another glowing box (TV, computer, smartphone, tablet, etc.), imagining that it would somehow improve their lives. And maybe their photographs too. Sadly, it mostly did the opposite. Yes, I am typing this on a beautiful 27-inch, 5-freaking-K Apple iMac so your objection is duly noted.

Okay, wait. Does that mean that more control is always bad? I don’t believe so. But for the most impactful and enduring forms of photography, which I consider to be art and photojournalism, it almost always is. Some camera manufacturers are coming to the same realization and stripping their cameras of complex menu systems, and in some cases the entire rear LCD. The moral of the story is that more control can help us bend some tough rules a little, but we can never break them. This is why there is no substitute for experiential learning and proper technique.

So, what can be done to prevent the death of the photographic artist? I believe we should think more critically about our need for control in photography. Specifically, how much do we really need, and where do we need it? I think we could start with the glowing box. In my art courses, I teach that the LCD is for one thing and one thing only: first time setup. That’s right, pull it out of the box, set your preferences, and never turn it on again (except for use as a viewfinder, but only when necessary). Try it. And while you’re in there, turn off all those stupid beeping noises because yes, silence is golden. I know what you’re thinking: “But wait, I need my LCD to ___.” No you don’t. And you never did. All the control you need is right there on the outside of the camera. If it’s not, then it’s time to downgrade your camera and upgrade your photographic education and technique. You want physical, tactile controls that are designed for human hands. Not menus. Menus are for dinner. Speaking of…  |  Copyright © Jon Van de Grift


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