The great photographer Edward Weston famously wrote, “If I have any 'message' worth giving to a beginner it is that there are no short cuts in photography.” Regrettably, it is a piece of advice that is progressively falling out of fashion. Imagine telling a budding photographer that it may take a few years from the day they purchase their camera until their work is good enough to be exhibited or to be entered into contests! It seems absurd in this age of instant results and the Internet, yet this was, and largely still is, the case for artists working in other media. And, although exceptions do occur, it also holds true in most cases.
Technology allows us today to create photographs of spectacular beauty with very little training and relatively little effort. Purchase a camera, look up some ‘must see’ locations and a few ‘tips and tricks’ on your favorite search site, and within hours or days of learning how to use your equipment you can have images with aesthetic qualities that surpass much of what was possible for most of the history of photography. Such images may garner popular appeal, win contests, or even sell for publication and, if these are your only goals, photography offers some of the easiest and quickest means of getting there. But if my own experience, spanning nearly three decades, is any indication, there are far greater rewards to be had in photography – rewards requiring a great investment of time and effort.
This is not to say that there is no value to making easy and pleasing images as you grow your knowledge and expressive skills, but if one does not strive to grow beyond them, there is a risk of becoming ‘stuck’ making work that is aesthetically pleasing but that lacks creative value and yields little more than shallow accolades. This is a real danger since such an attitude may keep you from experiencing some of the most satisfying things that photography – and life – have to offer.
The key lies in creative expression. Creativity requires the production of novel work – work that has not been done or seen before. Self-expression requires that the work reflect something of the artist’s own unique mind and imagination, meaning that it would not even exist if a creative individual had not gone to the effort of making it. Both require a degree of maturity and knowledge that a beginner is not likely to possess. They also require that the photographer invest effort, experiment a lot, fail regularly, and continue to try until something useful emerges. It is this need to invest time and effort – and the availability of easy shortcuts – that may tempt some to set their bar too low.
Any investment of such effort and time would be questionable if it did not also come with the potential for great reward; and the rewards of creative work can truly be immense. As described by famed psychiatrist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “The reason creativity is so fascinating is that when we are involved in it, we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life.” And if that is not more rewarding, by a wide margin, than fleeting popularity or winning some award that will be forgotten the next day (or month, or year), then what is?
It is important not to fall into the trap of equating creativity with novelty. There is much more to creative work than simply producing something new and unique. In photography this is especially a concern as the high rate of technological advancement consistently allows the making of new kinds of images. With high ISO performance, we now have a plethora of Milky Way images; with HDR software, we now have an abundance of tone-mapped images; with the availability of inexpensive drones, we now have a surge of aerial footage; and so on. But these are not necessarily creative, because they rely more on equipment and technical skill than on expressing something of the photographer’s own mind. Technology can be a great enabler of creativity, but we should be careful not to let it become a substitute for creativity.
Unlike any accolade, sale or award, the joy of creative expression does not stop at any one accomplishment. Rather, it offers lifelong value as the photographer continues to mature, acquires new knowledge and understanding, and finds new means of expression. But it does require adopting the attitude of a creative, expressive mind, and the discipline to resist lesser accomplishments.
Read this and many more articles in High Definition inside Issue 57 of Landscape Photography Magazine.