The discussion under the "Center vs. Fringe" post yesterday made me think that I should mention this again: technique, to me, is something mature photographers simply get past.
That is, you pick the technique you like best, that works best for you, that gives you what you need to see; and then you master it; then you're done with technique.
And that's when the real work begins.
It doesn't really matter what the technique is. Whether you want to make 7x17" platinum prints or hipstamatic iPhone JPEGs, black-and-white conversions from digicam files or color neg in a TLR, 5-foot-wide prints from a medium-format digital back or blurb books of your Canon CMOS sensor files...whatever turns you on, lights your fire, floats your boat, whatever fulfills or gratifies you—fine.
Most people pick their techniques because they love them. Whatever it is, something about it does something for them. It's how they want their work to look. It's what they want to look at.
And then, whatever technique they've chosen, all their pictures are made with that technique. So technique ceases to be an issue. They've gotten past it.
Consistency is memorable, variety is not
Sure, you can think of exceptions, photographers for whom this is not true. Some people engage sequentially with many techniques. Some people make "sea changes" at some point in their careers and change their technique from one to a different one (the advent of digital has forced/inspired such a change in a lot of people, including, for example, Charles Cramer, and Ctein). And it takes some people a while to "settle down"—their early technique is tentative, exploratory, and only later morphs into a stable final form. We tinker, God knows: new lens here, new RAW converter there. Some take detours (Ralph Gibson made a couple of books of color photography, that I know of—and who can forget Kertesz's funhouse mirror pictures?) only to return again to their main way of working.
Maybe it's just an old art-dawg* prejudice, but when I was coming up we thought that the people who had to master lots of techniques were pros, because pros have to provide what clients want—and that's why pro work is supremely competent but seldom memorable. (And when pro work is memorable, it's usually because the professional has dedicated a portion of his or her activity to working like an artist. For example, Avedon's 8x10 portraits.)
But a consistent or "signature" technique can be a strong component of public identity for an artist, and most of the great photographers just had the one technique they liked best, and with which they are most closely identified. All of Edward Curtis's mature pictures were done using the same technique. If I asked you to describe what a characteristic Helmut Newton photograph looks like from a technical standpoint, you could do it. All of Edward Weston's mature work looks similar technically. You can't miss a John Gossage and you can't mistake a Martin Paar for a Martin Schoeller, or a Bruce Barnbaum for a Mark Klett.
I don't want to make too much of this. It's just one way of thinking about technique and you, of course, are free to go down any path of your choosing. I'm speaking descriptively, not prescriptively. But I will say that when most amateurs assume they have to master all techniques to be a master of technique, they're imitating professionals, not art photographers. Art photographers are more often deep masters of the particular technique they've chosen, and they let the rest go.
To be a good photographer technically, you don't need to be a jack of every random ratty way of working with every kind of equipment under the sun. You don't need but one—one good one you like and that suits your taste and what you're doing. And from there, it's on to the real work of hunting down the pictures and saying what you want to say.
*I.e., art student.
P.S. If you're not familiar with the photographers, the book cover on the left is by Martin Schoeller.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Player: "I haven't plunged deep enough into photography to fully appreciate your wisdom on technique, but from my perspective it definitely applies to music, and I'm sure, since you brought it to our attention, photography too. The first five or six years I was trying to get a handle on my instrument, the six-string acoustic guitar, and I believed that I needed to learn and master all these different styles of music and technique, but it really isn't necessary unless you aspire to be a professional studio musician who can step into any situation and be competent, just like a professional photographer (as you mentioned).
"The first time I listened to Nick Drake I knew that I had found my niche, so I immediately went to work trying to become proficient at fingerstyle playing incorporating basslines, melodies, and chords basically played simultaneously, to become a self-contained one-man band. And what rings absolutely true for me is your assertion that once technique is in place that's when the hard work begins, so to speak. That's when the time to begin creating music begins, writing songs, creating albums. There's no more agonizing whether I should work on my scales so I can shred an electric guitar, or improving my proficiency playing with a pick. When the technique becomes second nature and completely embraced you put your effort into creating art (hopefully), expressing yourself musically, and not really searching out technique."
Featured [partial] Comment by Luc N.: "Having such a strong recognizable 'signature' may be a double-edged sword in the magazine world. It surely can make your work memorable, but it can also make it too memorable when it comes to style. Which means that a particular technique translated into a style/signature will have a shelf life that may be shortened by ADs and other art buyers when they get tired of recognizing from 15 feet away who shot the picture gracing the cover of a magazine."
Mike replies: That's true enough. Wasn't it Skunk Baxter (a studio guitarist who played on many Steely Dan albums among other things) who outlined the four stages of a studio musician's career? 1. "Who's Skunk Baxter?" 2. "Get me Skunk Baxter!" 3. "Get me a young Skunk Baxter!" 4. "Who's Skunk Baxter?"
But bear in mind when I say "consistency is memorable, variety is not" I'm only talking about technique. Photographers as disparate as Eugene Atget and Elliott Erwitt used the same technique for most of their working lives, but their work is diverse and creative.
By the way, apropos those names: This post got top ranking on Reddit's photo section this morning...
...And several commenters there accused me of "name dropping." False ack! Name dropping is when you inject names into discussions or conversations to brag about who you know. I don't know Elliott Erwitt (or Eugene Atget), or Martin Schoeller or anyone else I mentioned. I'm merely using those photographers as examples to help get my point across. That's not name dropping.
Although mentioning Reddit might be!
Featured Comment by Jonathan Castner: "Photographic technique is merely the ability to do something, be it produce perfect star trails, black line light a piece of glassware or photograph a seared scallop with almost no depth of field. Style is how an artist takes the various techniques that they have learned and puts them together into a distinct representation of their personal vision of the subject, project or their world.
"I think that a lot of people confuse technique with style. There are a lot of known photographers these days who are known for their use of technique as style. The much ballyhooed Dave Hill comes to mind with his hard-lit, undersaturated, highpass filtered composites. Mr. Hill does not do anything that resembles 'straight' photography where the image that comes from the camera is what he presents to the client. Much of what makes Dave Hill, uh, Dave Hill is what he does with the elements that comes from his camera—he is far more illustrator than photographer which is fine.
"Richard Avedon had loads of technique but didn't make his physical ability to manipulate his tools very obvious. What you had at the end of his life was a huge variety of work that still had his way of seeing be it fashion shot with a Hasselblad or highly composed portraits done on an 8x10. For a master like him technique was just a method of getting what he wanted and was never obviously present. What was obvious was the artist.
"As for Helmut Newton yes you can describe his black and white, hard light—often to the side, stark but romantic look but that doesn’t describe his style and way of producing the characteristic kinkyness of his work. His approach was not technique dependent as much of his work was done with ambient and even soft light but retained the vision of the man.
"I could tell the Jill Greenberg shot from the Martin Scheoller image easily as both of them are part of the new technique-based photography where they find not a technique but a singular look and the only thing that really changes is the face the lens is pointing at. Martin shoots most of his stuff on 8x10 or larger with two strip lights at 45 degrees to the front of the subject as key lights with minimal to no post production. Jill Greenberg shoots on digital medium format with hard edge lights and a beauty dish as a main and then does extensive post production. What they have in common is that all their shots look the same as their last shoot. They produce photos without almost any variety to how they look. It is as if this look that they have produced is all that they know how to do and my oh my am I bored of their work. As artist they show no personal growth. Heck even Joey L. realized that he can’t just be a younger Dave Hill clone and had to get away from all the illustrative stuff and bravo for him.
"But still this all reminds me of a song by Paul Simon, 'One Trick Pony':
He's a one trick pony
One trick is all that horse can do
He does one trick only
It's the principal source of his revenue...."
Featured Comment by Rob Atkins: "Reminds me of a comment made by the composer Philip Glass. He said when you are young, you spend so much time and effort to find your own voice, then once you acquire it, you work hard to free yourself from it. —With a sore lower back from shoveling snow in Vancouver, Canada."
Featured Comment by Jill Greenberg (the photographer featured in the second illustration —Ed.): "Yes, but meanwhile people think that look is all I do... ;). I have reinvented myself many a time and will do so again. What sux is when the generalists get much of the work and are often hired to do my look."
Mike replies: Jill, you'll laugh (or groan) at this: years ago, mainly for fun, I was doing "senior portraits" of my high school students, charging only $100 for a portrait just to cover my expenses. My style was very distinctive, owing in part to the wonderful light from huge, deep skylights in the art room. The kids liked my portraits and my services were much in demand.
One girl, the daughter of a famous and rich national celebrity, wanted me to do her portrait too, because I was doing portraits for all her friends, but her mother, who only bought the best of the best of everything, absolutely refused to have her daughter's senior portrait done by a guy who only charged $100! The mother insisted on hiring the most fashionable portrait photographer in Gerogetown at the time.
Before the girl's sitting, she came by my office asking to borrow a bunch of my portraits so she could ask her photographer to duplicate my style! I gave them to her. A week later, she brought in her finished portrait, which successfully mimicked the kind of work I did. The cost: $1200, or twelve times what I would have charged. (In the mid-'80s, that was at the high end of the local D.C. market for a portrait.) When I asked her if she liked it, she said, "I do. It's almost as good as one of yours!"