I’ve always been a been a bit puzzled by photographers either complaining about the fact that “we’re all photographers now” or pointing out that photography just isn’t the same any longer, with some sort of conclusion following that. Take, for example, Alec Soth’s daughter taking photos for him. It’s not in that article, but I seem to remember hearing (or maybe reading) Alec saying that part of the reason why this was interesting for him is because everybody is a photographer now so it’s incredibly hard for people like him to deal with that. Keep in mind, I’m quoting - actually paraphrasing - this from fuzzy memory, so the details might be different, but you get the idea.
I’ve never understood that particular point. What exactly is it that makes the work of a professional photographer so much harder given that everybody else also takes photographs?
Before you tell me your answer, let me ask another question: Why do we never hear this kind of complaint from writers? After all, we are also all writers now, the only difference being that the changes in education that made this possible date back a bit further.
But you never get to hear writers complaining about how hard it is to write a novel or a non-fiction book given that everybody else can write. Isn’t that curious?
In other words, why or how is the creative act of writing different from the creative act of photographing?
And I’m talking purely about the creative act here, not about whatever it takes to produce a single photograph (so please no comments about the “machine” etc. or that the camera takes the photo for you, because that’s totally missing the point [just as an aside, can we call a ten-year moratorium on quoting Walter Benjamin, so people can come up with something original instead of reaching in that old chest filed with intellectual mothballs?]).
I have some idea why there actually is no difference whatsoever. I have no illusions about being a particularly good writer. But I do know that I’ve been writing shorter and longer essays for years now, and I’ve noted how the process of writing, the process of creating written text has changed massively for me. As I wrote some time ago, words are increasingly being written in subconscious ways, so that the resulting text differs massively from whatever I could have written concentrating on it. It’s difficult to explain. It’s fascinating, and, to be honest, it’s rewarding in ways that I also can hardly describe.
Whatever that is, it doesn’t seem to be so different from what photographers have tried to explain to me when they talk about creating work. In essence, it’s that which you try to teach photography students, without ever being able to teach it directly.
You don’t have to go to art school to acquire whatever you want to call that skill (it’s more like an ability actually). But you don’t acquire the skill along with the digital point-and-shoot camera or 5D. You simply don’t. And even that one lucky great photo you take doesn’t mean you have that skill.
You can talk about a “democracy” of images as much as you want, but you will never get past the simple fact that some photographs or some bodies of work will move many people very deeply, whereas the vast majority of photographs never will.
We’re all photographers now, just like we always all were writers. Which doesn’t make us all Alec Soths or Philip Roths.
And you know what? I like it that way. I like, no: love the fact that every once in a while, there will be a new book out by someone, which will blow my mind because of its images or words - in part because I could not have produced that book.