Wednesday, May 11, 2011

All things being equal...

Sometimes I just wish I could paint.  There is very little technology involved and the learning curve isn’t very steep.  Hand a paintbrush to an eight-year old and the kid will pretty much know how to use it.  Sit the same kid down behind a computer running Adobe Photoshop and he will be lost.  When the machines work (and if you know how to use them) they aid in art production, but when the machines don’t work (and all machines eventually fail) they get in the way of the art and can prevent its production.  I rely on technology because I cannot paint.

A massive clusterfuck of a computer upgrade got me to thinking about this.  The upgrade eventually became a ‘downgrade’ when, in utter frustration, I told The Computer Geek to take his shit outta my studio and give me my money back.  I’m up and running with my old system ---which will eventually be upgraded (off the shelf, no more ‘custom’ crap for me) and ya know, it works just fine and I can do all my work with it.  It’s like I’d traded an old, but perfectly usable, paintbrush for a new model that fell apart, after it was delivered late.

Another thing that got me thinking about equipment is a question from my most recent gallery lecture.  I get this question all the time, it’s tiresome, but since I’m always asked I must answer, “What kind of camera, computer, and software do I use?”

When I reel off the answer:  a 12 megapixel SLR which is considered an ‘amateur camera,’ an old PC running an operating system that’s no longer supported and a version of Adobe Photoshop six upgrades behind the current one, I get looks of astonishment.  It seems that most of the questioners at the gallery lectures have ‘better’ (as in higher-res cameras, faster and newer computers, and the current version of Photoshop) equipment than I do.  Yet they’re the ones asking questions about my images.  I’m sure this thought goes through some of their minds too: I’ve got better equipment than ‘the artist’ yet he’s having an exhibition and I’m not.  Why is this?

The simple answer is ideas.

Anyone who wishes to spend the money can buy the latest, greatest digital camera, a speedy computer and a new version of Adobe Photoshop.  Anyone with the money can do this, anyone.  Equipment doesn’t make one special; in fact equipment is the equalizer.  If, equipment-wise, all things are equal, the next important factor to consider is the use of that equipment.  It’s easy to take a technically-correct picture with a digital camera.  Because the digital camera is now little more than a processor with a lens, that mini-computer in your hand will focus itself and determine the correct aperture-shutter combination.  If you’re too lazy to set up a tripod the digital camera’s internal image-stabilization will ensure a sharp image for you.  You don’t need a degree in photography to take a good picture, you don’t need to know jackshit; digital cameras are ‘smarter’ than many of the ‘photographers’ that use them.  Of course a deep working knowledge of photography does make one a better photographer, it’s just not all that necessary anymore with ‘smart’ cameras.

The darkroom was once a place that separated the pros from the amateurs and required specialized knowledge, but the darkroom has now been supplanted by the computer and Adobe Photoshop.  The darkroom had been a very personalized space with all sorts of variables like enlargers, timers, print washers, chemistry choices, paper choices and on and on.  Adobe Photoshop is a software application and is the same for everybody.  So, if you know your application, Photoshop, that’s all the ‘darkroom’ you need to know.  Although Adobe Photoshop is an application, not all users have the same degree of knowledge of the application.  And all the ‘photo’ stuff in Photoshop came from the chemical darkroom, so if one has a working knowledge of the darkroom the better off one will be in the ‘digital darkroom.’  Most ‘digital-only’ modern photographers have no idea that Photoshop’s ‘curves’ relates directly to the variables of exposure and development that photographers figured out, in the chemical darkroom, over fifty years ago.  Now only a deep working knowledge of the application is necessary ---and it takes a long time to learn.

So, with equipment being ‘the equalizer’ the ability to use that equipment becomes a factor, but it’s only a factor in regards to ‘technical quality.’  The thing that no one can buy, or learn, is ideas.  Ideas are the thing that separates Great Art from pretty pictures.  No equipment or software gives one ideas.  Great equipment does not lead directly to great pictures.  And just because you’ve got the top-of-the-line equipment does not mean you’ve got something to say with it.  Those with good ideas, and the desire to bring them to fruition, will do so regardless of equipment.

The ‘equipment question’ is the easy discussion.  We can talk about this or that piece of equipment and its use, and since we live in a ‘consumer society,’ we’re taught that we’re supposed to desire the latest, greatest hi-tech gadget.  We’re also living in highly anti-intellectual times here in America so discussing ideas can be ‘elitist’ compared to discussing ‘products.’

The second most common question I get at lectures, after the equipment question, is about creativity.  The question is usually phrased something like, “Where do you get your ideas?”  Or, “How do you come up with this stuff?”  This is a much more difficult discussion to have because it’s a thinking question instead of a buying a product question.  I’ve found if I try too hard to answer the creativity question, the discourse rapidly dwindles to bullshit so I qualify my answer with something like, “This is what works for me, I’ll describe it for you, and I hope it’s helpful, but it may be different for you.”

I’ve written about my methodology elsewhere  so I won’t repeat it here, but it’s ideas that are precious ---expensive hardware only seems precious because it has an actual monetary value.  I think truly creative people will find a way to express themselves regardless of technology.  Technology allows us to express ourselves in different ways ---consider the camera in visual arts; the electric guitar, amplifier, synthesizer and multi-track recording in music; or electric power tools in sculpture.  None of these things changed the artists’ original ideas, but they did change the way those ideas come to be expressed.  Photography allows us to work incredibly realistically, more so than even the most accomplished photo-realist painter.  The electrification of music allowed performances to be heard by larger audiences and multi-track recording allowed the lone listener, who missed the concert, to hear the music the way the musicians intended.  Eventually technology does change the aesthetic, but only by adding greater potentialities and not by replacing anything.  An easy example I can think of to illustrate this point is the use of the electronic synthesizer keyboard in music.  Certainly the synth has broadened the ‘tonal palette’ a player has at his fingertips, but he’s still got to have basic piano chops in order to play a keyboard-synthesizer.  It’s the difference between Tony Banks and the guy who played keyboards for Flock of Seagulls with one finger.  I think there’s a lot of ‘one finger photographers’ taking pictures and then polishing them up with Photoshop trickery.  Not a lot of original ideas there, but what comes out is still pretty.

Ideas are the foundation of art; equipment, technology or tools are just that, tools.  The tools you use do determine how the art looks but the ideas are the seed which all art comes from.  For me, coming to digital from photography, was a natural, and somewhat forced transition.  I use the word forced because digital revolutionized photography; in essence, I was forced to ‘go digital’ because I could no longer find many ‘traditional photographic supplies’ anymore.  But I’d of ‘gone digital’ anyway because the digitalization of photography expanded my expressive palette.  With digital imaging I could express more complex ideas than I could under the constraints of traditional photography.  Digital imaging also allowed me to work faster, and slower than I had in the past.  Things sped up for me because I no longer had to buy certain props that now could be computer-generated.  With a powerful computer, scanner and printer in my studio I no longer had to rely on outside services, with their inherent delays.  I could create some art very speedily.  I could also slow down because I didn’t have to finish a piece all at once.  If there was something I couldn’t resolve at the moment, I could save the image for completion at a later time, something I could never do with film.

Early on, working digitally, I used the computer to express ideas similar to what I’d previously brought forth using photographic techniques.  The main difference was the speed of production and not having to spend time in the darkroom making masks and other components I’d need optically.  Digital imaging didn’t change the way I made photographs, and it didn’t change the ideas that popped into my head.  What digital did do for me, after I learned more and more about the application, was it allowed me to explore some of the more complex ideas I couldn’t express purely photographically. 

Ideas, concept, and meaning (to an extent) come from the artist, not the artists’ tools.  You can have all the coolest gadgets in the world but if you don’t have ideas, you’ve got nowhere to start.  Get the equipment you need and get to work expressing your ideas.  As much time as you spend learning how to use those tools, spend an equal amount of time thinking.  Read art history; learn about your forebears in whatever style you work.  Study the creative concepts of others and take what works for you and add your own voice.  Don’t hobble yourself thinking, if I only had this or that piece of equipment then I could…  Take your ideas and figure out how to express them with what you have.  Push the technology to the passenger seat and drive the car yourself! 

Dale O’Dell
May 4, 2011