This post is by Ron Dawson from The Online Photographer
Photography resembles something Carl Jung supposed said about psychology: everyone thinks they understand psychology because they understand their own.
I love to learn, and, to borrow Thomas Jefferson’s famous bon mot about reading, for a long time I had a canine appetite for learning everything I could about the science, history, and culture of photography.
I’m not saying I know, or knew, everything. Far from it. Kodak scientists—I knew the developers of the T-Max films, of which I was an early beta-tester—could tell you I know very little about emulsion science. Professional critics would easily detect that I didn’t have a truly deep grounding in the fundamentals of art criticism. Master photojournalists would say I wasn’t that talented or experienced a shooter. Optical physicists would immediately have reservations about my understanding of lens design. Historians recognize pretty quickly that I’m a dilettante in their field. I’ve only shot two weddings, ever. I took a job in a frame shop to learn how to frame my own photographs. Camera repairpeople knew there were some limitations to my knowledge of the innards of cameras. Museum curators could find fault in my education about conservation. My friend who was one of the world’s foremost experts in densitometry teased me because of my willingness to be subjective about tone and not rely sufficiently on sensitometric data (which he wanted me to gather myself. I did, but only once). I’m not that well read in the philosophy of aesthetics. Enthusiasts of alternative processes have been disappointed that I don’t know firsthand about their favorite process, whether it be cyanotype or tintype or gum bichromate. (Thinking of specific people there.) I don’t know everything there is to know about digital cameras, although I’m met the guy who invented them. I knew one guy who knew more than anyone about paper developers, and sometimes he had to explain things to me like I was a child. Specific friends know much more than I care to about the photography industry and all the companies, major and minor. (Hobbyists on the internet know all there is to know about that, with the caveat that a lot of what they know is wrong.) Any professional worth her salt knows more than I do about running a professional photography business. I can run a critique, though. I can align an enlarger. I can write a syllabus for a photography course. But I can’t get an inkjet printer to work. I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours at the Library of Congress and at a local D.C. gallery looking at original prints, and for a long time I would travel up to hundreds of miles to see shows at museums and galleries. I have an unusually good visual memory, and can usually tell if I’ve ever seen a specific picture before—although I figured out how to test that, and found my memory for specifics isn’t quite as good as I imagined it was. I taught students all the way from rising high school sophomores in the summer program at the Corcoran to grandmothers in the continuing education program at a Virginia community college, but I’m not a career teacher—I was all set to be hired for a teaching position at a college in Ithaca, New York, until they found out I didn’t have an MFA. That was the end of that. Q.E.D.: my education is lacking. I don’t really know all that much about Apple Macs, even though the first Apple Mac I ever used was “The Apple Macintosh,” the very first Apple Mac. And I don’t know everything there is to know about Photoshop, even though I’ve been using it since version 2.5 (not CS2, version 2.5—CS2 was version 9) in 1994. Camera collectors think I don’t care enough about the ins and outs of what they’re up to, although I can talk their language. (One thing I could see that they couldn’t: each of them had a different sub-specialty that they each considered the most important sub-specialty. Or at least the most interesting.) Ditto photograph collectors, whether the collection is demotic or esoteric, small or large, public or private, valuable or not, famous or personal (thinking about specific people again here). I have only one item on my photographic “bucket list”: I would dearly love to see Elton John’s photography collection. Fat chance. And all this doesn’t mention the world of photo magazines.
And so on. I could go on. As we all know, I do go on. 🙂
But the proof of my ignorance I remember most fondly came from a parent when I taught photography at a prep school. The students provided their own cameras, and one girl showed up with an ancient 1960s Zenit from behind the Iron Curtain. I suggested she was probably going to have more trouble with it in the class than might be good for her. A few days later she appeared sporting a new Pentax K1000, as was suggested in the syllabus.
It wasn’t the last I was to see of the Zenit, however. (Or Zorki, or Kiev, or whatever it was.) On Parent Night, a man came up to me, and out came the ancient Soviet-era camera.
“My daughter tells me you don’t even know how to work a simple camera.”
“I think I do,” I answered. Taking the camera, I showed him how to operate it.
“And what’s this?” He asked, pointing to a particular button. I told him. “And this button, what does it do?” I took the camera, tried one thing and another, and couldn’t get anything to happen. “I don’t know,” I answered, handing it back to him. Maybe it was broken.
But he had me. His face brightened and grew stern at the same time. Taking the old camera back, he declaimed, in a loud and accusing voice, “And you call yourself a photography teacher!”
And so it goes.
Take my word for this: there are a million ways to know nothing about photography. And I think I know every one of them. 🙂
Original contents copyright 2023 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. (To see all the comments, click on the “Comments” link below or on the title of this post.)
Featured Comments from: