HAVE (A LITTLE) FEAR
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YEARS AGO, “SUCCESS” FOR THE WORLD’S FIRST SUPERBRANDS IN PHOTOGRAPHY was defined by how well a company could induce people who had never shot pictures to try it, and then do so again and again. Camera companies around the turn of the 20th century realized that the process of making a photo was dense and daunting, and so they designed the risk out of it with the first “box” cameras, turning millions into consumers of not only the cameras but, more importantly, the film they needed to feed them with. The message in their advertising: we’ve made it easy. Have no fear.
More than a century later, it’s even easier, one might almost say insanely easy, to take a picture. But I want to argue that, in the face of all this convenience, we might have just a little fear. A tad.
Even a technically bad picture like this may have the seeds of a good picture within it. But that does not make it a “keeper”.
Historically, the word fear meant a healthy respect for something. The phrase fear of the Lord was not intended to enshrine terror as a virtue, but was promoting humility, a recognition of a higher authority. A little healthy “fear” is nearly mandatory when climbing a mountain, or in daring to launch yourself into the cosmos. In the case of photography, tech has nearly guaranteed that we will almost always walk away with a usable, technically acceptable picture. But it can not warrant us against failure of other kinds.
We’re talking failure of vision. Of purpose. Failing to recognize that there are times when we should not shoot, or not shoot from this angle, or just shoot the way we’ve always shot. Failure to develop our eye and to coordinate it with our heart, making the camera merely the servant that carries out our plan.
The digital era has seen a mind-boggling tsunami of images produced daily around the world, and social media has seen more of those images shared out than was ever conceivable in the past. David Brinkley was being wry when he wrote a book called “Everyone Is Entitled To My Opinion”, but many of us now spill our every image into the mainstream as if everyone were entitled to every picture we’ve ever taken. This is potentially bad for our development as artists.
If every picture we make is a masterpiece, then none of them are. We have to be more aggressively self-editing because we don’t have anyone outside ourselves to carry out that task. We have to narrowly redefine what makes a photograph a keeper, or special, or extraordinary. Tech guarantees that we’ll crank something out of the box. Learning whether it’s something special is worth retaining a little fear for.