Six stages

Discussion in 'Philosophy of Photography' started by Boid, Apr 2, 2012.

  1. Boid

    Boid SC All-Pro

    Dec 15, 2011
    Bangalore, India
    Real Name:
    Rajiv
    Came across this interesting write-up about various stages of a photographer's development, by Alexandre Buisse

    ~

    From the first moment you picked up a camera, you have been on an image making journey. There are lots of different stages, lots of different directions, and not really any final destination. There are milestones and pitfalls, and you undoubtedly have encountered plenty of both already.

    There are goals, of course, both concrete and more abstract. Yours might be to one day make a living from your images, to be the main shooter at a wedding, to see your name in the credit line of magazine, or to have a solo exhibition. Or maybe it is simply to create images of your kids that you would be proud to frame over the mantel or to be able to call yourself a photographer without feeling like you are being dishonest.

    As soon as you reach one of those goals, however, you realize that they are not the real reason you take pictures. It is the same with my climbing: as sweet as any summit may be, it is meaningless in itself. What really matters is the journey, the climb itself. And as soon as a particularly desired summit is reached, a big painful void is open, with a burning question: what now? There is only one reasonable answer, of course, find another higher, harder mountain to climb. We are climbers because we love to climb, and photographers because we love to photograph. Simple as that.

    This, in short, is the drive, what pushes us to further our art, to try to become better at what we do.

    In this journey, I would like to argue that there are six distinct stages. This is of course a somewhat arbitrary classification, and I have no doubt there are many other ways to subdivide the creative evolution of a photographer, but here comes my version nonetheless. Please also be aware that this is a very, very broad generalization.

    • In the first stage, there is no artistic intent, the role of the photograph is simply to record. Nowadays, most families own a point and shoot digital camera of some sort and use it to fix memories of birthdays and holidays. Images are not expected to be beautiful in any way, but simply to show what was happening at a particular moment. The photographer is simply a camera operator, expected to keep things reasonably sharp and well exposed.

    • In the second stage, the photographer has discovered an interest in creating beautiful images and is enthusiastically playing around with whatever camera he has available, though without any real direction or technical knowledge. He still mostly follows the automatic mode of his camera but does a lot of random experimentation, happy to find the occasional good image in his files, but still unsure of why it is good or how it was achieved. This is a time of great creativity but with a relatively poor yield of good imagery.

    • In the third stage, the photographer has realized that the lack of technical knowledge was hindering his efforts and has made a conscious decision to learn the craft of image making. He focuses heavily on technique, starts buying a lot of equipment and perusing review websites. His images improve dramatically, at least from a technical point of view, but they do not necessarily satisfy him any more than before. This is a dangerous time, as the unbridled enthusiasm of the second stage, where everything was new and exciting, has given way to the cold world of lens reviews and MTF charts.

    • In the fourth stage, the photographer has had a new realization: focusing exclusively on technique is a dead-end, while composition, quality of light and other similar, intangible notions are equally crucial in the creation of a great image. This is much more difficult to learn, however, since it is not nearly as quantifiable as the technical aspects of photography. This is the time where he gets interested in the history of photography, studies the works of the masters and perhaps follows some workshops.

    • In the fifth stage, the photographer has finished acquiring the technical and artistic tools he needed and starts worrying about what to do with them. He can take a beautiful photograph, but realizes he needs more - he needs something to express with the image. This is the time where he develops his own vision, finds his voice. He was a craftsman, he is becoming an artist.

    • In the sixth and final stage, the photographer has found his voice and stopped worrying. He has a message to express, and he knows how to do it. He just shoots, because that’s who he is and what he does. Arguably, no one ever fully reaches this stage.

    The transitions from one stage to the next are also interesting. They can’t be forecast or forced, and only in retrospect does the photographer realize he has progressed to the next level and has stopped worrying about whether his lens is sharp enough, for instance.

    Of particular interest to this article is where communities, especially online, fit within this scheme, and how useful they can be to progress to the next level. As anyone who has perused Flickr for any length of time can readily attest, there are a lot of stage two photographers sharing enthusiastically. They are still at the beginning of their journey and post a lot of “cliché” images, of flowers, babies and sunsets, simply because this is what they are naturally attracted to. They are also looking for the magic pill recipe to automatically make their photos great, be it HDR tone mapping or instamatic filters. The role of the community is not to offer criticism but reinforcement and support. While the tidal wave of flourished awards may seem a bit ridiculous at times, it still serves a very important purpose: encouraging the photographer to persevere, to keep shooting and sharing.

    When he reaches the next stage, the technical hole, the photographer completely switches communities and starts spending his time reading reviews of cameras and lenses, and debating endlessly on dpreview over which exotic telephoto has the best corner sharpness, or whether he should switch to Canon if the 5D Mk III is released before the D800. Crucially, he will usually stop sharing images online at this stage (with the possible exception of brick walls). Internet forums will help him further his technical knowledge, but not his creative eye or personal vision.

    After a few months, or most likely years, the photographer will end up realizing that debating over whether Canon or Nikon is the best brand, fun as it may be, does not help him create better pictures. He will gradually move away from debate forums and start sharing again, either back in select subcommunities of Flickr or on more “mature” platforms like 500px or 1x. He will be looking for both validation and measured criticism (in proportions that vary according to his character), and, in an equally important manner, he will consume a lot of images created by others and offer his own take on them, thereby developing his critical eye.

    Then something strange happens. The photographer reaches the fifth stage, where he tries to find his own voice, develop his personal vision. And he stops sharing almost completely. At first, maybe out of habit, he does share his latest creation, on which he feels quite strongly. The reactions, however, are not what he was hoping for, and maybe comments are made on how it is not technically perfect, or on how the composition could be better, or the light more flattering. The danger here is that the photographer, despite having developed a thicker skin in the previous stages, has put a lot more of himself into this new image, and criticism is, once again, taken personally. As the process repeats itself, he finally decides that now that he is creating something deeply personal, he doesn’t need to share with others as much as before, if at all.

    This I believe is a mistake, and it is the point I would like to (finally) make. Though it is indeed very frustrating to receive comments on how an image is improperly exposed when the entire point is for it to be improperly exposed, there is still a tremendous value to be found in not only sharing one’s images, but also in being open to feedback. It keeps the photographer grounded in reality, it helps him see the images differently, opens new perspectives or new levels of reading. More importantly, except for a few rare Zen masters, most of us do create images to share with others, to create a response, an emotion within the viewer. Online sharing and commenting, with all its flaws, is also a great way to get closer to the viewers and gauge their reactions. Furthermore, knowing he has a public pushes the photographer to shoot more, edit more, create more, which, as we all know, is the real key in becoming a better photographer— you simply have to spend a lot of time doing it.

    There is a fine line to tread here, keeping your own voice while still listening to what others have to say. If you systematically cave whenever others make suggestions, you will end up producing lowest-common-denominator images, which may please crowds but don’t truly express your voice. If on the other hand you live in an ivory tower and never consider any external feedback, convinced of your own genius, you will quickly stop growing as an artist and repeat yourself endlessly.

    It gets even better: by being forced to perform this delicate balancing exercise, you will progressively become better at recognizing what is really yours in any image, and how you are expressing your voice. It will in turn help you differentiate between the superficial and the deeper, more personal parts of your work.

    This is the simple message I have been trying to pass on here: do move on when you feel you have outgrown a particular community, but never stop sharing and opening your work to feedback and criticism. You will be a better artist for it.

    ~

    Alexandre Buisse is an adventure photographer and a mountain climber, raised in the French Alps and now traveling to the world’s major ranges from his base in Scandinavia. His first print book, Remote Exposure, was published in April, 2011. Alexandre’s work can be seen at Mountain Adventure Photography
     
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  2. BBW

    BBW Administrator Emeritus S.C. Charter Member

    Jul 7, 2010
    betwixt and between
    Real Name:
    BB
    Thank you so much for this... As I was reading it, I lost the fact that it wasn't your voice, but rather Alexandre Buisse's. I think there's a lot of truth to these 6 stages...some stages may be half steps for some of us...but the gist is there.

    I'd like to hope that Serious Compacts will be a home to people no matter what their current stage. I know for myself that I am very preoccupied right now in my life but I am still photographing, though it is with my iPhone and the hipstamatic app...but that said, I feel that I am getting some very meaningful images, at least personally. I will make an effort to post them on Flickr and add a few in here as well - soon.

    I remember when I first started in digital that it was very difficult for me and how easily my feelings were hurt. Thankfully, I've passed that stage a while ago.:jedi: :wink: In all seriousness, thank you very, very much for this article.:drinks:
     
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  3. snkenai

    snkenai SC All-Pro

    Oct 5, 2010
    kenai, AK
    Real Name:
    Stephen Noel
    I saw my own photograph life unfold in this article. After over fifty years, dabbling, wading, swimming, in the fun, struggle, discipline, I recognize vaguely, where I am. But I am not putting it to print. I'm still checking it out.

    I throughly enjoyed "six stages", and will read it again.
     
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  4. Boid

    Boid SC All-Pro

    Dec 15, 2011
    Bangalore, India
    Real Name:
    Rajiv
    Steve, your post set me thinking whether it would be a good idea to firmly and brutally place oneself in one of these stages, as severe self analysis. Then one could post an image mentioning the stage one is in, forming a basis to review the photograph for everyone else. For example, it would be really helpful for someone who places themselves in Stage 3, to get comments about how the picture seems like its been made by someone who is finding his own voice, possibly rating it as a picture taken by someone in a Stage 5 or 6. Conversely a photographer who places himself in a Stage 5 or 6, should post images to his own high standards, and be open to a much more involved criticism from everyone else, where one is criticizing an artist, not a just a technician. The quality of the praise and criticism being tempered by one's own admission of proficiency in the medium.

    For me, as someone who is learning the craft, its sometimes easy to look at posts and figure out where the photographer is in his development, but more often than not, I'm quite at a loss to see where the photographer is coming from. This is the age of the random image. In a day on the internet one is constantly bombarded with thousands of images, one can't seem to help it. This article mentions how forums, such as these, can provide meaningful criticism to further one's growth as a photographer. As opposed to seeing a post in isolation, I for one would really like to be able to look at an image on this forum, with some sense of the photographer's philosophic intent, not just a bunch of random pretty pictures. I for one would welcome 'actual' criticism, if I know the reviewers have a collective understanding of which stage I'm in.

    Sometimes of course one comes across an image that blows all this analysis out of the water!
     
  5. Julien

    Julien SC Top Veteran

    749
    Jan 6, 2012
    Paris, France
    Real Name:
    Julien
    Very interesting article, thanks for sharing. I always admire people who can sum up such abstract concepts in a few simple words. And all of this mirror my own experience so far. After reading this article I would consider myself as being in the early stage 4 of my own photographic path. I've actually started collecting some books of great photographers in the past few weeks. I sometime got frustrated by the lack of progress in my photography, so this article is comforting in a number of ways.
     
  6. Boid

    Boid SC All-Pro

    Dec 15, 2011
    Bangalore, India
    Real Name:
    Rajiv
    Pretty much the same with me too Julien.
     
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  7. Boid

    Boid SC All-Pro

    Dec 15, 2011
    Bangalore, India
    Real Name:
    Rajiv
    You're welcome BB! I found the write-up really interesting as well.
     
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  8. Chris2500dk

    Chris2500dk SC Top Veteran

    594
    Dec 22, 2011
    Copenhagen, Denmark
    Very interesting read indeed! While I can't identify with everything said I can definetely see myself and my progression in the stages.
    I think I'm too much of a gearhead to ever leave stage 3 completely though :tongue: but my interest is starting to resemble stage "3½" quite a bit.
     
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  9. Julien

    Julien SC Top Veteran

    749
    Jan 6, 2012
    Paris, France
    Real Name:
    Julien
    The other pages of his blog are also worth a look, with some stunning photographs taken in the French Alps. I'm putting a couple of direct links here, I hope it's ok.

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]
     
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  10. chromatin64

    chromatin64 SC Veteran

    289
    Apr 26, 2011
    A Leekist in York, UK
    Whoa! That helicopter pic - it must be comped, mustn't it? :eek:
     
  11. Boid

    Boid SC All-Pro

    Dec 15, 2011
    Bangalore, India
    Real Name:
    Rajiv
    Wow. That chopper pic is spectacular. Thanks for posting!
     
  12. Landshark

    Landshark PhotoDog S.C. Charter Member

    Jul 15, 2010
    SoCal
    Real Name:
    Bob
    interesting but I do take issue with the comment in the sixth stage "Arguably, no one ever fully reaches this stage."
     
  13. snkenai

    snkenai SC All-Pro

    Oct 5, 2010
    kenai, AK
    Real Name:
    Stephen Noel
    When you do reach stage "6", what's next? When you stop growing, you usually begin losing.
     
  14. Woody112704

    Woody112704 SC Top Veteran

    579
    Nov 7, 2013
    Iowa
    Real Name:
    Jared
    Great read. And I can see myself in the first 3 stages but I also feel that I move through those quite fast as I've only been shooting for a tad over a year. I do feel I'm on stage 4 as I'm beginning to get really interested in the history and the masters such as Ansel Adams and just taking in all kinds of perspectives on the type of photography that I enjoy and am interested in. Also even looking into playing with a 35mm SLR.